Last year, it became crystal clear that companies have to simultaneously invest in CX and EX development. These two internal business processes have to be aligned for long-term sustainability and growth. Belinda Gannaway, Strategy Director at FathomXP, recently spoke with CXM about designing a meaningful employee experience in a co-created and collaborative way.

A profile image by Belinda Gannaway

In March 2021, together with Emma Bridger, Belinda published her new book called Employee Experience by Design: How to Create an Effective EX for Competitive Advantage. We used this opportunity to tackle various trending topics from the book, including artificial intelligence in HR, design thinking, positive psychology, and currently a hot subject of hybrid workplace design.

Belinda, as someone who has a long experience in the industry and wrote a book on EX, could you share with us a simple definition of Employee Experience?

Employee experience is the experience someone has of you as an employer from the moment they first hear about you, to the moment they leave – and way beyond that. Experience is all about emotions – how you make someone feel and create memories that last.

Could you break it down a bit for us?

EX happens at different levels. First, there’s the overall experience I’ve described above – we call this the umbrella experience. Then there are nested journeys beneath that – for example, an employee’s time in one part of the business, such as the marketing department. Below that, there will be other journeys. It is important to mention that some moments have a disproportionate impact on the employees, such as returning after parental leave or becoming a manager for the first time. There are lots of ways of categorising these moments and the potential list is long.

It is a complex picture, but there are ways of breaking it down. We suggest organisations define EX in a way that makes the most sense to them and their people. That’s the best approach to make it actionable. Even asking the question about what EX means in our organization is a great way to bring the ideal EX into focus.

Most of us relate EX with design thinking. In your book Employee Experience by Design, you write about the connection between EX, design thinking, and positive psychology. Could you explain why it is important to bring these three aspects together?

An illustration demonstrating what it means to be designing a meaningful employee experience through design thinking process.

Our approach to EX design draws on both design thinking and positive psychology. Design thinking – sometimes defined as a human-centred approach to innovation ­– is a mindset and set of activities. We love it because it puts the human need at the heart of everything.

On the other hand, positive psychology is an approach that seeks to understand strengths, not just weaknesses. It looks to learn from and build the best things in life. This way of looking at things is, to some extent, baked into design thinking. Tackling a problem or opportunity through the lens of design thinking starts with the belief that this thing is achievable or resolvable. Positive psychology is part of our methodology because it is a strength-based and solution-focused approach. It helps invest time and energy in the right things.

What role would you say AI has to play when we talk about employee engagement, well-being, personal growth, and development?

AI can impact EX in multiple ways. Firstly, let’s take the work itself. If routine tasks can be automated, there is the potential for more people to do work that is meaningful to them. AI is also becoming hugely beneficial in many HR processes, helping to make them more efficient, and effective. The focus is often on identifying skills, the potential of employees and candidates, and improving the hiring process.

There’s also the potential AI offers to create more personalised experiences. A lot can be done here, from how projects are defined and assigned, to how to use digital tools to design personal growth and wellbeing support. AI alongside such tools as sentiment analysis in employee engagement platforms is being used to understand people’s experience beyond what they say in surveys – even to make predictions about who is at risk of leaving.

What would you say are the pitfalls of AI technology in EX?

Without intentional and thoughtful consideration of their use, these new data technologies can unintentionally cause great harm. This can be in several areas breaching legal or ethical boundaries. For example, the EU’s proposed regulations governing AI are prompting a lot of debate in recruiting and HR circles.

There’s also the risk of simply creating a big brother feeling. GenZ in particular is more concerned than their older colleagues by how much of their data is captured, combined and used. Any EX-application that oversteps the mark will leave them asking questions.

It is also important to mention the risk of bias. AI grading systems are prone to amplify bias in the hiring process. If a grading programme is built on historical data of successful individuals at a company, the programme will replicate the same diversity or lack of.

For example, one US company unwittingly taught its programme to discriminate against women by favouring traditionally male vocabulary (e.g. power verbs like “founded” and “led” over “helped” or “part of a team”). It also ranked women’s colleges as less desirable and downgraded candidates for using the word “woman” or “women’s” in front of certain hobbies or roles, “basketball team captain” was positive, but “women’s basketball team captain” was negative.

A book cover saying employee experience by design and showing how a group of people designing employee experience collaboratively.

It’s vital to understand how algorithms are built and the implications of how they’re used. In our book, EX by Design – How to Create an Effective EX for Competitive Advantage, IBM’s Damon Deaner offers practical insights to avoid some of these pitfalls, including accountability, value alignment, explainability and fairness.

In your recent conversation with Steve Usher and Emma Bridger, the co-author of Employee Experience by Design, you talked about EX democratization. Could you tell us why experts in the EX/ CX industry should advocate for an open and inclusive approach to EX?

There are a couple of things here. Firstly, EX design is a team sport. It’s something that cannot be owned and delivered by HR alone. As seen in the definition above, EX is a big beast. Designing and delivering a great EX needs to be a collaborative effort, across functions and right down to line managers too.

When I talk about democratising EX, what I mean is that everyone deserves to have a good experience at work. Organizations that employ largely knowledge workers are typically the ones most focused on EX.  But EX should be something that’s considered for every type of employee, in every type of role.

We witness an explosion and rapid interest in Employee Experience around the world. Being an” EX-expertseems to be a trend now. How would you comment on a potential risk of EX becoming just another buzzword?

Great question. I like to talk about EX washing. Just renaming an internal comms or HR department ‘EX’ doesn’t mean you’re actually focusing on or creating a great employee experience. So yes, I think there is a risk of the term getting side-lined if organisations talk about EX, but don’t deliver it. On the broader question, is EX going away? No, I don’t believe it is. I think the impact of experience economy thinking is here to stay.

At the end of this conversation, I invite you to comment on hybrid working, a word popularized during the pandemic. Some of us, myself included, feel uncertain and even nervous about going back to the office. Do you have some first-hand observations on how employees experience hybrid working?

We are supporting a lot of organisations on their journey towards hybrid working. Hybrid working throws up challenges and opportunities for EX. But those challenges are not the same for everyone or every organisation. It’s key not to jump to conclusions or worst still arbitrary solutions. Talk to your people and work collaboratively to create the right solution to how, where and when people work.  The method and tools of EX design covered in the book are really useful for approaching this.

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