Digital employee experience: the secret reason your staff hate working for you

Amber, Gaby and Nicola explore the difference a seamless employee experience can make, and the consequences of neglecting it.

Illustration of a woman working at a desk with icons surrounding her.

In recent years, companies have focused on building digital platforms that create seamless, world-leading experiences for their customers. Employees? Well, they’re often left with the scraps: dated IT systems, temperamental Excel sheets and home-made workarounds.

“All this, just to book a day off?” says the wide-eyed new recruit. “Yeah, it’s not ideal,” their colleagues mutter apologetically. “I guess they don’t want to make it easy for us. You’ll get used to it!”

It shouldn’t be like this. It’s time we all started making digital employee experience a priority.

What is digital employee experience?

Our digital experience spans everything from the devices we work on to the software we use on a daily basis. The experience we have using these digital tools and systems impacts how we feel, how effectively we work, how we talk about our employer, and our overall level of happiness.

Broadly, the kinds of tools that make up the digital employee experience fall into two camps:

  1. Tools that help employees do their job (like managing stock, making calls, editing documents, and processing sales).

  2. Tools that help them to manage their working lives (like booking time off, looking up phone numbers, and receiving payslips).

Where did employee experience go wrong?

Way back when most internal systems were built, they were never designed with users at the heart of them. People took old paper forms and digitised them, plugging them into enterprise systems, rather than designing new digital experiences based on user needs. For the most part, those old patterns have never been challenged, and so they never got the attention (or budget) they’ve desperately needed.

Meanwhile, customer-facing experiences in advertising, retail, mobile and consumer technology have evolved at an incredible pace over the last decade.

As users, we’ve come to expect more from our digital experiences - and it’s now more obvious than ever that our digital experience in the workplace is falling short.

Why is employee experience relevant now?

With more people than ever choosing to work remotely, digital employee experience has gone from nice to have to mission-critical. In fact, in the last year, we’ve already seen twice as many enquiries as usual to review and improve the systems used by employees - not customers.

When we work with companies to improve their employee experience, these are the five issues we often see. Do any of them sound familiar? We frame each problem with a ‘How might we…’ question to highlight the way we would approach these challenges in a project.

1. Critical legal and functional failures are putting employees at risk

When your systems put employees and others at risk, alarm bells should go off. We’ve seen Point of Sale systems that failed to prompt staff to check a customer’s age when buying restricted items like glue and knives. Integration errors can lead to poor accounting practices. Red flags like these need immediate attention to protect employees and prevent legal action.

“How might we monitor and ensure systems are meeting basic standards?”

Our recommendations:

2. People avoid unreliable tools, so employees lose trust in systems

How many times have you spent hours filling in a form - only for it to lose all your details when you hit ‘submit’? Experiences like this mean people stop trusting your systems - and they come up with their own alternatives that they CAN trust. At UCL, the holiday booking system was so complex that teams developed their own spreadsheets to organise vacation time. During research with other clients, we’ve heard how staff use screenshots, printouts and photocopies to keep records, instead of accessing the latest tools and features online.

“How might we build a digital experience that is trusted, reliable and universally adopted?”

Our recommendations:

3. Slow processes lead to wasted time, stress and a lack of focus

According to TrendHunter, trying to contact people at work is the biggest time suck, with people reportedly spending a total of 74 minutes a day trying to contact customers or colleagues. The time needed to find key information averages out at 67 minutes per day. What’s to blame? Interfaces that are badly organised, cryptic and hard to navigate, layouts that are hard to scan, or simply too many systems? Take your pick.

Let’s not forget the egg timer of doom and the system hang of despair. In our UCL research, we saw for ourselves how certain tools slowed the performance of employees’ devices. And for another retail client the point of sale system often became slow or unresponsive, queues of customers would build up, causing frustration and stress.

“How might we streamline and optimise employee tools to reduce wasted time?”

Our recommendations:

4. Complex systems require expensive training and IT support

When your systems are complicated, it takes time and effort to adapt to them. In the case of one recent client, new employees spent two weeks learning how to use the internal stock management tools. Another required 5 days’ training and had a call centre dedicated to helping staff resolve issues with their point of sale system. Imagine if internal systems were so intuitive and simple that onboarding time could be reduced to a matter of hours, not days.

“How might we design a system that doesn’t require extra training and support?”

Our recommendations:

5. Unhappy employees = unhappy customers = brand value at risk

Employees have told us they feel embarrassed when they can’t provide customers with good quality service due to system issues. Unclear messages, payment errors and slow performance all add up to a deep sense of frustration and resentment, and customers notice it. When employees feel let down by the tools they use on a daily basis, it’s harmful to the employer’s brand. Take this quote from a leader in one of the world’s most customer-centric sectors:

Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients

Richard Branson

When employees are happy, they become champions and advocates for your brand. That’s something money can’t buy.

“How might we build systems that employees are proud to use?”

Our recommendations:

Employee experience and customer experience are in a symbiotic relationship. The improvements you make for your employees will maximise the impact of your customer experience initiatives.

Why isn’t employee experience being prioritised?

Despite the pains and relevancy of employee experience today many companies struggle to make the decision to improve the digital employee experience. Why is this? Here’s four reasons:

1. They don’t know there’s a problem

When there’s no tracking, no analytics and no way of gathering qualitative insight, it’s difficult to know how usable your systems are. Where do employees waste the most time? Where will your investment have the most impact? A good data setup will help answer questions like this.

One more thing: if staff aren’t complaining, it might be because they’ve already given up. They say things like ‘it’s always been like this’ and ‘it’ll never change’. Even in this situation conducting research with employees can flag pain points and foster an environment of empowerment and excitement about how much better things could be. In summative research you also get to hear things like:

“I can’t believe a tool has been designed by listening to and keepings users in mind.”

Our recommendations:

2. They’re stuck with old, rigid systems

It’s not unusual for companies to still be using tech infrastructure that was designed in the ‘90s. Whether they’re complex Oracle setups, out-of-the-box systems, or simply an Excel sheet, smart APIs and bridging technology are clever and cost-effective ways to bring your tools into the 21st century. We helped UCL build their new staff platform, Inside UCL, based on their existing Oracle and myHR platforms.

Our recommendations:

3. They don’t know where to start

Most companies don’t have their own UX researchers or consultants. Whereas existing teams might only see a small part of the bigger picture: Designers, Developers or Product Managers, for example. And, often, the people who manage the systems - typically IT and HR - don't have the power - or the bandwidth - to make changes themselves grounded in employee needs.

Our recommendations:

4. It’s hard to measure ROI

Despite all the evidence above, it’s hard to prove that employee experience contributes to the bottom line. It doesn’t directly impact financial targets in the way that consumer-facing projects often do. For this reason, budgets are often smaller, and goals are less ambitious.

Our recommendations:

What’s next for your digital employee experience?

Employee experience and customer experience are in a symbiotic relationship. The improvements you make for your employees will maximise the impact of your customer experience initiatives. By evolving employee experience, your people will be more fulfilled and able to use their time more effectively by doing tasks that add value to your customers.

What’s important is remembering that these kind of evolutions don’t have to cost the earth. By selecting the highest value employee tasks to evolve and using smart technologies to bridge the gaps between enterprise technologies and well-designed employee experience, you can maximise change while minimising initial expense.

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