May 25, 2021

The Employee Experience Canvas

Designing Experiences

By Elliot Felix

We live in an experience economy where organizations in all sectors and of all sizes must do more than create products and deliver services. They must create experiences where people interact in way that’s not only functionally effective, but uniquely engaging and memorable.

So, whether we realize it or not, we’re all in the business of designing experiences for our customers as well as our employees since the two are inseparable—happy employees make for happy customers and vice versa. Happy employees have greater productivity, higher retention, make fewer mistakes, provide better service, and exert additional discretionary effort while satisfied customers use your services more frequently, spend more, promote your brand, hang-in through crises, and provide input that makes your products and services better.

The trouble is that the employee experience is rarely designed. It lacks the intentional, holistic approach that is the hallmark of design.
Instead, what employees experience at work is often the byproduct of outdated assumptions and rules, legacy systems and structures, and separated teams. Updating and rethinking these holistically takes time and money—and seems complex and risky. This is because organizations lack a simple way to align their efforts toward a common purpose.

Organizations need a tool to diagnose the current and design the future experience of employees by holistically and intentionally considering the different touchpoints that make up their experience—all the different things they “touch” or interact with in their work such as the organization’s purpose, coworkers, roles, the organization’s structure, work processes, spaces, support services, and tools.

Canvas United’s office (Strategy: brightspot, Design: Liz Burow, Photography: Malcolm Brown)

What’s Wrong with Employee Experiences?

The symptoms of this problem are all around us; for instance Gallup estimates that only 32% of the American workforce is engaged (meaning they are “involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace”) and 47% of Americans would leave their current job for their ideal job even if it meant less pay. To solve the engagement gap, we need to first identify the problems that are causing them. To identify these problems, we can think about an employee’s experience over time and the various touchpoints they interact with.

Some employee experience problems occurring over time throughout the lifecycle of an employee experience:

  • Recruiting processes that are risky, opaque, biased, and too shallow to really assess fit or performance
  • Onboarding programs that overwhelm candidates with “just in case” instead of “just in time” learning
  • Learning and development that comes in either dreaded all-day training or monotonous online tutorials
  • Performance management that happens infrequently, without objective data, and looks back instead of forward
  • Recognition and promotion that can be biased, conflates praise with positive feedback, and comes too infrequently

Some employee experience problems with different touchpoints in the experience:

  • Organizational purpose that is unclear or ineffective at connecting and motivating people
  • People who aren’t a good fit for the organization or role and cultures that inhibit growth and adaptation
  • Spaces that don’t reflect the culture, that inhibit collaboration or concentration, and lack diversity
  • Services that don’t support employees’ workstyles and lifestyles or don’t relate well to spaces and tools
  • Tools that don’t support the work and are decided-upon, deployed, and supported in isolation
  • Structure that doesn’t align with the organization’s offerings or the processes that deliver them
  • Roles that are unclear, fixed, don’t allow for growth, or don’t relate to the organization’s offerings
  • Processes marked by unclear norms and policies, unintentional rituals and rhythms, and ineffective habits

What is Employee Experience Design?

How do we define employee experience design? To answer this question, we should first answer: what is an experience? In the simplest sense, an experience is the product of three things: people + interaction + time. That is, someone has to interact with something / someone else (a “touchpoint”) over a period of time including a beginning, middle, and end (which of course can lead to another beginning…). Second, we must answer, what is design? While many definitions exist, we can use economist Herbert Simon’s definition to convey the essence: “To design is to devise courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.”

Employee experience design is a way of changing an existing set of employee interactions—with spaces, services, technologies, policies, and so forth—into a set of preferred ones in the future. Designing employee experiences puts these two dimensions of time and touchpoints together to holistically understand and improve how people experience purpose, people, space, services, tools, structure, roles, and process. It also does so in the context of achieving an explicit intention like learning, innovation, growth, or agility.

The Employee Experience Canvas enables organizations to design the experiences of their employees to achieve their goals and fulfill their purpose. Once designed, this means that employees can spend their time on the right activities, in the best places, with the people they need to work with, and using the most effective tools and process to achieve the organization’s purpose.

Understanding employee activities across a work week

What is the Employee Experience Canvas?

Employee Experience Canvas is a design tool inspired by the Osterwalder and Pignuer’s Business Model Canvas and other tools it inspired such as such as The Ready’s OS Canvas. Like these tools, the Employee Experience Canvas is a template that identifies core components—in this case, of the employee experience—and relates them graphically so they can be seen, understood, and designed together holistically at a glance.

The components of our Canvas were inspired by brightspot’s experience working with organizations of different scales, sectors, and types as well as our reading of scholars including Peter Drucker, Frederic Laloux, Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, Edgar Schein, and Bill Taylor.

Fill out the form below to download the Employee Experience Canvas

To create the Canvas, we identified dozens of different aspects within the employee experience and distilled them to a set of workable categories that represent the different touchpoints: purpose, people and culture, spaces people work in, the services offered within those spaces, and the tools used within them, roles that people play, the structure that relates those roles, and the processes people use to perform their roles. Together, these are the eight touchpoints within the Canvas. Some overlap among them is inevitable; people, organizations, and experiences are complex.

We then grouped the touchpoints in three important ways. First, we put people and purpose at the center of the Canvas as they are what drive the other elements, just as the value proposition is the driver at the center of the Business Model and Canvas. Secondly, we grouped the related touchpoints as columns on the Canvas: the left side includes the spaces, services, and tools that make up the environment while the right side includes the roles, structure, and process that define how people work. Third, we designed the Canvas to be a two-step, two-sided template: one side to diagnose the current experience and the other side to design the future, with the sheet configured so when divided into thirds the current and future can be compared side-by-side.

Measuring Employee Experience in terms effectiveness and engagement at Reward Gateway
Before (left image) and after (right images) of the Planned Parenthood workplace transformation (Design: Matiz Architecture & Design)

How to Use the Employee Experience Canvas

The Canvas can be used in two primary ways: as a diagnostic tool to understand the existing conditions or a generative tool to conceive of the future (recall that design is fundamentally about changing a current situation into a more desirable one in the future). What goes in the template? Descriptions of the current and future touchpoints. This way you can compare what you’re doing relative to what you’re trying to do—across the categories—and find relationships. Some aspects might be well aligned (i.e., your space is a good reflection of your culture) while others might be opposed (i.e., your tools are not compatible with your processes).

How might this work? Let’s briefly consider a company that you’ve probably heard of: Google, Inc. (now a part of Alphabet, Inc.). Google is a useful example because of how much information is available on who they are and how they work from authoritative sources such as

CEO interviews and books. Google’s Employee Experience Canvas starts with their purpose to “organize the world’s information and make it uniformly accessible and useful” and the intention to enable employees to create innovative products that create large-scale impact. The aspects of people and culture that shape this would include their guiding principles (the “Ten things they know to be true”), regular activities like TGIF meetings and Googlegeist survey, and the special projects and initiatives that their People Operations leads like Project Oxygen and Project Aristotle. In terms of their work, this is defined by identifying OKRs (objectives and key results), a relatively flat matrix structure that looks at functional fields and product lines, and a data-driven and experimental approach to getting things done, whether to incrementally improve a product or on a moonshot idea where they “solve for X.” Their environment is defined not only by the perks like food and fitness, bright colors, and fun spaces they are known for, but also for creating a dense environment in which Googlers are close together and more likely to interact. All these touchpoints add up to creating a place that has consistently been among the “best places to work” (including #1 in 2017) and Google’s meteoric rise and sustained success.

Example of Google Workplace Experience, using sources like How Google Works, Work Rules, and leadership interviews

To see how this can also work at the scale of a single team or department, let’s consider the example of a large consumer products company creating an innovation lab—what kind of experience do they want for the people working in and with the lab? First, we’d define the purpose as teaching the mindset and tools to help employees identify new product/service offerings. Then, we’d determine the profile of the people that’d be a good fit for the lab; such as the desirable mix backgrounds, affiliations, tenure, and skills. On the “work” side, we’d define the roles within the lab such as a Lab Director, Innovation Fellows, and Mentors in a phrase each. We’d describe how those roles would relate; for instance, length of assignment, reporting relationships, and exclusivity (i.e., can the same person fulfill multiple roles?). We’d identify the key rituals, norms, habits, or others aspects of work process essential to fulfilling the roles. On the “environment” side, we’d describe the core spaces of the lab (e.g., presentation space, prototyping space, storage area, concentration area, brainstorming space) and how they go together (e.g., from public to private). We’d define the services offered within the space (e.g., community programming, food service, space and tool reservation system) and we’d define the tools needed (e.g., prototyping supplies, laptops, software, etc). As we move from touchpoint to touchpoint filling in the Canvas, we’d be editing in real-time as each answer could create questions in other areas. To quote Danny Meyer: “it’s that simple and it’s that hard.”

How to Get Started

We have three tips to get you started. First, practice on someone else. Initially at least, your perspective is probably more clear thinking about the employee experience of another company (hence the Google example above). So, pick a company that you know about (from friends, articles, or even your past experience working there) and complete the Canvas with the benefit of this critical distance in order to get used the the touchpoints and how they relate. Second, once you apply it to yourself, start small. Pick a small team such as the innovation lab example above, or a small satellite office, or a new division to practice on. This will help get more familiar with the Canvas and start putting it to work for you. Third, embrace a participatory approach; by engaging employees in these conversation that you’ll get better insights and more buy-in to the changes you need to make to go from the current to future state. Fourth, remember that as a design tool, the Canvas assumes that—and indeed depends on—you espousing a few key aspects of a design mindset: you need to put people at the center of your thinking, you need to work in an iterative way where you test things out and refine them through trial and error, and you need to be comfortable enough with ambiguity to jump around from box to box as well as partially complete things and come back to them.

Good luck on your journey! It won’t be easy; which explains why employee engagement is so low and there’s such a big gap between someone’s current job and their ideal one. But the good news is now you have a simple way of understanding and improving the different touchpoints that make up an employee experience over time.