Employee Engagement Starts with Empathy

Recently the software development team from Blast took the opportunity to get out and visit some of our users. It is critical that we talk to the people who are using our software product and doing so is a regular part of our agile software development process. We always learn a lot about our users and come away with a list of enhancements – many of which challenge our own assumptions. 

It struck me when we began to discuss and compile our findings that much of this approach informs not only our software development but the overall effort to design an effective employee engagement experience. We learn as much about the program communications as we do about the software. Many of our clients, having participated in these sessions, come away amazed at what they learn about the people in their own organization. This should come as no surprise. Both the software and the employee engagement program are intended to connect with people – and they can tell us a lot about the effectiveness of our approach.

Building Employee Engagement is Like Building Software

The approach we take to building software is cyclical. We start by connecting with our users to gain an appreciation for their perspective. We brainstorm ideas to address what we learn and then test and implement the solutions we develop. The process then starts again. We continually iterate in this way. By so doing, we build the right features and solve the right problems.

In developing a communication program the same dynamics are at work. We can learn a lot when we take the time to ask our audience what they think and use this to make improvements. This approach is known as design thinking. It puts the people we serve at the center of the process. In this way we don’t build based on our own biases and assumptions, but on the evidence we gather from our audience. We can then apply our creativity to solve the problems that we discover rather than the ones we imagine are important. This makes what we do more effective and we connect with our audience in a more meaningful way.

Developing Empathy for the User

The beginning of understanding lies in empathy for the user, in the case of software, or the audience, in the case of employee engagement programs. The key to developing empathy is listening to them.

At Blast we gather input in a variety of ways starting with our clients. We undertake a process of discovery with them to understand their objectives, learn about their organization and the content to be delivered in order to configure the software and plan the program. We encourage our clients to apply design thinking by including regular feedback from employees along the way.

Most important is developing empathy for the end user – the users we want to engage in the programs supported by our software. We observe them using the software. This gives us the feedback we need to understand usability issues. This is a very granular level of feedback and points to problems with the interface or workflows that frustrate or prevent a user from using the software as intended.

Perhaps most importantly, we conduct interviews. In our discussions with employees, we start with a big picture view of their overall experience. We follow a line of questioning focusing on what their life at work is like, how they approach their responsibilities and what the challenges are that they face day to day. In this part of our discussion we don’t talk about the software at all. We want to appreciate the user’s perspective first. After we understand this context we focus in on where our software fits into their daily activities. 

We schedule a cross-section of employees for these interviews so we can form a comprehensive picture of the variety of users. We will meet with the overall administrator who is responsible for driving the program across the organization. We meet with managers and supervisors who lead the teams and who we rely on to champion the program. And we meet with employees from different parts of the organization representing the range of occupations that make up the workforce.

Putting Empathy to Work

Invariably, once we have gathered feedback we are amazed at what we’ve heard and how we can learn from it. We are buzzing with ideas and insights we would not otherwise have had.

Distilling all this information into the fuel for action quickly follows. We sift through all the information and organize it into common themes and pinpoint any problems that exist. It is important to remain objective as we organize our findings in a way that will highlight the most pressing needs and the greatest opportunities for improvements. 

Once we have distilled the feedback we unleash our creativity and turn to brainstorming solutions. We have the confidence of knowing we are focused on the most urgent items that will yield the most value to our users. This in turn leads to development, testing and implementation of the new solutions.  

One of the ways we test our ideas is with our own Blast Beta program. We use the software ourselves and gain insights from our own hands-on experience and the feedback and observations of our Beta users. This is a test environment where we can experiment. We try new approaches and give ourselves permission to fail in the service of learning.

Then the process starts all over again as we circle back to our clients and users for additional feedback.

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These same methods are applicable to an overall employee engagement program. Having clarity from the outset of the objectives and desired outcomes, testing or piloting your ideas, observing employees interacting with your program and conducting interviews to collect feedback at regular intervals provides insights that you can use to continually improve. 

There is comfort in knowing that you are never too far out in front of your audience or disconnected from them before checking in for feedback. Your audience become your partners in developing effective solutions. And who better to rely on for guidance – after all, you’re doing it for them.