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The Leaders Championing the Employee Experience Movement

Published over 1 year ago • 20 min read

Although the concept of “employee experience” is nothing new, its definition continues to evolve and it has become an increasingly important part of the overall employee value proposition. In fact, most organizations are prioritizing their employee experience now more than ever before, especially amidst ongoing labor shortages and higher-than-average quit rates.

While I frequently write about employee experience — what it is, how it’s changing, and what the future holds — I think it’s crucial to bring this to life with real-world examples. That’s why I recently partnered with LumApps on an exciting new interview series, where I talk to leaders about their perspectives on the employee experience.

In today’s article, I share insights from 5 leaders who are helping their organizations pave a new path forward for their employees: Caryn Butterfield, Vice President of Employee Experience, Belden; Jon Ye, Head of International HR, Alibaba Group; Kelly Ann Doherty, Executive Vice President & Chief Administrative Officer, Mr. Cooper Group; Kelly McCulloch, Chief People Officer, Taco Bell; and Kevin Henry, Chief People Officer, BlueLinx Holdings.

Read on for their insights and stories, and be sure to join the conversation on LinkedIn and let me know your thoughts on this topic.

1. How is your organization becoming more employee-centric?

Caryn Butterfield: There are a number of things that we've done. For example, we've established a cultural catchphrase at Belden that is Belong, Believe, Be You. And we think that really articulates the kind of culture that we're developing, in which employees feel a sense of belonging, they believe in what they're doing, and they're comfortable bringing their unique and authentic selves to work. So that's the basis for how we think about employee experience, and then everything else evolves from there.

Jon Ye: Alibaba has put a lot of emphasis on our global agenda, which is to be driven for people and to be driven by people. We are naturally an employee-centric company, and for our HR team, part of our job is to develop channels so that everyone's voice and feedback can be heard. One of the ways we do this is through our monthly “Juice with Daniel” sessions with our CEO, Daniel Zhang, where employees from all business lines can give their feedback, comments, and suggestions directly to our executive leadership.

Kelly Ann Doherty: This is a journey that we've been on over the past few years, built on the foundation of the old adage that “happy team members lead to happy customers.” I think when you take a step back and consider what it takes to make a happy team member, you really have to think about the experience in totality. So we created a journey map for our team members to better understand exactly what they were experiencing with our organization and when they were experiencing it. It's really been that blend of team member and customer experience and our goals around that that led us to really start thinking about the evolution of our culture and the experience that we offer our people.

Kelly McCulloch: Taco Bell is an organization that's always been about putting people first, and we’re on a mission to double down on that and redefine what it means to work in QSR or quick service restaurant industry. The way that we're trying to do that is by helping our team members have a connection to the brand emotionally from a pride perspective, and also giving them a chance to pursue their dreams, whether that’s a career with Taco Bell or something else. We have a saying that we use often, that the customer experience will never exceed that of the team member. So we make it a point to make sure that the team member does have a great experience, and then we know that our customers are going to be treated well.

Kevin Henry: We've got thousands of teammates that work for us at BlueLinx, so we really depend upon things like surveys and town halls to solicit feedback on how we can be most effective in engaging this very diverse population. And then we have to make sure that we're delivering the right products, systems, and services, from a human capital standpoint, and creating a culture and a work environment that they're going to thrive in, feel inspired by, and draw their energy from. We've got to have everybody engaged and aligned and bought into what we're trying to accomplish, if we're going to be successful as an organization.

2. How would you define “employee experience” and what are the most critical pieces of it?

Caryn Butterfield: It really is all-encompassing. It touches upon all of the different parts and pieces and encounters that an employee has in their day-to-day working life, whether it be their relationship with their colleagues, relationship with their manager, the types of work that they perform, the systems and tools that they have to perform that work, the environment in which they work in, and the benefits and rewards that they're provided. It's a big topic, but it means that we have a lot of different levers that we can pull to improve the experience that employees have on a day-to-day basis.

Jon Ye: In my opinion, sense of purpose and sense of community are the most essential components of employee experience. Our employees work diligently towards Alibaba’s mission, which is to make it easy for our customers to do their business anywhere, and they truly see how their efforts result in real value for our customers. When it comes to sense of community, we have a strong focus on culture and communication at Alibaba. There are numerous company events, annual parties, and groups that people can participate in. And these activities are held even during tough times, because they’re such an important way for employees to stay connected — to each other, and also to the organization.

Kelly Ann Doherty: I would define employee experience as the way that the team member experiences your organization every single day. And to me, it's really about relationships. Everybody needs something different, so if you treat people thinking about the critical tenets of a great relationship, they’re ultimately going to have a good experience. It also boils down to trust, which is something that you have to build over time. And part of getting to a place in which you've got a lot of trust from your people is communicating frequently about what's happening within the organization, but not just in a one-way fashion. You have to create an environment in which people feel like they can speak to you — they can tell you what they're experiencing and what they need, and you can respond to that.

Kelly McCulloch: To me, the biggest piece of the employee experience at Taco Bell comes down to the coach (or manager). We're a large organization, so we can't physically touch every single person in the organization. So an employee’s experience depends so much on their relationship with their coach, the person who's directing them day to day in the restaurant. We try to make sure that we're setting our coaches up for success, so we invest in them as leaders through different training programs so that they know how to lead their people the right way. And that way our employees hopefully feel valued and heard in their everyday work, which we think is hugely important.

Kevin Henry: I think employee experience is how people feel, what they derive from the time that they spend with us at work, and what kind of energy they draw from their engagement with us as an employer as well as their fellow teammates. And ultimately our team members get to judge how good that experience is, but it gets back to trying to understand what's important to your employees, and then meeting people’s expectations to the best of our ability. We have to remember that every interaction is a moment of truth, where you're either meeting, exceeding, or falling short of people’s expectations. And that’s why it's important to get routinely get feedback as well.

3. In what ways has remote and hybrid working impacted your corporate culture?

Caryn Butterfield: It's challenging in a remote or hybrid environment to keep people connected with culture, so we've had to get really creative around how we engage employees who are not coming to an office on a day-to-day basis. A great example is that we just celebrated our 120th anniversary, which was a really big milestone for Belden. We held celebrations at our locations all around the world, but we also sent care packages to our remote employees, so that they felt connected and were able to celebrate within their home offices. I think we really just need to think outside of the box. And companies around the world are challenged with the same thing, and there's a lot of great ideas to share.

Jon Ye: As a multinational organization with employees in almost 30 countries and regions, we saw that the demand for flexibility varies a lot by regions and culture. We knew we needed to respect that, and that's why when we started to adopt the hybrid working model, we left some discretion to the local leadership. For us, this shift hasn’t just been about new processes, policies, or tools for flexibility. It's been more about converting our organizational character to focus much more on agility and respecting cultural differences.

Kelly Ann Doherty: I think this shift has advanced our culture tremendously, because it forced us to catch up to the way that younger generations are expecting to learn and grow and develop. As a result, we actually met them more where they are today than we were prior to the pandemic. We were also given an opportunity to show our people that we were going to do the right thing for them — instead of falling back on what was comfortable, we pushed ourselves to think differently about work. And because we were inclusive in that process and we ultimately delivered a more innovative way of working, our people really trusted that we were going to continue to focus on their input, get their feedback, and then create an environment that felt a lot better for them.

Kelly McCulloch: For our corporate employees who have hybrid work arrangements, we've tried to create a sense of community so they can be engaged even though they might be dialing in from their home office. We've leaned in really hard on corporate culture, because it's a huge part of who we are at Taco Bell. So to be able to create events and meaningful experiences for people even when they're remote, has become even more important. We've done surveys, we've done coffee chats, and we've really tried to just listen to our people and ask them to help us solve some of these challenges.

Kevin Henry: We've had to get really creative, use technology, and meet people where they are. For example, we’ve done virtual scavenger hunts and other spontaneous activities for our employees, to break up the monotony of the workday and create opportunities for fun and collaboration. The key point is to just be intentional in how you engage people, and make sure that you don't suffer from this issue of “out of sight and out of mind.” I also think one of the benefits of the advent of virtual work is you actually get to know a little bit more about people. Who would've thought that it would've been okay for you to be on a Zoom call, and have your two-year-old run past you in the background? There's an intimacy that this new work dynamic has brought into the equation, which I think lends itself to building deeper, more meaningful relationships and a higher level of engagement with your teams.

4. How do you maintain a sense of community and purpose in a remote or hybrid work environment?

Caryn Butterfield: There are a couple of things we've done that have worked really well. We've implemented what we call virtual fireside chats with our leaders — remote small group sessions where our leaders share not only their perspective on the business, but also things about their own lives and careers that help them be a little more accessible. We've also been able to start bringing people together in-person again for meetings and conferences, which has been a really great way to get everyone connected. Finally, we have a number of programs around wellbeing that connect with our community programs, and these are equally available whether you work in an office or in a remote or hybrid setting.

Jon Ye: Remote and hybrid work models have certainly challenged HR’s creativity and innovativeness. For our hybrid employees, we made Wednesday a collaboration day when everyone comes to the office. We arrange a lot more group activities on Wednesdays, but then when people are working from home, we try to make everything virtual. Another example is that two years ago when everyone started working remotely, we created an international competition for employees to track their steps. They could walk in their neighborhood or at home, and each office competed together. Then at the end of competition, they could convert their points into donations for their local community.

Kelly Ann Doherty: Creating community has been really important. We've spent a lot of time focused on our 17 DE&I resource teams, where we have a high level of membership. We’re also constantly doing coffee chats with executive leaders, as well as coffee breaks and happy hours that pull people together. The other way that we've been able to create a sense of community is through our volunteer opportunities, especially now that we feel comfortable bringing people together. But ultimately, any organization that gets culture right is one that's really grounded in their strategy and purpose. You build community by being very purposeful in the work and making sure that everybody connects into that. So we spend a lot of time engaging people at all levels of the company on what our strategy looks like and how they all play a pivotal role in that.

Kelly McCulloch: For us, communication is huge, and we have an incredible internal communications and engagement team. They’re always thinking of new ways to engage our employees through all different kinds of mediums, whether it's video, an email, or through our My Taco Bell website. And we try to be incredibly transparent with our approach. If we don't have the answers, we’re not shy about saying we don't know the answer, but we will get you an answer as soon as we can. And I think our employees actually rise to that challenge. They understand their opinion may not be exactly what we do, but they appreciate having the opportunity to share.

Kevin Henry: We've been very focused on how to leverage technology to maintain a sense of community, and we've deployed an app that allows us to meet people where they are — on their mobile devices. Within each one of our facilities, we've also deployed what we call BlueLinx TV, which gives us the opportunity to message our employees directly and consistently, and make sure that we're sharing all the good news that's occurring within our organization. So technology has certainly been an enabler for us to be able to connect with people more often and in a more meaningful way.

5. How has technology improved your employee experience?

Caryn Butterfield: For our remote and hybrid employees at Belden, technology has been transformative over the last couple of years, and we leverage it every day. To be able to see people's facial expressions and gestures has been a game-changer for me personally and I know for our organization. For the population at Belden that does not work remote, we're working really hard to leverage technology that meets them in a mobile-friendly way to deliver resources that are really easily accessible. It requires creativity, but technologies have come a long way over the last couple of years and they enable collaboration in a way that we probably couldn't have thought of 5 or 10 years ago.

Jon Ye: As a technology company, we’re an advocate of a technology-enabled workforce and we have to demonstrate this. So technology is supplied basically everywhere in the firm, not just to address employee experience, but also to make work and learning easy. This been part of the reason why we’ve been able to remain so organizationally agile. Our DingTalk tool is especially amazing, as it enables our employees to be more collaborative, organized, and engaged, and it allows us to work on a mobile device everywhere and for everything.

Kelly Ann Doherty: One of the things we've thought about from a technology perspective is how to create a similar experience regardless of where you're working from. So for our physical office spaces, we’ve created collaboration areas where the digital capabilities help people feel like they're sitting in the room with you. Creating those norms around what a meeting looks like, and making sure that there is an equal playing field whether you're in person or remote, has been really vital to collaboration in a digital environment. Another way that we've leveraged technology is by using social media platforms to help our employees connect. We have an internal tool that creates a lot of engagement, and it's really fun for people.

Kelly McCulloch: One of the things that we’ve seen during the pandemic is the shift to even more digital communication. People want their experience to be as easy as possible, so instead of inundating them with a bunch of emails, we’re asking ourselves, how do we reach them in different ways? How do we reach them in the palm of their hand? We've always had our My Taco Bell site, but now we're working on creating an app so that it's in people’s hands on-the-go, which will enable more real-time communication with our employees. And we're pretty excited about that.

Kevin Henry: The whole notion of empowering people to take greater control of their circumstance — whether it's through self-service, or whether it's through better and more pervasive access to information — has been empowering to people. Not just because we're connecting with them more regularly and giving them more information, but we're giving them the ability to do more things using technology and making sure that people are trained and knowledgeable on how to optimize the investments that we've made in technology.

6. How have you measured the success of your employee experience and what results have you achieved?

Caryn Butterfield: We do this in a couple of different ways. First, we conduct twice a year employee engagement surveys across a number of categories. Even though we receive great scores, people also point out areas for feedback and we build action plans around that. We also have received a record number of Great Places To Work Certifications this year, so that's another way that we check in with our employees to see how they're feeling. Finally, we look at participation in our recognition program as well as our wellbeing program, and we pay very close attention to our retention metrics. With all of the different things that we do around the employee experience, we consistently perform better than our competitors on retention.

Jon Ye: Employee experience is one of the seven aspects that Alibaba is fully committed to at the ESG (environmental, social, and governance) level. From a DE&I perspective, as of 2022, around half of our employees are females and 39% of our board members and senior executives are also female. From a wellbeing perspective, last year 65,000 of our employees’ parents enjoyed the company's free offering of a home wellness screening. These are just a few examples — we take many measurements and use a variety of feedback collection channels to measure employee experience and make sure our people feel supported.

Kelly Ann Doherty: At Mr. Cooper Group we have what I call the People Health Index (PHI), which looks at several metrics, everything from our engagement surveys to turnover data to performance. We also look at how much time people are taking off — because if you're not using your PTO, that's a flag for us too. So we pull all of these data points together and look at changes over time, and it’s a really global way of thinking about where our people are at. Specific to experience and engagement, one of the tools that we use is the Great Place to Work survey. We've been using it for the past five years, and every single year we've gone up.

Kelly McCulloch: I think we've done more surveying than we have ever done in the past couple of years because we felt like it was really important to understand not just our corporate office employee experience, but our team member experience in the restaurant. And all of the data that we’ve received has really shaped where we’re headed, especially related to how we use our office in the future. Tracking our internal promotions is also very important, and we can point to many great stories of career development and growth. And we always watch our analytics on our My Taco Bell site — we're checking to see where people are engaging and what they’re most interested in.

Kevin Henry: At BlueLinx we have a culture of accountability and high performance, and we do like to keep score. For example, we look at things like the percentage of employees who are enrolled in and utilizing our company’s mobile app, CrewLinks. Within our recognition and rewards ecosystem, we look at how many points are being awarded. And then you juxtapose that against our quarterly pulse surveys and our annual employee survey, which allow us to track overall levels of engagement. What we've seen since we began doing this is a steady improvement in the level of engagement, and that’s because we’re able to say, "We asked, you told us, we listened, and we acted."

7. What recommendations do you have for other companies on how to improve their employee experience?

Caryn Butterfield: I think making it a priority is a great place to start — thinking about employees as people, not a number, and prioritizing supporting them in all aspects of their life. It’s also important to create a vision, that aspirational stake in the ground that guides what that experience looks like and feels like. For Belden, we've done that with Belong, Believe, Be You. And then we’ve built the details around it to be very purposeful in what the experience is going to be like for our employees. The third thing I would say is to listen to what employees want and what they're expecting, and then figure out the best way to respond to that.

Jon Ye: Everything should start with the involvement of leadership. At Alibaba, HR plays a critical role in advising our leaders how the organizational culture impacts (and is impacted by) the employee experience. Because there's a very strong relationship between the employee experience and our culture, and our leaders have to understand that. Organizations should also commit to being authentic with their employees, which is even more important during tough times. You need to be able to openly share with people when your organization is struggling, and then give them some shared ownership by asking them to help identify opportunities, gaps, and challenges.

Kelly Ann Doherty: My first recommendation is to map out what the experience looks like in the same way that you would for your customers. Because at the end of the day, you're trying to sell something to your people too — an engaging environment — and you want something back from them, whether that’s a great work product or their productivity. The second piece is simple: just ask them what a great experience should look like, listen to their feedback, and do something about it. You're not going to always be able to do everything they want, but if you're demonstrating intent and making them feel like they're a part of the solution, people are going to feel like you really care about their experience. And most importantly, you're going to be spending your time making things better in the areas that they actually care about.

Kelly McCulloch: I consider our business and our brand to be fairly progressive, but we’ve been pressed these last couple of years to stay ahead of things. So I think that the advice that we would give is to never be complacent. You always have to be thinking ahead, and you can't rely on outdated ways of working. You have to have courage to try new things and know that it may not work. Pay attention to what's going on in the world and what other companies are doing — what's working, what’s not — and don't get too insulated with your own company.

Kevin Henry: I'd start with asking your employees what kind of experience they want to have, and what would make them feel more engaged and more welcome. But then once you ask, you have to be prepared to act. And then continue to build on that — it's got to be something that you do on a regular basis. You have to build credibility and relationships with your employees, so that there's trust and there's shared commitment. People will give you grace when you don’t get it perfect, but as long as your employees know your intent and your commitment to getting better over time, then most people will follow that leadership.

8. What do you predict will be the next wave of employee experience challenges, and what can organizations do now to prepare for this?

Caryn Butterfield: I think personalizing the employee experience is going to become increasingly important. Every individual’s needs and backgrounds are different, and it connects very much with creating an inclusive culture. So I think being able to meet people where they are and deliver an engaging experience for them will become more and more what employees expect. DE&I is so, so critical — a lot of companies are focusing on it, and that will continue. I also think ESG (environmental, social, and governance) commitments for companies will increase in importance, because this wraps something together to create a company that people want to work for.

Jon Ye: I’m sure we’ll see new technologies, regulations, and practices that will require us to adapt our approach. The definition of employee well-being will continue to evolve, and the ways that organizations attract, develop, and retain talent will be redefined. Companies will also have to do more to personalize their employee experience, including their rewards and recognition programs and their benefits plans. To prepare for these challenges, leaders need to ensure that they’re staying on top of new trends that will push them to reinvent the ways they motivate and engage their people. And of course, no matter how the world is changing, the best way to address employee experience is always to ask employees themselves.

Kelly Ann Doherty: I think what will be really important is understanding the different generations, because in many cases, you could have up to five generations within the workforce at your company today. It's hard to create an environment that speaks to all of them, but you have to find ways to deliver an experience that's meaningful to everyone. The other challenge is that coming out of the pandemic, people may not have the same opportunities to connect, especially Gen Z. So you have to help them to understand what employee experience should look like within your organization. We're going to have to find ways to pull these younger generations in, in a way that we haven't had to do for the past few years.

Kelly McCulloch: I think organizations are going to have to pay close attention to what's happening in the world around them. How well do you know your employee base and what matters most to them? How do you make sure that your brand values and the people that you're hiring and promoting are aligned? You've got to do some soul searching on who you are as a brand, and you have to always be evolving and thinking ahead. And you also have to be very thoughtful about how you communicate with your employees. So we'll continue to take a look at our channels and make sure that we're always modernizing our approach. The ones who will win are the ones who will continue to evolve.

Kevin Henry: The idea of working for the same employer for 25 or 30 years is probably going to be the exception, not the rule. So employers are going to have to prepare for this notion of transients in the workplace, and find ways to capture and transfer knowledge, particularly as it relates to skilled roles that have unique attributes and requirements. And to that point, we’ll also see a bit of a redefinition in what internal mobility means. The old paradigm might be that you have a steady path to progression vertically, whereas today organizations are a lot flatter. So how do you encourage people to feel the same way about horizontal advancement as they do about vertical advancement? I think that's an opportunity for organizations to reframe and reposition that narrative and then make sure that the rewards and recognition, as well as all of the intrinsic and extrinsic things that people are looking for, are associated with both kinds of movement.

Thanks for reading — be sure to join the conversation on LinkedIn and let me know your thoughts on these questions!

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