Experiences Eat Culture for Breakfast

Lessons from the Experience Economy

Last year I lived in a beautiful loft apartment in Chelsea, New York. Signed Pop Art originals hung on the walls. The concierge held the door as I entered and my neighbours were straight from Woody Allen central casting.

Well when I say ‘lived’ there, I mean lived there for five nights. Thanks to AirBnB. But the experience was unforgettable.

The world over, people (and not just millennials) are shifting their behaviour to acquiring experiences, rather than acquiring things. Brands that deliver experiences or offer access to experiences are growing fast. Think Rent the Runway, Uber or Netjets or, closer to home, GoCar, Dublin Bikes or Cari’s Closet.

In much the same way, owning DVD’s, CD’s and even books has already started to seem quaint. We consume the experience and move on to the next one. A 2014 study of US millennials found that 78% would choose to spend money on a desirable experience or event over buying something desirable.

Why is this? Perhaps because, post-crash, experiences are seen as more lasting than material possessions, which go out of fashion, become obsolete or fail. Or perhaps because technology has made us so much more aware of the breadth of experience to be enjoyed in the world.

As an agency that collaborates with both consumer brands and employer brands, the parallels are striking. The ‘job for life’ has become the equivalent of ownership – not for everyone. If experiences are what’s important these days, how much does the flow and quality of experiences affect retention and attraction of talent by employers?

While culture is often held up as a key determinant of loyalty, it can be notoriously tricky to define and express without resorting to corporate speak. Where company culture can come across as derivative, bland and forgettable; experiences are personal, vivid, memorable and shareable.

Of course, culture and experiences are clearly intertwined. One of our employer branding clients, Salesforce, has gone to astonishing lengths to make amazing experiences a cornerstone of its culture. From regular volunteering to corporate events that are more like rock concerts, working at Salesforce promises both quantity and quality of experience.

But for every Salesforce, there are a hundred employers that talk about culture but forget about experiences. And that’s a problem when it comes to retention.

Naturally, when a new hire starts, experiences come thick and fast: new colleagues, customers and challenges keep things interesting and exciting. But after six months or so, these novelties become the norm. Boredom and monotony develops. The hunger for new experiences kicks in. The net result is that employee tenure suffers – for some of the world’s leading tech and financial services brands, it’s currently hovering around 1 year.

So how can employers ensure that their ‘experience stream’ is strong and motivating? Here are three ways that any company, regardless of size, sector or resources, can implement.

GET EMOTIONAL

Emotion is the most powerful human experience and, these days, we acknowledge that it is the primary driver of individual decision-making. The brain’s limbic system processes emotion as well as controlling motivation, bonding and memory formation. So acting on the limbic system is critical in creating strong connections between employer and employee.

Companies can introduce more emotion to the workplace in surprisingly easy ways. By creating a more person-focused and caring environment, empathy and appreciation develop. By inspiring with purpose and vision, shared belief and trajectory are created. By celebrating success, motivation is reinforced. And by challenging a common foe, unity and resolve emerge.

When Elon Musk established SpaceX as the ultimate challenger, the common foe was the government-controlled space complex, which made space exploration bureaucratic and unambitious. This shared experience, coupled with the bold vision of establishing a colony on Mars in the 2020’s, helped Musk attract the brightest and best in the industry and retain them through extraordinary adversity.

THINK OUTSIDE THE ORGANISATION

Corporate social responsibility can often be treated like a necessary paragraph-filler in an annual report – all optics and good intentions. But done right, it can be a rich source of experiences for employees.

Volunteering, in particular, can be an affecting and powerful experience. As people apply their time to helping others, they step outside their comfort zone and have to dig deep and draw on their humanity and empathy. Few people who volunteer in a meaningful way don’t talk about it being a humbling and inspiring experience. And because it changes one’s perception of themselves and others, it is a lasting and memorable experience.

To be most rewarding, volunteering should draw upon employees’ personal talents and skills. Our client, law firm A&L Goodbody, places lawyers as literacy mentors with disadvantaged young people in their local community. Children who participated in the programme saw their literacy rate double and the volunteers themselves were rewarded with a powerful experience of self discovery.

RETHINK LEARNING

Curiosity is a primal human instinct and satisfying curiosity through learning and experimentation is an innately pleasurable experience. As children we are driven to enquire and discover but by the time we reach the workplace, learning becomes dry and task-oriented. Training courses concentrate learning into stuffy, powerpoint-heavy sessions or awkward role-play scenarios.

By rethinking some of their learning or training activity, companies can create more engaging experiences for employees. Innovation – drawing on curiosity, creativity and customer awareness – can be an enjoyable and rewarding experience. The opportunity to experiment with new processes or prototype new products shouldn’t be confined to R&D Departments; front-line staff generally have the best instincts in this regard. Simple training in Design Thinking and Creativity can unlock innovative ability in people from every background – the learning experience is generally far more vivid and involving than something that happens in a classroom.

During Twitter’s annual Hack Week, employees from across the organisation form over 100 teams to experiment on technical, product or strategic projects that are outside their normal day jobs. Learning becomes an intensely practical experience – participants report learning more during the week than during an entire semester of college.

Granted, taking people away from their ‘day-jobs’ for a week is expensive but smaller companies can create similar experiences over shorter timeframes. The results, both in terms of engagement and product/ service improvement, can be dramatic.

Every workplace can suffer from monotony – the process of efficiently doing the same thing over and over again soon gets dull and leads to itchy feet. By creating the conditions for vivid emotional experiences, smart employers go further to engage and retain employees than lofty mission statements ever can. By capturing these experiences in blogs, video and social sharing, they can be shared within and outside the organisation, affirming existing employees’ decision and attracting new talent. Delivering a rich stream of experiences may be the best investment in talent a company can ever make.

Niall Dowling is Strategic Director at Atomic DNA, a Dublin employer branding agency that works with companies like Salesforce, Bank of Ireland, KPMG and Career Zoo.