The DNA of Work

The rise of the employee consumer

November 08, 2022 Season 1 Episode 37
The DNA of Work
The rise of the employee consumer
Show Notes Transcript

Organisations put a lot of effort into creating appealing and powerful customer experiences. But how much effort goes into the creation of employee experiences - whether in the office or away from it? 

Do organisations see their employees as consumers of the organisation? Do they consider how employees' experiences can trigger emotional responses and memories, or create attachment and commitment to the brand and its values - all things that can  promote either loyalty and longevity, or faster turnover?

Employees have more choices and a much keener sense of entitlement post pandemic, which is driving a lot of anxiety around talent recruitment and retention. But if we start to think of organisations as "products" and employees as consumers of those  products - doesn't that change everything?

Here's a quick overview of the discussion points in this episode:

  • Put the employee at the centre of everything (05:15)
  • Employees feel entitled and are exercising choice (09:42)
  • Learning from consumer experience research  (17:05)
  • Ways to start changing our approach to employees (26:20)


AWA Host: Karen Plum


  • Brad Taylor - Director of Consulting, AWA and Leader of the AWA Institute
  • Andrew Mawson – Founder & Managing Director, AWA

 AWA Guest details


Music: Licensed by Soundstripe – Lone Canyon

Want to know more about AWA?

Thanks for listening to the DNA of work podcast

00:00:01 Karen Plum

Hello there. Would you say your organization is customer focused? Perhaps it does a lot of research, does a lot of planning and puts a lot of care into delivering really personalized, special experiences for its customers. I wonder how much effort goes into the experience of its employees? 

We think employee experiences are vital. These are the people delivering your business, particularly in knowledge work organisations. And actually, because these people have discovered they have choices, there's everything to play for. 

00:00:35 INTRO: Welcome to AWA’s Podcast, which is all about the changing world of work and trying to figure out what's right for each organization, because we know that every one is unique. 

We talk to people who have walked the walk, who've got the T-shirt, and who've learned lessons that they're happy to share with us. I'm your host, Karen Plum, and this is the DNA of work. 

00:01:03 Karen Plum

So this year there's been a tremendous focus on hybrid working, and there's been endless amounts of talk about how we tempt people back to the office, lots of people and organisations worried about losing their culture; recruitment, retention issues, you know, trying to ensure that they don't lose people. 

But what lies at the heart of all this, it seems to me, is a real change in how we're viewing employees and how employees are viewing their organisations. So what does the future look like, I wonder and to talk about it with me today I have two guests. The first is Brad Taylor, Director of Consulting and Head of AWA’s Institute. Hello Brad!

00:01:47 Brad Taylor

Hi Karen. 

00:01:47 Karen Plum

And my second guest is Founder and Managing Director of AWA, Andrew Mawson - hello Andrew! 

00:00:53 Andrew Mawson

Morning Karen.

00:01:54 Karen Plum

Great to see you both. So let's get started. Brad, thinking about employees, how have they been treated historically, because I think there's a big change going on here. 

00:02:05 Brad Taylor

I think there is, Karen, I mean traditionally every organization would say well, there's always been a war for talent, so we need to be doing the right thing to attract and retain the best talent that we can. But the whole approach to treating employees was really based around providing the equipment and the environment that they needed to be productive and effective. 

So it was thinking about OK, we need to make sure people have a desk, there need to be meeting rooms, they might need to have a PC, a phone, we've got a vending machine so they can get some refreshments. And the focus was very much about, how do we keep people on site so that they're able to put in as much work and be as effective and productive as possible. So we might include some gyms, or there's an on-site restaurant as well so that the need for people to venture too far away from the office was reduced, and therefore they're on site and being as effective as they can. 

00:02:55 Karen Plum

So it's all very tactical then? 

00:02:57 Brad Taylor

Very much so, yes. And it's all about ensuring that you've got the right sort of facilities and infrastructure in place to support the number of employees that you need to have, or for the growth plans that you have in place, to expand. 

00:03:10 Karen Plum

But in terms of how people felt about that, about how they were being treated, was that really beneficial to the way employees saw the relationship that they had with their organization? 

00:03:22 Brad Taylor

I mean, the organizations would think about it very much in terms of engagement, so those are the sort of things that they would be measuring - the degree to which you feel part of the organization, and therefore that you're likely to stay with the organization so that the organization can control its costs of having to replace people. So the employer definitely held the power in terms of the power relationship that might exist between employee and employer, but it was based very much around ensuring then that employers were able to get the very best out of their people in terms of productivity and providing the environments to do that.

I don't think there would have been much thought around what other things are we doing to think about employees as people, perhaps as we would do in a customer organization context. 

00:04:11 Karen Plum

Or for me as an individual. 

00:04:13 Brad Taylor

Or as you as an individual. It's about what solutions and things do we put in place that treat everyone pretty consistently and provide a fair and consistent approach to them. 

00:04:23 Karen Plum

Yes, I think that fairness and consistency was very important, wasn't it? We wanted to make sure that everybody was treated the same way and that we weren't adapting to individual needs - well, apart from obviously in terms of health and safety. 

00:04:37 Brad Taylor

That's right, because taking an individual approach then potentially meant extra cost and and a lot more investment that needs to go into place to cater for the individual. And that often wasn't in the best interest of the organization, that perhaps is looking at large scale - how do we provide something that works as broadly and as effectively as possible for people. 

00:04:58 Karen Plum

But the world has really changed over the COVID pandemic period, hasn't it? And people's expectations have changed and you know, now they're looking for something different, so we need to be thinking about employees differently. So Andrew, how are we going to do that? 

00:05:15 Andrew Mawson

Well, I think it seems to me we've got to put the employee right at the center of all we do and I think one of the things that's quite clear to me, and I think builds on what Brad was saying, is that the relationship is now different and I think before - you hear it in the term ‘human resources’. Human resources - it's like humans were a resource - we'll have them do what we need them to do and they could go home and that will be the end of it, sort of thing. 

We are, as I think now particularly we move towards a much more of a knowledge based world, where that which is in the brains of the individuals who work for organisations has huge value. I think we now have to start thinking about the employee much more like a consumer, just as we deal with consumers in an ordinary retail kind of sense. 

And in doing so, I think we have to recognize the power has shifted. This is I think one of the things that's kind of interesting about this post pandemic period, because we're not only moving to a world where people have the opportunity, if their organizations allow it, for them to work in different places, but I think they're also in a position to dictate a lot more of the rules of the game than they were, or they felt they were pre pandemic. 

00:06:31 Karen Plum

So if I'm a consumer in an organization, what am I consuming? 

00:06:35 Andrew Mawson

Well, I think you're consuming an experience. The thing that we know about consumer experience is that they leave an impression on the mind of the consumer, and that impression has an effect upon the sentiment the individual has in relation to the organization and to the product, and it also determines to some degree whether they return to that retail environment and whether they buy, sort of thing. 

It's not just a matter of fact, task supporting activity, it also sends out quite a lot of messages and creates an emotional response from the individual, and when we're talking about retention of talent, some of the determination as to whether we decide to stay with an organisation or move to another one, is very definitely made on the basis of sentiment.

And so the way that the experience that people have in the workplace I think has a huge amount to do with the way they feel about the organization, and thereby that's where the link comes back. I think what we're seeing is the rise of the employee as of consumer. We need to recognize that that's happening and it means we need to orientate the way we go about supporting people in the workplace and creating the workplace in quite a different way. 

00:07:55 Karen Plum

Yes, so if I think about what it feels like to be a consumer, I guess my experience as a consumer is that I want things to be right for me. I don't necessarily want to be shoehorned into somebody’s process because that's what they want to do. I always remember Foyles the book shop years ago organized everything in a way that suited them, but it was a nightmare trying to actually find the book you were looking for. 

So it's all about - is this personalized to me? Does this give me what I want as an individual? So is that what we're talking about in terms of the workplace? 

00:08:32 Andrew Mawson

I think it is, because we're all different, we all have different needs. And there are clusters of people you know in organisations - we can cluster and segment organisations by demographics, by gender, by interests, we can do it in all sorts of ways. But in thinking about the employee as a consumer we have to start determining - who are our consumers? What is our population made-up of in terms of different clusters of people that we might wish to recruit or wish to retain, and maybe we need to think about the experience we provide to those clusters, in a different way. 

00:09:11 Karen Plum

Yes, I mean, Brad, I guess in the past we've had some clusters, but they've been more about exceptions so that everybody else gets the vanilla apart from if you're in exception because you have a particular need - an eyesight need or a musculoskeletal issue or you're hard of hearing or whatever. Those were the exceptions and we'd give those people something different, as opposed to saying, well, for the vast majority of people - what are the individual things that might make their experience better? 

00:09:42 Brad Taylor

Yes, it was done because employees needed to, rather than born of a desire to want to. So I think we saw and building on Andrew’s point there, as a result of the pandemic, people suddenly realized that they did have choice and they started to reflect on how work integrated with their home lives and perhaps the different choices that they wanted to make with regards to their home lives as well. 

Perhaps people thought they wanted to spend more time in a home environment or with their family or they thought about actually, what's the type of equipment or the sort of experience that I want to have that makes me feel good about the work that I do? So some people might prefer to use a certain device over a different branded device, for example, or prefer to work in a more lively, engaging, buzzier setting, whereas others might prefer to work in a much quieter setting. 

And so, I think there was an opportunity for employers to sort of reflect on this. So there was an opportunity for employers to reflect on this and really think about actually, how do we start treating people in a more individual level and optimize the way that they think about work and the way that they engage with work? And that's what we’ve started to see change. 

00:10:54 Karen Plum

Yes, and I think a lot of the things such as more flexibility in working hours and being more accepting of people's home and family needs, has brought all of those things into being generally acceptable rather than people having to make a case for why they should be able to go home an hour earlier to go and pick up the kids, or whatever. 

00:11:17 Brad Taylor

Yes, because the pandemic also helped employers see their people as people, possibly in some cases for the first time. Because everyone’s on a screen, sat from a home environment where perhaps a partner is walking in handing a cup of tea or a cat suddenly walks across the screen. But what it does is it breaks down that barrier that previously existed between an employee and an employer, to being at a much more human level, that every one is an individual and they all have different circumstances. And the fact that people were trusted in that situation to do the right thing and people rose to that challenge and did try to do the right thing. 

So it gave employers the opportunity to see actually, we can think about people as individuals and we need to perhaps pivot our approach a bit here and for people to realize that actually I have choice. I have a lot more choice than perhaps I gave myself credit for previously in how I do my work, where I do my work and the type of experience that I want to get from that, just in the same way that I have choice when I purchase something or consume a product or a service. 

00:12:16 Andrew Mawson

Pre pandemic there was this notion that you did what the organization wanted you to do, generally speaking and getting up in the morning and going into an office and all the rest of it was all also part of the domination of the individual by the organization, it seems to me.

It was an insistence on doing something which to some people seemed a bit crazy at the time, but they had to do it because there wasn't too much alternative. And then now I think where we're at is that individuals, because of the supply and demand in the labor market, individuals have got much braver, and in fact we've heard lots of people saying, well, look if the company’s not prepared to afford me the flexibility to work in the way I need to, I will find another employer.That hasn't been a threat, that's been a reality and they've been able to do it. 

As a consumer, of course, we do feel entitled. We feel very much entitled to have our needs met. We recognize the right that if those are not met, then we go somewhere else and we'll take our money and we'll spend it somewhere else, and I think it's exactly the same with the way we are with the relationship between the employee and the employer. 

People now feel that the employer needs to recognize more of their needs and come some way towards them, as opposed to pre pandemic where it was the other way around, I think, in a lot of organizations. And if the organization isn't prepared to do that, then the individual will go and take their brainpower and their knowledge, and they will deploy it somewhere else. 

In the early part of the pandemic we did a lot of work with one of the UK's largest law firms. And it was very interesting to hear some of the senior partners talk about that organization and it was very much more about - we want to create a place where people feel they want to bring their knowledge and their expertise and develop within the industry. 

And it sort of turned the whole thing upside down in a sense. It said - we want to attract you here - and lawyers largely can go and work with any number of alternative law firms, so what keeps them glued to a particular law firm? It's not just about money, it's also about the way they feel about the organization, the colleagues, the experience they have, and so on. But it's just turning the whole idea, rather than it be - you come to work for us and you do what we do. 

This organization quite deliberately thought, right, we want to attract all the best lawyers, because actually that's what a law firm is - well, how can we create a situation where people stay with us in the long term and develop their careers, bringing their brains to our party, kind of thing and that seems to me where we may be heading in a number of sectors. 

00:14:56 Brad Taylor

And there's a strong sense of personal identity with this as well. When people make a purchase decision or commitment decision, it's often because it's saying something about them. So it might be what type of car they drive or whether they're an Android user or an iPhone user. Mac or PC or any of those things that people, once they get excited about the experience that something gives them, they identify more closely with it.

And this matters to employers, because that's exactly what they want. They want to have people who feel a sense of identity and identify with the values of the brand, of what the employer is saying that it stands for. So that you then have people working within the organization who will talk about “we do this”, “we are this”, “this is what we do”, rather than “they”. Because once a person starts to disassociate themselves with the employer, because they don't want to identify with the experience, then that's a signal that you haven't got that person for very much longer, or they're just simply existing within the organization, because they're just waiting for the next opportunity to move on to. 

00:15:58 Karen Plum

Yes, they've really kind of checked out. So I'd like to talk a bit more about consumer experiences, but we're just going to take a quick break for this message. 

00:16:10 MESSAGE: Are you changing the way your organization works? Perhaps you're trying to make sense of hybrid working, or looking for ways to strengthen your virtual leadership skills. Maybe you're trying to work out how much space you really need. 

AWA works with organizations to figure out the answers to these challenges. If you'd like to talk to us, go straight to our website We transform the world of work for the better - it's in our DNA. 

00:16:43 Karen Plum

Welcome back. So Andrew, we did some research on consumer experiences a few years ago with the Center for Evidence-Based Management, which gave us some findings which we certainly believed could be of benefit in designing workplace experiences. Can you give us a bit of an insight into some of those findings? 

00:17:05 Andrew Mawson

We wanted to look at the world of the consumer and we wanted to understand the science behind the design of consumer experiences and see whether there's anything we could steal and read across into the world of workplace experiences and there were a number of things, actually.

I won't go through them all, but there's a couple of things that struck me particularly and that is top brands seek to engender a strong emotional response from the experience they provide to their consumers, which in some cases almost like touches on love. 

I mean, Apple is quite a good example of that, particularly in the Steve Jobs era. People would often look past some of Apple's product’s inadequacies

00:17:49 Karen Plum

Inadequacies? You're talking to an Apple user here! 

00:17:52 Andrew Mawson

Because they were saying so intoxicated by the brand, and it seems to me, well, why can't we create workplace experiences that are so fault free and beautifully designed that people never want to give way to them, kind of thing. So that was kind of one thing that struck me. 

I think the second one is, of course the experience leads to an emotional response, but also leads to a memory. So you know the experience you have of something often jogs something in your brain and the more you get things that jog things in the brain, the more they stick in your brain. 

So that was the second one. The third one, which is slightly worrying, the notion of WOW. We talk a lot, I think designers talk a lot about creating a WOW experience in the workplace. Well in the consumer world, they've looked at this whole topic of WOW.

Problem is, WOW only lasts a relatively short period of time. So you know when you've experienced something in the consumer experience that you find exciting or interesting or fascinating, or whatever it is, and clever, it really doesn't last very long because when you've experienced it once or twice it fails to have the same level of interest or spark.

And so what it some drew us to was the notion that when we're designing workplace experiences, we need to be thinking not about one WOW, we need to be thinking about constantly designing in new WOWs, in some form and almost thinking about that from the moment we get involved in the design. Not just thinking about- it's March, what should we do now? 

00:19:31 Karen Plum

Well it's different WOWs for different people as well, I suppose. What makes me would go WOW might be very different and what makes you go WOW. 

00:19:38 Andrew Mawson

It could well do, and so this idea that you create this this beautiful thing and you hand it over to the client and everybody comes in and they’re aghast by what you've created is fine, but it only lasts 5 minutes. And so, what you're really got to be doing is thinking about - what shall we put into the mix in the next quarter and the next quarter, and the next quarter? And even in our thinking about this was actually holding something back, possibly, because if you deliver all the goodies all at the same time, you get lots of WOW and excitement and then you drop off a cliff very quickly. 

So just a few interesting findings really, that I think set our thinking about how we might go about designing workplace experiences in a very different way. 

00:20:25 Karen Plum

And we'll be coming back to that subject in a future episode, 'cause it's way too big a topic for us to cover today. 

00:20:30 Andrew Mawson

We certainly will Kare, we certainly will. 

00:20:34 Karen Plum

So we've talked about why it's important that we start to think about employees more as consumers of the organization as a product, if you like, or the experiences that they are having, so without naming names, can you give us some examples of organisations that you've seen particularly trying to make inroads in this area? 

00:20:55 Brad Taylor

I've certainly been to organisations where I can see they really have now thought carefully about their people as a consumer and what they need to be doing in order to be able to help people to have an enjoyable experience when they're in their workplaces. 

So that could be things around how are we enabling exciting social connections to happen between teams? So maybe slightly different environments for people to meet in or facilities on site that make them feel like they really enjoy the experience and identify more closely with the brand of the organization. 

Or reception services that when you go in that you feel utterly valued. You know I've been to places where it feels as though they're excited to see you, genuinely excited to see you on site and grateful that you're coming into the office and want to provide you with the best possible experience. 

And then they remember you when you come back some months later and it's like a continuing conversation with a friend. Those are things that really make you think, yeah I want to be part of this, that's the sort of person I want to be so therefore I'm going to identify with this brand of this organization and I'm more likely to stay and hang around. 

00:22:03 Karen Plum

But is that you as a visitor, or you as an employee? 

00:22:07 Brad Taylor

These will be places that I've visited as a visitor, but I see it happening to the employees that are in the environment. So I can see the way that they're treating their people is entirely consistent, and that's such an important thing, isn't it, because a lot of these organisations often provide outstanding customer experiences and previously people were on the inside, thinking well 

00:22:27 Karen Plum

What about me?! 

00:22:29 Brad Taylor

Why is the experience that I'm getting not so good? Yeah, why have we got a great Internet portal for our customers, but the Intranet is rubbish? 

00:22:36 Karen Plum

And it's really interesting if you sit in reception in an organization for any period of time, you do get the opportunity to observe how other people are treated as well. And if you're seeing that similarity of experience and treatment going to both sorts of groups of people, then that's really interesting. What about you, Andrew? 

00:22:56 Andrew Mawson

Yeah, couple of examples I can give you. I mean, there's one large retailer in the UK who went out of their way to try and create an experience that was very attractive and endearing to women, probably in their early 20s to mid 30s, for their call center. They wanted to bring in people of a particular demographic, and what they did was they recognize those people were likely to be having children, or had children or whatever. 

So what they did was they created a sort of a child friendly experience by making sure that, for instance, there was a creche and that they could bring their kids as close to the front door as possible. They could park closer to the front door. They created rooms and special places for women and kids to go and change nappies and do all these sorts of things.

So they’d thought quite deeply really about this kind of segment, this cluster of people and they created an experience that was specifically designed to be sympathetic to the needs of that individual. 

I think the other one that – you know we keep talking about receptions, don't we? But receptions are actually quite important, in a number of ways, and there's one that I remember very well. A telecoms company who had, as soon as I came in - welcomed in a very positive way, but then immediately given a voucher with a monetary value to go and spend at their Costa coffee shop actually, which is also in the reception. Which I thought was quite a neat way to convey the fact that we valued you in a sense, and.. 

00:24:39 Karen Plum

But again, you're a visitor. Were they handing out tokens to the staff? 

00:24:43 Andrew Mawson

No less so actually. But I think the point you make is well made and you know I've seen it in other places. 

Another example: A large financial institution - you visited their customer service in their branches, very proud of that side of things. But when you went to their headquarters, particularly on a Monday morning, when there were lots of temps and contractors coming in, who needed to be serviced through reception, I mean, as a visitor you could end up waiting for half an hour before you got seen and you know, you may have come down to see somebody and you've got a meeting at a particular point in time, and that makes you late and you feel flustered with it. 

But you know this idea of creating an experience that can be delivered come rain or shine, regardless of the volume of activity, I think it is very much at the heart of what we should be thinking about in the workplace, so should be really adopting precisely the same thinking and methodologies as we do in a retail context. 

00:25:44 Karen Plum

Yes, I think your point’s well made. If they can put in that much thinking into the visitor experience then they certainly have the capability to turn that into - how do we make this better in different aspects of how we deliver the workplace experience? 

So that's all really interesting stuff. Thank you for sharing all of that. Before we go, I wonder, if our listeners are thinking about trying to make some inroads into this area and trying to think about their employees more as consumers, how might they get started? 

00:26:20 Brad Taylor

I mean, I would suggest that there are teams within organizations that perhaps don't speak with each other as often as they should so you know the HR team, the workplace team, the marketing team of an organization, technology all sitting down and actually thinking about - what's the experience and the brand promise that we give to our customers as consumers. And how do we start internalizing that? 

So that we don't have a separate set of brand values and then internal values, but these values just reach across the entire organization and then how are we going to bring that to life, the experience for our people. 

00:26:51 Karen Plum

And not just in the office, but when they're working away from the office as well, because I think so much always goes on to thinking about well, what's the experience when they come to the office, particularly if there's a push to get people back into the real estate. 

But actually it's just as important that people can work smoothly and feel part of the organization, feel valued wherever they're working. Final thought from you, Andrew? 

00:27:17 Andrew Mawson

Well, yeah, I think number one thing is first of all recognize that your population are a population of consumers, try and understand them better, try to segment that employee population. I mean what do we actually know about our consumers in an organization? How much do we know about their personal circumstances? Their interests, their desires, their wants? Where is that codified?

It seems to me it may not be, actually. So I think there's a first bit which is to really kind of understand what your population is made up of and what turns on different clusters. 

That would be the number one and the second one is an attitudinal thing. So if you're in any kind of function that supports the employee, you need to start recognizing that these people are consumers and you need to afford them the same respect and support as you would a real consumer as opposed to just thinking they’re employees and we can do what we want with them. 

And the third thing, I think this is something that we've been heavily involved in with one client, and a lot of our work with IFMA for the Workplace Strategy and Leadership Program is based around this concept of the employee as a consumer and the design of experiences is the creation of an organizational model that will continue to support that. 

So the other the third leg of this is I would seriously start doing some training and really re-grooving, if you like, the sort of approach that your people take to this subject. We've been doing quite a lot of work with one well known organization, really delivering an in-house training program to help them to come to terms with these ideas and put them at the heart of the thinking about their future workplace. 

00:29:04 Karen Plum

If you think about what knowledge work organisations have as collateral, it's their people, isn't it? So it's fine to think about how they're going to look after their customers, the true consumers of the products or services that they make, but at the end of the day, if they don't look after the people that deliver those products and services, then they're going to go somewhere else. 

OK, well a fascinating discussion. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and your experiences in today's episode. 

00:29:37 Brad Taylor

Thanks Karen. 

00:29:38 Andrew Mawson

Pleasure thank you. 

00:29:40 Karen Plum

Clearly there are many benefits to changing how organisations view their employees. How differently does your organization plan for and curate the experiences that are delivered to the customers of your products and services as compared to those delivered to your employees? 

It's time to start thinking of your organization as the product and your employees as the consumers of that product. It really changes everything. 

00:30:08 CLOSE: If you'd like to hear future episodes of the DNA of work, just follow or like the show. You can contact us on our website,

Thank you so much for listening. See you next time. Goodbye.