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Naomi Simson’s tips for creating a memorable employee experience (EX)

When Airbnb HR Director Mark Levy’s role was rebranded as Global Head of Employee Experience in 2015, he may not have been aware that the decision would open the EX ...

Naomi Simson’s tips for creating a memorable employee experience (EX)

When Airbnb HR Director Mark Levy’s role was rebranded as Global Head of Employee Experience in 2015, he may not have been aware that the decision would open the EX floodgates. Ever since, HR teams around the world have been getting their design thinking hats on and scrambling to create memorable employee experiences. It’s easy to see it has become one of the most talked-about focus areas for HR practitioners.

Taking cues from software engineers and their focus on the user experience (UX) in relation to websites and apps, the employee experience (or EX) covers every touchpoint an employee will have with an employer, from hire to retire. Rather than focus narrowly on employee engagement and culture, organisations are developing a holistic view on the entire EX, bringing together all the workplace, HR, and management practices that impact people on the job.

Naomi Simson has plenty of first-hand experience witnessing the impact that a positive employee experience can have on business success. Having spent time working for big brands including IBM, Apple, KPMG and Ansett Airlines, Simson founded online experience retailer RedBalloon in 2001. In 2017, she co-founded the Big Red Group, has appeared regularly as a shark on Network TEN’s Shark Tank Australia, and has been blogging about the topic for more than a decade at

“Employee experience is not new – we’ve been doing it at RedBalloon for 17 years,” Simson said prior to her keynote address at the ELMO’s Insights Exchange Roadshow in Sydney. “For a very long time I’ve been talking about how happy customers come from having a happy team. Clearly, the momentum is building around that philosophy.”

In this exclusive interview, Simson provides her tips on how to position the EX at the heart of business operations.

  1. Look beyond employee engagement

Clearly, a successful EX has at its core high engagement – but Simson says it’s important to remember what engagement is, and what it isn’t.

“Engagement is something to mark on a scorecard; it’s an outcome, not an activity. Often people say, “we’re going to do employee engagement”. What does that mean? You can’t do it to someone. What you can provide is a framework for your culture, or a framework for your learning and development. What you can provide is a framework for people to be accountable and proud – and the outcome is engagement.”

Relaying EX back to her own career, Simson said an employee recently mentioned to her that she’d never been more challenged in her career than when working with Simson. However, the employee also said she’d never felt prouder of the outcome. “That’s the key. As a leader you can challenge people, but they’ve got to find something that helps them meet their emotional and social needs.”

Simson hastened to add that it’s not up to the leader to act as “a kindergarten teacher”, providing the cookies and ensuring everyone is having fun. “When we think about the employee experience, it’s not about what you give to people; it’s the framework you create for people to allow them to do their best work. To be challenged to greatness. When they’re doing their best work and being challenged that reflects in the customer experience,” she said.

  1. Emotional connection and purpose are key

Not surprisingly, Simson sees a direct correlation between the EX and the customer experience (CX) – in fact, she doesn’t believe it’s possible to have one without the other.

“I believed from our very early days [at RedBalloon] that if my people are having a good time and are well looked after, then my customers will be too.”

Simson suggested that any brand experience comes down to the emotional connection a person will have with that brand, which is often created through human interaction. How do you create that connection with employees?

“It comes back to knowing why you do business, knowing your purpose,” she said. “What is the job your product or service is used for? Why do people pay to use it? If you lose your sense of purpose, you need to reconnect with your customers. Listen to their stories. Passion is an internal feeling, but purpose often comes from making a difference in someone’s life.”

Leaders make a huge difference in providing not just frameworks for success but also the vision and values by which success will be achieved. Ultimately, Simson said employees will be asking three questions:

  • Do I know what I’m here to do?
  • Did anyone notice?
  • Do I feel proud to work here?

“Trust is big and so too is integrity. Use listening posts to check in regularly and see if your intention as the leader is being delivered. Otherwise it’s just empty words or statements about values and vision,” she said.

  1. Without data, you’ll struggle

Simson’s core message for HR professionals is to “speak the language of leadership”. That means embracing HR metrics and data – which not coincidentally is also a key element of any plan to prioritise the employee experience.

“Leadership is always about commercial outcomes. If you don’t have the means you can’t change the world. You’ve got to be thinking about commercial outcomes, making a profit and making a return on investment. You’ve got to ensure shareholders are satisfied. When HR professionals speak in terms of commercial outcomes, they get a different level of attention in the boardroom.

“On a related note, people ask me, “how can I get a pay rise”? I ask them to tell me about their contribution to the business. If they connect that to the customer journey, I’m all ears. So, connect the two. There are so many metrics to support the question: What impact did I have on the customer journey? How did your work make the customer journey easier, better, richer? When you can demonstrate that connection you’ll be heard.”

Simson added that good data makes it possible to forecast ahead, and even to predict behaviours.

“Every person is an individual with different needs and drivers but there are some behaviours that we all share, and there will be certain ways in which people react that will be predictable. Machine learning is really the next round of this, taking all that data and forecasting ahead to predict who our next leaders might be, or who’s a flight risk.”

And of course, without data, it’s difficult to improve each of the touchpoints of the employee journey. However, Simson warned that data is only an enabler. It’s what you do with the data that matters most. “If you don’t add the intelligence on top of it, then you’re not going to be able to create strategy and ultimately plan the way forward,” she said.

Fortunately, today’s tech tools can help with data analysis. When Simson launched RedBalloon 17 years ago she and her team had to build the technology themselves. Today, they utilise cloud technology such as Salesforce and the Big Red Group’s own Marketics (re-sellers of Albert AI) to deliver better customer experiences. “Cloud means best of breed,” she said. “It stays up to date and someone else is the technologist. Our job becomes less about the technology and more about what we can learn about our customers and how we service their needs. I urge all HR professionals to do the same. Choose your tech partner, and then it’s up to you to concentrate your efforts – to add the special sauce – on the employee experience.”


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