• Kevin Finke

Using Design Thinking to Create Employee Experiences that Matter

Updated: Aug 28, 2019

The phrases “employee experience” and “employer brand” have become popular among human resources professionals, as they aim to bolster their organization’s ability to attract and retain top talent. But for c-suite leaders who are intent on mobilizing their long-term business visions with powerful talent strategies, it’s become ever more important that they, too, begin to embrace these terms in a new light.


Creating a clearly defined and formal employee experience has become a strategic foundation for businesses wanting to flourish in today’s global marketplace. No longer can companies act as if they only compete in a consumer-driven economy with traditional products and service brands. Companies must also find ways to stand out in a thriving talent economy with world-class employer reputations capable of attracting and retaining the most talented workers with the promise and delivery of an enjoyable employee experience.


The experiences employees have at work matter. Multitudes of studies and research from Gallup, Willis Towers Watson and others have shown how a rewarding employee experience can influence employee engagement, external customer experiences and bottom-line results. Businesses that invest time and resources on building outstanding employee cultures and work experiences see the impact of their efforts in that their people stay more engaged over time and speak more favorably of them as employers. They’re able to consistently attract and retain top talent, and they see positive business results in the form of increased levels of safety, quality and productivity, as well as higher operating margins and earnings per share.


The simple fact is that employees spend more time each day in relationship with their employer than with any other business or brand in their lives. Regardless of what they do or where they work, people are having countless experiences every day with their employer brand. That constitutes more interactions and opportunities to engage than companies could ever imagine with their traditional consumer brands, but their jobs as employer brand owners are no different. They must focus on addressing and deepening the relationships they have with employees. If leaders want to receive employees’ best work throughout their lifecycle, the experiences they have while they work need to be positive, meaningful and worthy of engaging.


The big questions in this discussion center less on why leaders need to prioritize employee experiences and grow employer brand equities, and more on how. How do leaders build an employee experience so exciting that people come to work from day one engaged and ready to give their all? How do leaders sustain that experience and help their cultures thrive over time, so their brands, businesses and customers thrive too? How do leaders create a meaningful experience that leaves people feeling happy and positive, especially when it’s time to leave?


In the key takeaways and recommendations from its recent Global Workforce Study, Willis Towers Watson provided their answer to these how questions: “Businesses looking to increase engagement should begin offering their workforces more valuable consumer-like experiences.”


Leaders should never separate employee experience from employer brand. In fact, they should begin thinking of the employee experience as the employer brand experience — because they’re intrinsically linked. If leaders want to grow their employer brands and be competitively positioned in the talent economy, they must be ready to invest in the redesign, improvement and transformation of their employee experiences. These experiences must also be designed and created in ways that meet, if not exceed, the needs of their workers. To accomplish that, many employers are being inspired by design thinking, a process commonly used in the consumer world to help uncover motivations and feelings, define problems and implement new solutions and experiences.



Typical design thinking follows five simple actions:

· Empathize: Understand goals, motivations and feelings regarding current experiences through observation, interaction and immersion.

· Define: Process and synthesize findings into a point-of-view that will be addressed by a future design solution.

· Ideate: Explore a wide range of potential solutions and ideas.

· Prototype: Transform ideas into real solutions and prototypes, so people can engage and experience them firsthand.

· Test: Use observations and feedback to refine experiences.


Business leaders know the importance of using design thinking processes to innovate their consumer product and service brands to stay ahead of macro business trends and competitors. It’s no different with their employer brands. Companies with high levels of employee engagement know the importance of actively designing and innovating experiences to reflect the ever-evolving workplace and meet the needs of their workers.

Today, retention risk is higher than it’s ever been. Top talent now moves more fluidly from one employer to the next. Nearly half of the employers surveyed in the Willis Towers Watson study indicated that their recruitment activities are having to increase year over year, and more than one-third of the same employers report that turnover and churn are on the rise. What would happen if a company’s customers were churning at such increasing rates? Leaders would likely be focused on finding out what needed to be improved and doing something about it. Leaders therefore need to consider holding employee experiences to the same standards.


It’s never been more imperative that leaders reverse this momentum by beginning to consciously design experiences that workers want to have. Employees wanted to be treated more like consumers; 70 percent of workers who responded to the Willis Towers Watson study believe companies should understand their needs to the same extent that employees are expected to understand the needs of external customers. Yet only 45 percent believed they worked for an employer who viewed them as consumers. That’s a gap that needs to be closed.


Leaders must learn the best way to stand out in the talent economy and close that gap is by building world-class employer brands capable of attracting and retaining the most talented workers with the promise and delivery of an enjoyable employee experience. Design thinking can become the pathway to that memorable employer brand and work experience leading companies want to be known for.


Kevin Finke is the owner and chief storyteller at Experience Willow, a design firm that won the 2019 Global Eventex Awards for Best Employee Engagement and Best Team Building Events for On the Move to Midtown, a change campaign that helped 2,600 NCR employees transition from 6 suburban offices to a new state-of-the-art tech campus in midtown Atlanta. He is also an Instructor and Program Facilitator for Emory University Continuing Education and regularly leads design and change workshops with his many partners and clients across the globe.

© 2020 Kevin Finke. All rights reserved.