At Made by Many, we’ve been building digital products and services for consumers for over a decade. However, rarely have we had the opportunity to create a product and experience solely dedicated to employees. Our recent work with YayHappyFunTimesCorp* surprised us on many fronts. Here’s how we redefined their employee experience, and some surprisingly awesome things that made this project a rather memorable one.
1. There are still companies who actually care about employees
It’s easier to build the product right, when you start with good intentions.
YayHappyFunTimesCorp (here on in referred to as “YHFTC”) has a very transient workforce - their labour turnover can average up to 50% (frightening, but still far better than industry average). How much should you invest in your employees’ growth and development, if half of your people are going to leave every year? A LOT, was YHFTC’s answer.
The premise of this project was based on their company’s mission to create lasting happiness for their employees. Yes, that’s right - happiness. Not cost reduction, process efficiency, customer acquisition or retention. Happiness. Despite their constantly changing workforce, they believed in investing in people’s personal and professional development. The hope is that not only will people be productive employees, they will go on to become productive citizens of the world.
This is important - because when the driving force behind a new product is beyond profitability, traffic or retention, you have the freedom to think differently about your product’s purpose and value. This is not to say achieving growth targets, expansion goals, efficiency gains, usage rates or loyalty aren’t important - they are. YHFTC just believed that starting with the overall goal of employee happiness, will lead the company to the desired positive outcomes.
In this case, the laser focus on employee happiness allowed our team to focus on doing the right thing - what kind of employee experience should we be creating? What will bring people happiness and how can our product help shape this?
Creating good products is hard - you make compromises and tough decisions every step of the product development process. But designing for happiness forced an even higher level of empathy, and ensured that the product is centered around what will be truly valuable to users - in this case, the employees. Afterall, they are the ones who will ultimately determine the success or failure of the product.
2. Good old intranets
The opportunity to address a massive gap in the market.
We didn’t appreciate how few great digital products there were for employees in the hospitality industry - particularly, for shift workers, part-time staff and those on minimum wage. Remember corporate intranets? Yes, they still exist.
YHFTC employees manage their working lives via a myriad of tools that they wrangle like jigsaw puzzles of knowledge and information. They rely on good old pen and paper to change shifts and book holidays. They log on to different systems (which require different usernames and passwords, obviously) to check their payslips and update personal details. They receive weekly newsletters via e-mail that managers then print off and display in staff rooms. They use WhatsApp and Facebook because there aren’t good internal communication tools available for them to use.
It’s a messy system that is frustrating, inefficient, and often intrudes on people’s private lives. One employee bemoaned that WhatsApp was a “household nightmare” for the amount of work-related messages her husband (who works at the same place) gets bombarded with.
This probably sounds all too familiar - even for those who haven’t worked in the hospitality industry. We don’t make life easy for employees - the systems and tools that most people have to deal with on a daily basis are often outdated, complicated and lacking in cohesion. They’re often a stark contrast to the slick and well-designed digital consumer products, that have raised standards and people’s expectations of user interfaces and experiences.
In the face of all this chaos, our challenge was simple - build a digital product that helped people do their jobs more easily. Using technology as an enabler, we set out to:
- improve communication across YHFTC’s distributed workforce, ensuring people have access to the information that they need to do their jobs
- help leaders manage their teams and their performance
- enable employees to drive their own development
- bolster their already outstanding company culture and their sense of “family"
Through this process, we learnt that building great digital products and services for employees is not only useful and valuable, it is also much belated and desperately needed. The opportunity is wide open for more services that put the employee experience at the heart of it all.
3. The human side of large organisations
Working on the employee experience allowed us to peek into large organisations with new lenses.
At Made by Many, we care deeply about knowing our users. YHFTC is full of profoundly moving and human stories. There’s a story of the time when an entire team rallied together to raise funds for a team member’s sight preserving surgery. Or the story of the guy who escaped from Brazil as a refugee 10 years ago (gunshot wounds and all), who arrived in the UK with no word of English, and who now runs an entire part of the business looking after more than 4,000 people.
There are stories of of perseverance, stories of teams banding together because they are “family”. There are stories of the business consistently choosing to back its people and growing them as individuals and as leaders.
But these stories are not unique. They exist in every team, in every business unit, in every company staffed by humans. Working on the employee experience has opened our eyes to see the human side of large organisations - that despite the sheer scale, distribution and staff turnover, there are connected stories to be found and told.
Uncovering human stories is important. Knowing that the work that we do has a direct impact on the people that we’ve gotten to know well and care about, that our product exists to improve people’s lives at work and consequently their life outside of work - brings new meaning to “creating a great product” and demands a new standard of excellence.
4. More than a consumer product
We had the opportunity to speak to the employees whenever we needed - but they also had access to us in a way that most consumers don’t have to the designers of products they use. The constant feedback reminded us that we weren’t just building a consumer product - that this is not just another consumer app that people can easily abandon.
Getting to know the human side of organisations required us to speak to the humans. Fortunately in this case, YHFTC understood how serious we were about co-designing with their employees (the “users” of our future product). They granted us unlimited access - an absolute privilege we didn’t take lightly.
This unparalleled access to their employees allowed us to validate new concepts, check processes and flows, test new models and ways of working. It meant we were able to gather real evidence before making key decisions, and it meant we never strayed too far from what will deliver real value. This led us to build a product that is most “right” for this group of users.
At the same time, their feedback back to us was also fast and furious - this is a group who didn’t mince their words. From the first beta release, we opened up direct channels for users to speak directly to us: “Why can’t I access it?”, “Why isn’t X working?”, “Where can I find [insert numerous features we haven’t built]” and other demands flew in. Luckily for us, the feedback was also overwhelmingly positive, and the random delightful “this is the best thing EVA” followed by 😍 😍 😍, filled us with the kind of joy that I think all product people can relate to.
This constant feedback served as a helpful reminder that we weren’t building a consumer product that people could choose to use or discard. This is a product that accompanied people’s working lives - so they care deeply about how it should work, what it should be able to do. It also reminded us that our product is representing the organisation and its leaders - it is something that most employees will interact with more regularly, than with some of their leaders. It has the opportunity to represent the organisation more immediately, and perhaps more accurately, than other channels of communication.
Great power was entrusted upon us when we started designing for the employee experience. And as we all know, great power comes with great responsibility.
5. The product that rippled change through the organisation
When the process of building a great product, inspires new ways of working.
When YHFTC engaged us, they had a clear vision and ambition for this project to be a “catalyst for digital transformation” for the business - matching our philosophy of change by making and product led transformation. They saw this as an opportunity to significantly shift the way that the organisation functioned - using the product as the central galvanising force to bridge gaps between marketing, technology, operations and human resources.
So, in parallel to building a digital product for them, we intentionally set out to evolve the organisation. It’s been aptly put that digital transformation is 10% tech and 90% human. But that 10% is critical to unlocking human capabilities, and has to be built around human needs, behaviours and motivations. Because products - and technologies - change how people behave and relate to each other.
In this case, the product is helping shape how people engage and interact with each other, how the organisation disseminates business critical information, how people learn. In the future, it’ll help make room for leaders to foster supportive environments for people to grow with the organisation, and to help create an even greater sense of community and belonging. We’re helping to define their future, by building the product that people will use in their day to day lives.
But it’s also the process of building this product, that is shifting how the organisation worked. By co-designing with their employees every step of the journey, by collaborating with a wide group of stakeholders, by challenging organisational norms, by re-modelling their processes, by launching a product within 6 weeks and iterations in quick successions, by starting with a core group of people to champion a more lean and agile way of working, by opening up our process and approach for all to participate, by having fun together and celebrating successes big and small - we are slowly but surely, helping to transform the organisation. One product at a time.
I don’t know about you, but it’s rare for us to come across a project that:
- Starts with the right intentions; AND
- Exists to address a massive (and real) gap in the market; AND
- Uncovers genuine human stories and needs; AND
- Serves a real purpose; AND
- Helps to ripple change through the organisation
This product doesn’t exist to entertain, delight or shock. It exists to improve people’s lives at work - and by extension, their wellbeing and happiness. It’s a product that truly matters, because it has an opportunity to make a real difference in people’s lives.
It made us want to build one hell of a product.
*This is another story based on the work we did with YayHappyFunTimesCorp - no, not their real name. First reference appeared here, related stories include The Chameleon Effect and Fun with AWS Lambda.
Illustrations by Sam Russell Walker
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How we do it at Made by Many, and what it’s done for me
I did a short talk at Neil Perkin’s most recent Google Firestarters soirée a couple of weeks ago.