Getting the Employee Experience Right - What Internal Comms, HR and IT Need to Know from the Gartner Digital Workplace Summit

Employee experience. It's a term that conjures up images of bean bag chairs and ping pong tables, nap pods and bring-your-dog-to-work days - all the cool, fun things a modern-day working experience needs to be in order to attract and retain the best talent.

While it might be fun to think about working in an environment that offers free massages and organic meals prepared by top chefs, the reality is that that the concept of "employee experience" is far more serious (and impactful to your business) than any of the fluffy perks we've come to associate with the term.

What exactly is employee experience?

According to Culture Amp, creator of the world's top-ranked employee feedback and analytics platform, employee experience is defined as "what people encounter, observe or feel over the course of their employee journey at an organization."

That might not sound nearly as fun as margarita machines and Nerf-gun battles, but there's no denying the fact that the experiences of your employees as they interact with your business all combine to create the lifeblood of your organization. Deliver experiences that are useful and engaging, that minimize distractions and enable employees to focus on the core nature of their work, and your workforce will flourish and propel the growth of your business. Ignore the concept of experience and you do so at your own peril.

Employee experience -- and the industry of "EXtech [1]," the employee experience technology that has sprung up around the concept -- was the focus of much of the discussion at Gartner's recent "Digital Workplace Summit" in Orlando Florida. With nearly 100 sessions, roundtables and workshops (plus a packed exhibitor floor, of course), the event was an immersive experience in all things related to the digital workplace. The broad nature of the idea of a digital workplace was especially evident throughout the course of the week. While one session might focus on the need for using digitally enabled trash cans as a way to optimize cleaning schedules, another discussed the impact of much broader and more futuristic ideas, such as the hotel in Japan staffed entirely by robots. Overall, it was an event that encouraged attendees to evaluate the possibilities that a truly digital workplace can provide - an important step to take before embarking on any kind of digital transformation.

The event also begged two important questions: as people have grown accustomed to being able to do anything, at anytime, anywhere and employees are now demanding that same kind of frictionless simplicity in the workplace - what does that mean for your organization - and more importantly, how do you get there?

How do you achieve the best employee experience in a digital workplace?

Now of course every organization's journey to achieving digital workplace success will be different based on their needs and specific circumstances, but there were three key themes that came from the event that I think every company can benefit from as they consider their best path forward.

1. "...changed my expectations about what shoes could do."

In the keynote delivered by Leigh McMullen and Helen Poitevin, sneakers were used to drive home the transformative power technology can have on even seemingly straightforward experiences.

Helen's shoes - unassuming green canvas Converse sneakers - adequately fulfilled the basic requirements she expected of them. They protected her feet from rough walking surfaces and they looked cute, an added bonus. Leigh's kicks, on the other hand, were the space-age Nike HyperAdapt. In addition to the humble goal of protecting feet from the ground, these were a fully digital, self-lacing shoe that intuitively adjusted to the shape of the wearer's foot, paired with mobile devices and provided tons of data on movement and health metrics.

The lesson here is that while both shoes fulfilled the same basic obligation, one offered a vastly superior experience. HyperAdapts make you rethink what shoes could be, and that's exactly the type of mind set organizations need to adopt as they consider the employee experience they deliver. How much better and easier could you make the lives of your employees if you cast aside the notions of "possible" and "expected" and instead leveraged technology to create the best experience possible?

2. For a digital workplace to be successful, everyone needs to win

In the session Accenture delivered with Avanade, "Designing Workplaces for Tomorrow," emphasis was placed on the importance of designing experiences with people in mind. That may sound overly simplistic, like "of COURSE, why wouldn't we do that?", but sometimes the most obvious things are the easiest to overlook, especially when technology is involved.

Creating a digital workplace that enhances employee satisfaction and increases productivity should never be an exercise in compromise -- this isn't a zero-sum game. By maintaining a disciplined, holistic focus on the people your digital workplace will impact, considering their needs and goals both in present day as well as post-implementation, it will be possible to implement a solution in which everyone wins -- and that's critical to the success of your employee experience initiative.

3. Your workplace is the new frontier for competitive advantage

While technology enables organizations to be more competitive than ever before, it also means that that your competitors have become equally fierce. One way to differentiate your business is to make improvements in areas that other organizations might not consider, going beyond simply improving sales and marketing processes or creating better products or services. One such area to consider is employee experience. These statistics from Accenture's session perfectly illustrate the impact employees have on the overall success of an organization.

Who needs to be involved?

As the sessions dug deeper into the different roles associated with driving digital workplace initiatives - typically internal communications, HR and IT - it became clear that each group has its own unique goals and strengths, all of which are critical to the success of digitally transforming the employee experience. Each of those groups are also all burdened with their own biases, however, often developed over long-standing confusion or disagreement about which groups are responsible for certain initiatives.

Ultimately, all groups involved need to commit to working together seamlessly if a digital workplace project is going to be successful, but here are some important takeaways for each group:

Internal communications

  1. A "publishing" mindset will no longer work in a modern, successful digital workplace. Employees are being buried in information and as a result, they're ignoring it all. You can help them overcome that overload by thinking about how your communications will be received by the recipient. And always remember - your goal is to communicate with people, not at them.

  2. As you put together your "communication" plans, try to think of them as "understanding" plans instead. By making that mental switch and understanding what employees need to know and hear, it will help you communicate in a way that's truly helpful rather than just distracting.

  3. Employee communications will be the most effective if there's a closed loop mechanism in place - ask for and then incorporate employee feedback so they know that they were heard and feel like their opinions are valuable and are being taken seriously.


  1. Talent and culture are the biggest barriers to digital transformation. It's easy for organizations to fall into the trap of "but this is how we've always done things." Unfortunately, if you only ever do what you've always done, then you'll only get the results you've always gotten, with no opportunity for improvements. To truly transform your organization and the experience you deliver, it's critical to get buy-in from your employees and help them understand the importance of the initiative. After all, they'll be your greatest ambassadors of your digital workplace success.

  2. Review your current workplace through the eyes of your employees. What are the important moments in their day that could be enhanced? How can you help them eliminate unnecessary tasks - and therefore stress? What small improvements could really make a big difference for them? By talking with employees and really understanding their pain points, you'll have much better luck shaping an experience that will enact positive, long-term change.

  3. Understand the personas that represent your employees. Since it wouldn't be practical to implement a digital workplace solution that addresses the needs of every single employee, creating personas is an effective way to categorize the most common needs and goals of your workforce. Personas, when thoroughly and thoughtfully compiled, provide an excellent snapshot view of the overall employee landscape, which will make it easier to create a successful experience for everyone within the organization.


  1. The number one safe bet about the future of work is that it will become more digital - and IT is at the heart of that. It might be tempting to consider an employee experience initiative as an "HR thing," but the reality is, IT bears the responsibility of ensuring that organizations are using the technology needed to operate efficiently, so ITs committed involvement is a foundational requirement in any digital workplace project.

  2. Become a trusted advisor rather than a technology dictator. In certain area, such as enterprise security, it makes sense for IT to take a dictatorial stance with technology implementations. There's simply too much at stake to take a chance with a multi-disciplinary approach. Creating an effective digital workplace isn't one of those situations however. IT is certainly needed as an advisor in terms of technological feasibility and other considerations, but other aspects of the project require feedback from more diverse areas of the business. The more IT can play the role of advisory rather than rule maker, the more likely the project will be a success.

  3. Culture isn't just an HR issue. The technology systems that are used in an organization, as well as how they're deployed and maintained, has a tremendous impact on the culture of a company. It's something IT groups need to be mindful of as they support the business. What is the workplace impact of how they deliver their services and are they helping or hindering the success of both employees as well as the overall organization?

And what about winning support and measuring value?

Even with all stakeholders on board and rockets set for blast off, the chances are good that your employee experience project will require internal justification and approval (not to mention eventual ROI measurement) if it's ever going to get off the ground

In his session "How to Win Support for and Measure the Value of a Digital Workplace Initiative," Jeffrey Mann asked the question that plagues us all regarding these critical steps in the process:

"How do you measure something as squishy as productivity?"

It's a quest that's certainly easier said than done, but Mann offered a suggestion that just might be the key to unlocking the mystery. Instead of just thinking about the potential ROI of the project, consider the cost of NOT doing it. For example, if your organization is held captive by cumbersome, complicated processes, and productivity is hindered due to inefficient workflows, how would that impact your ability to attract and retain the best talent? The implications of such a scenario are sobering to say the least, especially in this time of historically low unemployment rates when workers have much more leverage in choosing where they want to work.

Eventually, the concepts of employee experience and digital workplaces will be as ubiquitous as bathrooms (an employee perk, Mann points out, that no one ever asks for ROI justification on). Until then however, follow Gartner's 8 steps to financial justification and remember that persistence is key when it comes to selling the value of delivering exceptional employee experiences. Cultural change of that magnitude doesn't always come easy but it's worth it in the long run.

So now what?

Once you've made the decision to embark on a journey towards creating better employee experiences, there's one secret you need to know about all others. This secret was shared in the keynote delivered by Carol Rozwell and Gavin Tay, "Gartner Digital Workplace Scenario":

"The secret to digital is analog."

You can create the most engaging, transformative experiences your organization has ever seen. But unless it works for your employees - the "analog" component of your business -- saving them time and frustration while enhancing their work experience, then your efforts will have been for nothing.

So map out your goals, rally the internal troops and find a technology partner that can help you make it all happen -- let's get going!

1. "A diverse collection of employee-facing applications designed to influence and improve the employee experience and organizational culture." - 2019 Gartner Digital Workplace Summit