Are You Delivering A Great Employee Experience?

We all know that the talent wars will be won by the companies that deliver great EX–employee experience, that is.

Failure to attract and retain talent is the No. 1 concern of CEOs responding to the 2018 Conference Board C-Suite Challenge Survey. As a result, organizations are “moving from treating employees as human capital to treating them as human beings, which means really understanding their needs and expectations and creating an experience where they can do their best work,” says Jeanne Meister, founding partner of Future Workplace, a New York-based HR advisory and research firm that explores the future of learning and working.

Meister points to three companies–two traditional and one disrupter poised on the bleeding edge of HR–that are demonstrating a holistic approach to building a great employee experience that addresses the human factors, technology and the work environment itself.

“Perks like free food and massages lose their sizzle pretty quickly,” she says. “Thank goodness, we have gone past that to what’s meaningful to get and keep employees.”

Hilton: Continuous Improvement Pays Off

At Hilton, the 99-year-old hospitality organization with nearly 400,000 team members at more than 5,200 properties around the world, a continuing focus on improving customer experience has helped it glean valuable lessons for delivering a great EX, says Gareth Fox, Hilton’s vice president of human resources for the Americas.

“Our mission of being the most hospitable company in the world extends to our team members as well,” he says. “We’ve grown our Hilton Honors loyalty program to nearly 70 million members by building meaningful, direct relationships that deliver great value for our guests.”

In July 2017, the company introduced Thrive@Hilton, a six-week online program taught by Arianna Huffington (CEO of Thrive Global and co-founder of the Huffington Post). The course is offered through Hilton University and teaches scientifically proven methods to decrease stress and burnout and improve overall health, happiness and wellbeing.

The Thrive@Hilton program also promotes a culture of continuous improvement that has led the company to shift away from the 24/7 on-call lifestyle for employees. “We are well aware that research shows workers are burning out faster than ever when they are constantly on their phones and checking email for work,” Fox says. “We recognize that our team members need to recharge.”

In the physical work environment, Hilton has developed its Heart of House initiative for on-site staff. This includes renovated “back-of-house” features such as revamped locker rooms, eating areas that are more like commercial restaurants instead of cafeterias and improved Wi-Fi access. Uniform choices have been expanded and include Under Armour apparel made from high-performing fabric.

On the talent-acquisition side, Hilton’s HR department teamed up with IT to explore artificial-intelligence technology to increase the speed and success of hiring and improve onboarding. While still in the process of deploying AI technology to screen, source and interview job candidates, Hilton has released a chatbot that guides candidates through the process of applying for a job and setting up an interview, and it even provides an offer. Video interviews and assessments are helping improve corporate high-volume recruitment, leading to an 85 percent increase in speed-to-hire–a drop from six weeks to one week.

Building a great work culture from the inside out has led to accolades, including the No. 33 spot on Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For.”

“We are seeing these investments pay off, as increases in resources and benefits for our team members have corresponded with rising guest-satisfaction scores and parallel growth in our most loyal customer base,” Fox says.

Investment in the employee experience has also helped decrease turnover by more than 4 percent in the Americas, he adds. “That amounts to a savings of roughly $4 million to the business, from loss of productivity, recruitment costs and time-to-hire.”

SunTrust: Building EX on Purpose

When SunTrust, a banking and financial-services company based in Atlanta, spelled out its company purpose some six years ago, it not only concentrated on “lighting the way to financial wellbeing” for its clients and communities but also committed to helping its 23,000 teammates.

“It’s no coincidence that since we clearly articulated our purpose, we’ve seen six, going on seven, years of consecutive performance improvement in our earnings per share, our efficiency ratio [and] our shareholder return,” says Margaret Callihan, SunTrust’s CHRO. “We believe that when you put your purpose in practice that it actually influences and impacts the culture [and] the teammate experience.”

For example, four years ago, SunTrust launched an online financial-fitness program called Momentum onUp, which teaches about money management. It provides the program at cost to its corporate clients to help their employees become more financially savvy, and to SunTrust teammates free of charge.

It’s an important benefit for SunTrust teammates because surveys show that 70 percent of working adults feel a moderate or high level of financial stress in their lives. Seventy-nine percent of employees have completed the program in the last four years, and each has received $1,000 from SunTrust to jumpstart a $2,000 emergency fund. They learn about debt management, buying/renting a home, insurance, budgeting, income stream, and giving back either time or money to the community. They also receive one paid day off so they can develop a budget, set up a will or implement other money-management measures. In a 2015 engagement survey, SunTrust learned that 73 percent of participants acted to improve their credit score and 62 percent felt less financial stress.

The company has also dipped its toe into the AI world to try something really different, yet quick to set up. Enter Mo (who is gender-neutral), the SunTrust chatbot that can immediately answer questions teammates have about the company’s financial-wellbeing offerings, including Momentum onUp.

“This is the beginning of a much broader strategy but a great opportunity for us,” says Katherine Brune, senior vice president of teammate wellbeing and benefits.

The company has created a team to use agile methodology to develop new programs. “We love the idea of quicker feedback and quicker solutions [that are] more timely [and] more relevant,” says Callihan. “We are on the path to do all of our work this way, and I think it is a real game changer as we interface with the teammate experience, with the technology [and] with the new ways artificial intelligence is going to come into the workforce.”

Program ideas frequently come from SunTrust’s robust roster of annual and pulse engagement surveys.

“We know that, [with] five generations in the workplace, we want to continue to evolve our [benefits] program so that it’s contemporary [and] it attracts and retains top talent,” says Kimberly Eul, SunTrust’s leadership and teammate experience executive.

For example, SunTrust has opened state-of-the-art co-working sites in Richmond, Va.; Orlando, Fla.; and two in Atlanta to help teammates trade commuting time for productivity, all in response to calls for flexible-work options.

Another “wildly successful” program that came out of employee surveys was an expanded maternity- and parental-leave policy, says Eul. The program offers 10 weeks of paid maternity leave for birth moms plus an additional six weeks of parental leave, which can be taken in weekly increments. Fathers, domestic partners and adoptive parents are eligible for six weeks of paid parental leave as well.

“It really takes to heart those moments that really matter for our parents,” says Brune.

Callihan adds, “As a purpose-driven company, we know it all starts at home.”

rLoop: The Disrupter

Home is also where everything starts for the remote workers at rLoop–a think tank of designers working on high-speed transportation systems that will whoosh passenger pods in low-pressure tubes at 700-plus miles per hour from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 30 minutes, or London to Manchester in 15 minutes. But the remote workforce doesn’t mean there’s no need for HR; it just gets a major assist from technology and disruptive thinkers.

The rLoop team evolved three years ago out of a small group of engineers who collaborated in their spare time to enter designs for Elon Musk and Space X’s Hyperloop competition. Today, the team has coalesced to include a set of leaders such as rLoop co-founder and project manager Brent Lessard, who operates out of his Toronto home. He and his co-founders are now in the process of hiring a high-performing team by mining the best of the best from among the 1,300 volunteers who are pursuing their dream “moonshot” project.

“It all started with a couple-dozen people who were meeting on weekends and in the evenings and collaborating online,” says Lessard. “We had an open-door policy and, as we started to enjoy different successes and win some awards, the numbers within the community started to grow like a trickle at first and then the spout just opened.”

Suddenly, they had a lot of talented people but no easy way to engage them, filter them through to the appropriate teams and connect them to mentors. In addition, the team was based around the world in many different time zones.

“What we found is that people would join and be very excited about the concept and about working on this kind of project, but if we couldn’t engage with them and get them to collaborate in a meaningful way within a very short time frame,” Lessard says, “they would kind of bounce away and we would lose a potential contributor or collaborator.”

To focus on retaining contributors, the rLoop HR team organized engagement efforts using artificial-intelligence tools. “When a new member joins, we have an AI that immediately contacts them in a private message,” Lessard explains. “It can interact with them, based on a predetermined workflow that we’re constantly evolving. Depending on the answers to the specific questions that are provided, the AI can provide them a path.”

The AI is plugged into a knowledge database that can deliver an answer instantly about anything related to rLoop, from its technology and collaboration systems to its values and culture and to professional-development opportunities. If the knowledge-base answer isn’t satisfactory, the AI generates a service ticket so a team member can reply to the contributor personally; the question and the tailored answer become part of the knowledge base as well. Plus, throughout the process, the AI asks if users are comfortable with the answers, if they have any feedback or if they have concerns they would like addressed, either personally or anonymously.

“There’s a commonly held fear of AI and tech like this but there shouldn’t be,” says Lessard. “I think they are here to complement the human side and enhance it more than replace it.”

In addition to focusing on the elements of the Hyperloop, rLoop is also developing a Boeing-sponsored personal flying device and rBridge, a fast prototyping system that lets designers and engineers connect to makers and manufacturers around the world to turn designs into physical products in record time.

The rLoop ecosystem also makes it easy for the rLoop HR-recruitment team to track and learn from engagement data points and find the best existing contributors who demonstrate the key values of participating, contributing and demonstrating proficiencies before turning to external talent sources to fill positions.

It would have been much harder to create a company out of nothing even five years ago because the technology wasn’t as readily available–or without cost–like it is today, Lessard notes.

“We have a ‘We can do this’ mentality. If someone tells us that something isn’t feasible, our response is usually, ‘Just watch us.’ It’s the scrappy attitude of the whole team that fuels our progression.”

While the three companies–Hilton, SunTrust and rLoop–have different customers, products and even employee types, Meister says, all show that paying attention to great EX can give any size company an edge in the talent wars.

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Maura C. Ciccarelli
Maura Ciccarelli is freelance writer based in Southeastern Pennsylvania. She can be reached at