By Gloria Lombardi

In a digital world with increasing transparency and flexibility, employees expect a productive, personalised, and humanised work experience. As a consequence, organisations have started developing holistic approaches to create the entire employee experience (EE), bringing together all the workplace, HR, and business practices that impact people.

Just as brands have moved beyond customer satisfaction to look after the total customer experience, so HR leaders are refocusing their efforts on building programmes and strategies that continuously improve the whole employee experience.

However, while many companies have created entirely new roles to look after employee experience, most companies have not prioritised it yet. Further, companies need to update their digital workplace tools to engage employees on an ongoing basis and help the organisation understand what employees expect and value.

The need to highlight all the intricacies of the employee experience led Benefex – in partnership with the Employee Engagement Alliance and the Employee Engagement Awards – to organise ExChange, the employee experience event. The premise of the conference is that building great employee experiences is critical for businesses operating in a highly competitive global economy — so, crucial for the future of work.

MARGINALIA speaks with Grace Burton, Research Lead at Benefex, to explore what participants can expect from the event. Burton talks about the link between technology and employee engagement, the role of AI, the need to focus on behaviours, and an example of an organisation that entirely rewrote the rules of their business to build great employee experiences.

Gloria Lombardi: Why is Benefex organising the ExChange event?

Grace Burton: The experiences of employees challenge everything we thought we knew about the world of work.

We find that enterprises – especially ones that have grown internationally – are getting serious about creating great employee experiences, and understanding the financial benefits. We see more and more organisations putting in place people whose role is specifically to build better employee experiences, rather than being just one part of someone’s job.

But there isn’t a real community for those professionals yet – in some respects, the employee experience is quite a new profession for many HR pros and leaders. We want to provide growing space for the employee experience community, and the conference will be a great focus for HR professionals.

The ExChange event is an opportunity for CEOs, CPOs and practitioners working in HR, internal comms, and employee engagement to explore the intricacies of the employee experience and the future of work. Our speakers and workplace experts will share their insight and stories about what they’ve done so far, and what they’ve learned along the journey.

If you are a CEO, or an HR Director, you have to think strategically about what your company should and could look like in future decades. Today’s trends could have long-lasting impact – so, at ExChange, there will be presentations around AI and what it means for the future of business, its links to the employee experience, and what automation in the workplace will look like in the years to come.

GL: What can you say about the link between AI and employee experience?

GB: There is much talk about AI entering the workplace and how it is definitely going to be part of the future of business. But, actually, a lot of employees are already interacting with AI – autonomous interfaces and systems are already helping get their job done, daily. On a basic level, many organisations have AI in their HR systems to deal with transactional conversations, such as arranging holiday. Many enterprises are already using algorithms and chatbots where previously they had a helpline; this is already happening now.

Pete Trainor from Us Ai, and author of ‘Hippo: The Human Focused Digital Book’, will be on stage at ExChange. He is really focused on doing better things by leveraging the latest technology, like artificial intelligence. While employees may fear displacement by AI in the future, the benefits to businesses and employees are manifold if we can set the ethics now and properly consider the social impact. Trainor will challenge us to consciously design the future of work, to ensure the human experience is augmented, not supplanted, by artificial intelligence.

GL: How urgently must organisations consider their systems, technology, and experience? Where should they start?

GB: The organisations that will survive the next 20-30 years, are the organisations that keep innovating. The organisations that will fail are the ones that don’t take the link between employee experience and technology seriously enough.

We are at a point where most employees are feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information that they need to manage every day; they are spending too much time and too much mental effort on searching for and managing content rather than making use of information, to the detriment of their core role and their engagement.

When evaluating new software and systems, leaders and stakeholders should consider what sorts of employee experience will emerge from the use of the new tool. They need to consider the workplace as a whole and think how the new tool will integrate. Employers must look for patterns, and most importantly, the behaviours that the individual employee adopts to get things done. Only then can the employee experience be built around people. They must start from the behaviours rather than the tool.

GL: So, organisations must understand their people right from the beginning.

GB: If we look at technological innovation as a business outcome, and something that defines the success of the organisation, we mustn’t forget that innovation comes from the people – it might be a technological innovation, but, well – your people made it.

So, yes – employers must look at their people right from the hiring process. They must have the right talent entering the organisation. If they haven’t the right individuals, then they are not going to drive a culture of innovation. That culture requires considering the psychological safety of taking risks, failing, and hopefully failing fast, and learning from failure. If organisations have not been able to build that culture around their people – and, if the employees within the business are not keen on being part of that culture – there will be no innovation. Nor great employee experience.

Lucy Adams, CEO of Disruptive HR, who will also join us at ExChange, says it’s all about building a holistic experience, built on research-driven insights, that reflects employees’ differing needs. This means, for example, offering different, personalised, approaches to recruitment, performance management, development, and career path.

GL: Who is doing a good job in terms of building great experiences?

GB: A good example is PKF Cooper Parry, a 150-year-old accounting firm. We will welcome the CEO, Ade Cheatham, and April Bembridge, responsible for People and Culture, to the ExChange stage.

In the past 14 years, PKF Cooper Parry went through an enormous period of changes and transformations, eventually ripping up the rulebook and rewriting everything they were doing. They were tired of the bureaucratic systems; they wanted to build something different, bold, and entrepreneurial, while challenging the old stereotype everyone had of accountants.

For example, they have done very interesting things with their physical space – the Sky View, a vibrant working place, offers break-out areas, sofas, coffee lounges, etc. – and completely supports and showcases their revamped company values.

They set a new philosophy: ‘People first, strategy second’. They focused on a framework that allowed them to create growth. They worked around the resistance to change, poor communication, and lack of innovation. They offered their staff unlimited holidays and let their accountants work in jeans. As a result, their performance skyrocketed – they have become the fastest growing accountancy company in the UK, and they are 12th in the Sunday Times list of the Best Companies to work for 2018.

GL: What’s your final piece of advice to employers when it comes to ensuring they build great EEs?

GB: Every organisation, and every employee in that organisation, has an employee experience. We all affect each others’ employee experience. Employers can develop great ideas and implement changes, and take decisions that can seem very good for the EE at first. But, if those decisions are not supported and implemented on the ground, then the employee experience is never going to be rolled out properly or completely embedded.

While organisations as a whole can strive to do incredible things, if people are not aligned, there will always be major challenges. It is individuals who ultimately make everything happen.

As an employer, you are never going to have total control of the employee experience. Yet, if you make the right people decisions, you can hopefully build a culture where negative elements can be overcome.

In some ways, we have to go beyond the employee experience, beyond the world of work, and look at the person’s life too. James Wallman from The Future is Here, who will join us at ExChange, talks about ‘work-ation’ (work + vacation). Work being seen as a stage to express ourselves and realise our passions. Work as being anywhere, anytime, as an experience, rather than merely a place to go to every day.

As the lines between professional and personal life blur, people increasingly want the relevant, convenient, and engaging experiences they have outside of work to be replicated on the job. Above all, they want the opportunity to shape their workplace experiences on their terms.

To sum up, when it comes to building great employee experiences, companies have to start looking at the bigger picture of what is going on in their workplaces and beyond.

I think there are some excellent principles for employee experience design in other spheres. There are some obvious parallels between employee and customer experience, but if I had to choose one final piece of advice it would be the user experience (UX) design principle of ‘paving the cowpaths’; that is, look for the patterns of behaviour where employees have tried to make completion of a task more straightforward and formalise that for them. Design out frustration points wherever you can. Historically, we’ve seen organisations become guilty of writing a rule for every exception, rather than designing something really usable for the majority.


Full agenda and speakers details are available through and shared through Benefex’s social media channels as they are announced.

Book your tickets to ‘ExChange’ today. Use discount code ‘MARGINALIA’ to receive 25% off your ticket price!