The Employee Experience Role: What you need to know to lead and hire
Lindsey Caplan, Contributor
A quick glance at LinkedIn job posts tells us what many in HR have known for quite some time: a stellar employee experience is not only a nice to have but a necessity. According to LinkedIn, there are currently close to 250,000 job postings in the United States alone that mention the term, employee experience, and over 13,000 for director and above employee experience positions.
The role of Head of Employee Experience has become prolific, but it is also still relatively new and to many, nebulous. Many are familiar with the role of a Head of HR, or a Chief People Officer, but now there is an emerging role whose efforts and impact similarly stretch across the entire organization.
At Pyn our goal is to help companies create an incredible employee experience. So, we wanted to know, what exactly does a Head of Employee Experience do inside an organization?
To find out, we interviewed nine current and former Heads of EX (Employee Experience) at top brands including Uber, Oyster, Vimeo, Kickstarter, and Yelp. We asked them to share their experience leading EX at their organizations as small as 100 or as large as 20,000 employees.
We’ve compiled their expertise to answer questions like, What does the role of Head of Employee Experience require? How should a company think about hiring for it? How can an organization ensure someone in this role is successful?
Whether you’re considering hiring a Head of EX or aspiring to be one yourself, check out our learnings for inspiration.
The Employee Experience role hierarchy
Let’s start with the basics - the positioning of the role and where it sits in the organization. Most of the Heads of EX we spoke with reported directly, or one level removed, to the Chief People Officer (or Chief Workplace Officer, as HR software company Oyster calls it). One person reported to the COO.
Team makeup and size ran the gamut. Some operated as a team of one whereas others had a team as big as eight people. Team members included coordinators and specialists in communication, learning and development, or human-centered design.
EX is a role that works across the entire business which means partnering with multiple stakeholders is a must. One-third of interviewees counted employees as main stakeholders while two-thirds mentioned their fellow People team leaders and Human Resource Business Partners as key to their efforts. This isn’t surprising, especially when HRBPs and people partners often represent and evangelize EX efforts to the business. Additional stakeholders included teams who have a hand in communicating, sharing, and marketing employee-centered efforts, such as internal communications and workplace teams.
Overall, the executive team (including the CEO, CFO, COO, CPO, and General Counsel) was cited as the most mentioned stakeholder. Their buy-in on strategy and spending was key and where Heads of EX spend a large part of their time influencing.
Defining the Head of Employee Experience role
“My role is to make work not suck.” This crisp and to the point description is how Natasha Loughlin views her remit as Head of Employee Experience at Findex, a 3,000 person financial advisory and accounting services firm in Australia and New Zealand. Coined by Wharton organizational psychologist, Adam Grant, making work ‘not suck’ is key to building trust and creating meaning at work, Natasha says. “Sometimes it's about removing obstacles, simplifying processes, or improving job design, but at the core, my role is to improve the work environment so people can do their best work.”
This definition rang true for most of the Heads of EX we spoke to. Some cited roots in customer experience, design thinking, analytics, strategy, and communications - but all were centered on a common purpose: improving the day-to-day experience of employees.
“We are focused on, what is your perception of what it means to work at Uber, how is that perception formed via every interaction and moment you have here?”, said Tracy Krilich, Head of EX at Uber. “Collectively our goal is to tune into the voice of the employee, invest in the experiences that have the greatest impact so that we unlock individual, team, and business performance.”
Video platform provider Vimeo crystalized four guiding principles for their EX efforts, all centered on connection. “Connection to self - people want an organization that helps them connect to the whole person, connection to others, connection to the role so people have clarity about their responsibilities and the impact of their work, and finally, connection to the organization so people feel a part of our mission and how they impact it,” explains Ali Gross, Director of EX.
Leading EX goes beyond the internal experience for some organizations. “Our work helps define what the future of work is, and our value proposition in a competitive market,” said Anne Cannady at the Edge Cloud Computing company, Fastly.
“EX needs to match the company’s stated values and employer brand,” shared Nina Kontos, Head of EX at SaaS company, Celonis. “An employee’s experience once they’re “in the door” should be consistent with how the company’s culture was presented to them during the hiring phase. We have to look across the employee life cycle, and check and advocate for that consistency.”
At crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, employee experience is intertwined with the organization's broader mission and values. "We foster a culture of creativity and connect employees with our creator community wherever possible. So much has changed about work, what it means, and what employees value. It's my team's job to keep leadership aware of those changes, and to advocate for employees' needs," noted Russell Elliot, former EX Lead.
If you’re currently in an EX role or looking to hire for one, start by defining what EX means for your organization. Whether it’s improving how employees interact with HR services or tools, focusing on the future of work, aligning the internal and external-facing employee brand, or taking a customer experience orientation for employees, the differences in our interviewee's approach to EX reminded us there are many ways to achieve the same goal.
The 3 skills most useful in EX roles
Ensuring employees have a great experience from their first interview all the way through to their exit means the day-to-day work of leading EX can and often does overlap across many parts of HR and require several different skill sets.
“My work runs the gamut from running the events calendar to employee surveys, performance management, rubrics, and career ladders, manager development, onboarding, diversity, equity, and inclusion, even running facilities,” said Milan Lee, former EX Lead at HR Software company Rippling when describing what a typical day looked like. “EX requires us to move laterally across a broad set of skills. We have a lot of overlapping Venn diagrams.”
When asked what skills are required to lead EX, we heard a diverse set of answers that fit into three themes:
- Strong analytical skills
- Design thinking and research skills
- Strategic thinking
- Planning and prioritization
- Organizational development and culture change capabilities
- Root cause analysis
- Change management
- Systems thinking
- Influencing without authority
- A strong customer service orientation
- Verbal and written communication
- Active listening and empathy
“Empathy is a key skill - but even more so is being able to balance empathy and pragmatism,” noted Kim Rohrer, Head of EX at HR Software company Oyster. “Otherwise, you become an empathy sponge. At your core, you have to care about EX, identify with challenges, and put yourself in the employee's shoes, but you also need to be able to flip the script into what is practical for the company to achieve.”
Shilpam Moffett who leads EX at Yelp credits not having an HR background as being an empathy advantage. “Before, as an employee, my interactions with HR have been frustrating which means I know the audience I’m building products for.” Her team’s aim is to increase employee engagement by improving the experience employees have when they interact with services and tools that HR offers.
One key skill was repeatedly cited across all responses: the ability to influence without authority or without owning a specific deliverable. Though EX has a hand in shaping so much of the employee experience it is common to not own one specific component of the HR function (for example, total rewards). Instead, EX tends to work across all of HR and other business functions (e.g. Technology, Marketing), shaping the employee strategy as a whole. “Not one thing can be done just through an EX team - I rely on strong relationships with other people. They need to equally have these goals as opposed to it being a secondary priority for them,” noted Natasha at Findex.
The challenges of a new role
The thrill of creating a new role in an organization doesn’t come without its challenges. For many Heads of EX we spoke with, a consistent challenge is educating others internally on the role itself, and its priorities.
“Because the role is new, people don't necessarily understand the value of it, and executives can have a hard time connecting the dots,” noted Shilpam from Yelp.” When you don't own a functional area, it is challenging because most of the work I do is leading through influence and getting buy-in,” whether that’s executives or in some cases also includes members of the HR team.
That’s why, as Nina Kontos at Celonis describes it, “You have to be comfortable with invisible work.” Kim at Oyster offered this warning: “It’s also challenging to operate with the assumption that your job is to make everyone happy. Often people think this is our job - but that’s actually an impossible goal, and not the right strategy for an EX team.” ”
“Because EX can be everything and anything,” at Findex, prioritization skills are also key. “It’s easy to get drawn into so many conversations because everything has an EX overlay. You need to be clear in terms of your 2-3 priorities, stay focused and manage the noise.” Ali at Vimeo also suggests clarifying not just scope but roles and responsibilities, “know how your work and priorities differ from your HR team counterparts like HRBP’s or DEI.”
How the shift to remote impacted Employee Experience
Despite all the challenges shared, perhaps nothing was more challenging than the sudden shift to remote work organizations endured in early 2020 and beyond. For some, this also became an opportunity to (re)prioritize the employee experience.
“[The shift to remote] was exciting - for the first time people saw the importance of EX - we were all home, everyone was stressed and you couldn't ignore the employee experience,” noted Anne at Fastly. At Kickstarter, “COVID became a reset moment for EX. It was a time to reimagine how employees were connecting, collaborating, looking at wellness, and more.”
Several organizations found that their strategies for listening and garnering employee sentiment and insight had in many ways gotten harder. “At Yelp, our main avenues for understanding employees via office hours went away and we needed to lean more into employee listening.” Many are still struggling with how they can hear and listen to everyone without over surveying. Oyster, a fully remote company, noted, “We’re still working on how we can best hear and capture the feedback of our diverse population without only reacting to the loudest people. We want to make fully informed decisions based on what will impact the most people, so it’s important to create different avenues for feedback to be able to surface, regardless of location, department, or communication style.”
It wasn’t only listening that became more challenging. Communication has become a much more important part of EX, utilizing tools like Pyn to send targeted communication to employees based on their HRIS data and where they are in their employee journey.
So you want to hire a Head of Employee Experience?
With EX encompassing so many different skills, tasks, and needs, every Head of EX we spoke to cautioned against hiring a Head of EX without taking the time to define what EX means for your company. As many of our interviews described, much of their role still involves creating that clarity for themselves and their organization.
Investing in EX means not only investing in headcount but also investing in the time and structure to clarify what problem it is they are solving. “Help your Head of EX be successful early on by signaling the need and building readiness for this function,” suggested Nina from Celonis. “Resource it and understand what this role is or isn't - it’s not party planner or Chief Fun Officer. It must be seen as a strategic partner to the business,” cautioned Kim from Oyster.
The diverse and overarching skill sets required to succeed in EX means your Head of EX may also have a diverse background, even from outside HR, or in customer service or customer success.
A function of this role being new is that it’s uniquely crafted at the organizations we spoke to, depending on the background of the hire, and the needs of the company.
Before you seek to hire a Head of Employee Experience we recommend you ask yourself these questions:
- Who will this person report to?
- What is this person’s remit or charter?
- How will their work be measured?
- How does their role differ from HR?
Clear and aligned answers will help set your hire up for success and add efficiency to both your interview process and their eventual onboarding so they can begin to positively affect the employee experience from the start.
The role of Head of Employee Experience is only just emerging on the scene and we sense it’s here to stay. Fast-growth companies invested in employee experience can significantly bolster their efforts by hiring for this role.