By Gloria Lombardi

Matt1Entrepreneur Matt Macri-Waller (pictured right), found a commonality at the organisations he worked with; they were all struggling to engage employees. “Every single day, I saw the missed opportunities to better connect with staff, while leaders and managers talked about the importance of morale and engagement,” he says.

While nobody goes to work to do a bad job, many people get into a rut, especially if culture and onerous processes quash autonomy, innovation, and the value of their work. We all, hopefully, know what it feels like to be recognised and valued; to be able to have good conversations that drive meaningful work. We perform at our best when work is a good experience, when we are motivated and inspired.

Macri-Waller felt that the ideal employee experience could be built, and so launched his own business. He founded Benefex in 2003, intending to bring a greater range of benefits to the workplace. But he soon realised that employee experience was about so much more than just having benefits. He saw the need for more meaningful interactions in the workplace too. So he started designing and building Benefex’s own platform in 2011, and today the business is more than a tech company or a benefits consultancy: it is a fully-fledged employee experience provider.

MARGINALIA spoke with Macri-Waller to understand how Benefex helps organisations build great employee experiences. In this interview, he describes the vision behind the OneHub platform, explains the company’s methodology around using ‘loops’, and clarifies the distinction between ’employee engagement’ and ’employee experience’. He also shares his views on the use of emerging technology, such as machine learning and cognitive computing, to process data and make personalised recommendations.

Gloria Lombardi: Benefex has developed a platform, OneHub, formerly called RewardHub. How does it facilitate a positive employee experience?

Matt Macri-Waller: Think of OneHub as one personalised place where employees go every day to manage anything they need. When individuals log in to the platform, all the features are customised to to be relevant to them; OneHub enables an individualised work experience, embedded within the organisation.

bo2The core driver behind developing OneHub comes from working with our clients. We saw that companies had an intranet, an HR system, various collaboration tools, and disparate utilities – all things people surely needed to get their job done. But we didn’t see anyone thinking about the whole employee experience amid all these different technologies. We just saw lots of systems, and a plethora of notifications from them that employees had to deal with.

OneHub brings all the software together. It simplifies it from an employee perspective and makes the entire digital workplace personalised to the individual. Therefore, helping drive engagement.

GL: It’s common for people to use ‘employee engagement’ and ‘employee experience’ interchangeably. How is employee experience different from employee engagement?

MM-W: Every employee has an experience of work. The experience may or may not have been purposefully designed. It’s based around how the organisation treats employees.

If you design great employee experiences, you drive higher employee engagement: people feel that they matter to the company; they feel treated in a human way; they feel they have a place they belong to, and are part of the organisation; they have a voice, and a real sense of purpose.

Today, most sectors are unquestionably moving toward the idea of designing employee experiences in the same way that customer experiences were conceived 15 years ago. While not everyone is engaged at work, everyone definitely has an employee experience. The best organisations design those experiences with intent, to reflect the outcome they want an employee to feel. The employers who do it well, will in turn drive employee engagement.

GL: How do you actually design great employee experiences?

MM-W: There are different approaches, but the first step is to start simple. The entire employee experience needs breaking down into pieces so you can look at each piece. Each piece can in turn be improved, or perhaps weaknesses can be prioritised. So it’s not about transforming everything completely all at once. Starting small and building up is the key – because some of the smallest changes made today could have a huge impact tomorrow.

bo1Think of the whole idea of employee experience as ‘loops’, which can be big or small. At every loop, you design what you want the experience to be. For example, when you bring a new hire into your organisation, how do you get them believing in what you are doing? Let’s imagine I agreed to join your company; you recruited me and I am going to start working in a month’s time; I know everything about my contract (e.g. how much I will be paid, what job I am going to do, etc.). Now you have a month before I begin, which means you have an opportunity to design one loop or a number of different loops to enable me to start in the most effective way possible. It’s a pre-on-boarding experience. The way you design that month of my experience could potentially help me be a more engaged employee when I actually join. Once I’m at my desk (or wherever), new loops are needed to support me as I get to grips with my role and the company’s processes.

Each part of the employee’s journey with the organisation needs breaking down into loops. Each loop should be designed with intent, rather than assuming people will sort themselves out. You can start one loop and close it off; start another loop and close it off. So, going back to our example, once I have joined, how do you allow me to connect with colleagues and align my practices with the business? How do you ensure that I am recognised and rewarded? And so on.

Experiences need designing to make employees feel that they belong, that their voice can be heard, and that they can take decisions. When you achieve that, you create a phenomenal outcome where every single employee engagement metric will be pretty much improved.

GL: Given your business background, what’s your advice when it comes to creating a positive employee experience around benefits?

MM-W: Reward and benefits are foundational elements to the employee experience, and employee engagement. Paying fairly and offering incentives is fundamental. From that baseline, it’s then important to look after staff wellbeing, and to recognise (and reward) good work.

bo3Having said that, organisations are spending lots of money on benefits. On average, across EMEA, 24% of the overall payroll is invested in benefits. I advise employers to think about benefits in a very distinct way – they must be unique. The actual benefit may not be unique itself, but the way it is offered and communicated can be unique, or the way that it is accessed by employees can be unique, and the underlying purpose can be unique and valuable. Whatever you offer, do not copy others, but focus on making that part of the employee experience distinctive, and personal.

GL: AI, machine intelligence, and cognitive computing have entered the workplace and are revolutionising enterprise search and data analysis. What’s your view on using such tech to help craft personalised employee experiences?

MM-W: In the longer term, it is absolutely the way the market is moving. Machine learning and algorithms will keep improving and help make recommendations progressively better. Smart systems will help identify challenges before they rise. For example, systems can learn what employees are interested in based on their internal and external online behaviours, and suggest relevant content. HR systems should be able to predict absence spikes, and maybe even notice individuals who are stressed or performing differently.

Yet, in the shorter-medium term, there will be some challenges and errors along the way. Algorithms are still relatively basic in the way they’re used. With the right information and data, recommendation engines will certainly get better, and in time be useful in more complex situations.

But right now at least, we must always question where our cognitive engines get the data from. There have been some well documented issues with data sets, that had in-built bias or prejudices of some kind. When they were scaled up to be used by the algorithms, they ended up amplifying those prejudices. So we need to approach big data and cognitive data crunching with caution. Yet without any doubt, machine learning and AI software are the future.

GL: Considering the ethics, how should an organisation responsibly approach machine learning or algorithmic processing?

MM-W: It is challenging, particularly where people work flexibly and their personal, professional, and social lives blur. But there’s no need for fear, just conscience and consciousness. Leaders, programmers, and data processors at all levels should consider how an individual employee might feel if they saw how their data was being used, even if anonymised. It goes without saying that the data protection act and the incoming GDPR must be respected.

Shot of a businesswoman using her tablet at her deskAs an organisation, you have to ask, ‘How much data around our workforce should we capture? How much should we track? How should we use it? What’s personal data? What’s work-related information?’

These ethical considerations will persist; employers and those responsible for data and people must always think about individuals’ feelings and rights.

In the end, it’s always about transparency. Great employee experiences are built on trust. An employee joins an organisation because they want to be part of it; they stay with the company when they believe in it. Doing anything remotely wrong with their personally generated data, or even just not properly explaining how their data is used, will break the trust. The opportunity to create a great employee experience is therefore damaged.

It’s crucial that leaders capitalise on technology and organisation data, not by exploiting employees but, by consciously creating better employee experiences with the sensitive use of metrics, monitoring, and smart tech.

Photos credit, Benefex offices, Matt Macri-Waller: Tina Downham Photography