Employee Experience Designer: The New Role of HR

The role of HR is undergoing a transformation. Where HR traditionally focused on compliance and risk management, over the past few decades, with the growth of culture-forward companies, it’s evolved to encompass the entire experience. HR managers are now, arguably, also designers and keepers of company culture.

Raised by an engineer and a preschool teacher, my childhood was full of experimenting and learning. For the past 8 years, I’ve parlayed those experiences into running culture for two technology companies, first Match.com and now Square Root. At both companies, I learned how different the needs and experiences can be depending on location, size, and team makeup. But my love of experimentation has consistently guided me in crafting the employee experience.

I always work to build upon the hierarchy of needs, focusing on employees’ foundational needs of feeling safe, being fairly compensated, and providing a work-life balance first. But the process can be tricky, and I’ve learned a few key lessons along the way.

Feedback Is Critical to Culture

Just like any product worth its salt, culture would be nothing without user feedback. Working at technology companies, I’ve learned how crucial user feedback is to the product development process. And yet, my first foray into culture development at Match.com neglected the user — our team.

The competition said wellness activities were all the rage so I introduced a weekly yoga class and formed a kickball league. When those perks turned out to be less than popular, I learned that — had I simply asked for the team’s input — what they really craved wasn’t a new wellness benefit, but peer recognition.

It left me wondering how I hindered the experience by launching a program inauthentic to what our team was feeling. Soon after, we started a tradition of internal culture surveys, something I later initiated at Square Root. The process keeps me authentic, and helps me get to the core of what my team truly needs to be happy.

From the outside, our culture and perks at Square Root may feel like a hodgepodge but they’re actually quite intentional. Everything was inspired by our team and their challenges. Take our Learn Anything budget, which provides $3,000 per year, per individual to learn anything. The program was born because our team voiced feedback that they didn’t feel empowered to grow as individuals.

Crafting the best possible employee experience starts with asking questions and getting direct input from your team. The perks that the process creates are one great outcome, but even better, over time the process will give you an innate intuition to help you recognize (and course correct!) in real time when something is amiss.

Iterate. Iterate. Iterate.

As a designer of the employee experience, I’ve learned to experiment, jerry-rig, and pilot my ideas to find what’s going to stick. Even when you understand the heart of the problem, the solution may not be obvious. Don’t sit around. Test ideas. Get more feedback. And iterate. At times, I feel like I’m putting up a culture straw man to see how people react.

I experienced this deeply in my first year at Square Root. Our team liked our core values but weren’t sure how to collectively embrace them. This created a bit of tension. Our first step was to put posters of each value on the walls. While the new artwork may have served as a helpful reminder of our values, it fell short in helping us truly bring those values to life.

For the next iteration, we introduced a Kudos Program. Each week, our leadership team recognized an individual for embodying one of the values. It helped the team grasp the values as our leaders saw them, but it created a new problem: our values weren’t in the hands of the team. We were creating a better understanding of the values while taking away from the inclusive experience.

After gaining this insight from our feedback channels, we took the values and Kudos nominations directly to the team. We tried a handful of offline versions, before launching a peer-to-peer micro-bonus platform that allows our team to give small bonuses to anyone in the company at any time, with only one requirement: they have to attach a value to the nomination. This helped us feel connected, recognized, and appreciated, and allowed us to bring our core values to life.

We knew we had hit a home run with the program when an individual remarked, “Remember when we put the values on the wall? We don’t need those anymore.”

Embrace the Journey

Much like with product design, when building a culture, failure often happens along the path to success. Every failure offers a great learning opportunity. At Square Root, we try to honor the journey with playful fanfare through a program we call Fail, Learn, Cake. When someone fails, we celebrate the learnings through conversation and cake. One of the first presentations was about my failure journey with the aforementioned Kudos Program! It’s simple, but building a team that’s comfortable with failure is important to our culture.

HR is no longer just about mitigating risk and maintaining compliance — today, it truly serves as the champion of the employees. It’s easy to simply emulate the perks you see at other companies, even those of your competition. But if you lean on your team for feedback and stay true to your values, you’ll cultivate an employee experience that’s your own. Just be ready to try, fail, and learn.

Courtney BransonIf you ask her, Courtney Branson is the cheerleader of the company; but really, she’s the glue that keeps Square Root together. She handles a little bit of everything but is especially good at HR and employee relations. Prior to joining Square Root, Courtney spent several years in HR operations at really large companies, so she brings welcome structure to our rapidly expanding team. No matter what she’s working on, Courtney adds a creative touch—keeping employee morale high and company events interesting. She knows just what it takes to pull the best out of people and isn’t above the occasional need for coffee/whiskey/cookie bribery. Courtney has a degree in English with minors in philosophy and history from Texas A&M University.

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