Expert Spotlight: Charles Cornwell | Employee Experience Management Trends + Best Practices

Employee Spotlight | Sep 14, 2020 Employee Spotlight 09/14/20

Today we hear from Charles Cornwell—General Manager of SMG Employee Experience—and learn some best practices for employee experience (EX) programs, how to attract + retain top talent, and what leading brands are doing to improve employee engagement.


What is your role at SMG?

I am the General Manager of SMG’s EX practice. My focus is to help organizations improve the employee experience by understanding every aspect of the employee journey—from the first day they are employed to their last day on the job. Our team partners with global brands to measure employee engagement, turnover, retention trends, and other factors impacting the employee experience.


What are a few tenets of a best-in-class employee experience program?

The best programs are focused on not just collecting data but producing tangible outcomes. These programs typically:

  • Prioritize reducing turnover
  • Improve the onboarding experience
  • Understand the employee journey from start to finish and tailor it to different groups (individual, manager, etc.) + demographics
  • Ensure employees feel engaged, supported, and empowered as standard business practices evolve or move to remote working

What are some methods companies use to collect and act on feedback?

The most forward-thinking companies focus on these components:

  • Feedback collection: The landscape has evolved from conducting one annual survey. But this is still an important source of feedback because it allows a company to uncover key drivers of engagement, differences between job roles, consistency across locations, and opportunities to improve HR issues. Other critical employee feedback can come from ongoing pulse surveys which provide insights surrounding topical issues like operations, customer interactions, training, and evaluations. Progressive companies are also investing in new ways to interact with employees such as leveraging two-way SMS to capture real-time feedback.
  • Data analysis: Robust data analysis is as important as the types of methodologies used to gather feedback. The science of big data and AI allows us to quickly analyze large sets of data, append it with operational data to identify key drivers of engagement, and ultimately understand the impact on employee behavior—including productivity, absenteeism, turnover, and discretionary effort.
  • Action planning: Many companies still collect employee feedback without a discernable way to make improvements. This can cause more damage than not asking at all. Truly progressive companies have figured out that action planning is a key part of any feedback program. But for it to not interfere with daily job duties, it’s important that action planning is digital, easy to implement, measurable, and impactful.

With competition for talent increasingly high, how are brands attracting and retaining talent?

There are several innovative ways brands are competing for talent in 2020. Based on the restaurant, retail, c-store, healthcare, and grocery clients SMG partners with, I recommend businesses focus on the following:

  • Demonstrate your mission + values. Employees are choosing to work for brands they are proud to be associated with. While it starts with defining what your brand stands for, it’s how your company culture and day-to-day operations reflect those values that matters most.
  • Build an employee-focused culture. While many businesses believe they are doing a good job in this area, they often forget that “one size” does not fit all. When thinking about employee programs, it is important to provide unique benefits that are appreciated by all employees from diverse generations and backgrounds.
  • Provide opportunities for employees to continuously learn and develop. Investments in continuous learning not only create a more engaged workforce, they often determine a brand’s success. It begins with creating a culture of autonomy and empowerment, allowing employees to use their skills to problem solve and innovate. When an employee can see they’ve contributed to the bottom line or solved a problem, they are more likely to stay.
  • Show appreciation. Many companies do not know how to effectively address this important aspect of the employee experience and fall back on old systems of annual raises, bonuses, and little (if any) recognition. Small gestures of appreciation go a long way. Brands also need to understand how employees like to be rewarded and recognized. For example, we see older employees prefer more private, one-on-one recognition while Gen Xers like to be acknowledged among their peers.
  • Refresh your diversity + inclusion initiative. An engaged workforce is also a diverse workforce. Diversity and inclusion initiatives have been around for many years, but companies must continue to evaluate their diversity policies with respect to hiring and training. And don’t forget the last part of that equation—equity. Ensure employees of all backgrounds are being treated equitably when it comes to pay and promotions.

As you surface employee insights, what are leading brands doing to increase employee engagement?

Research indicates managers are responsible for 80% of the variability in employee engagement.  Increasingly, the onus is on the managers to increase engagement, but they often lack the tools needed.

Leading brands are developing effective coaching for managers and holding them accountable for increasing employee engagement. Most brands realize that engagement is an ongoing process and that everything can’t be changed immediately. Through research, they are determining which aspects of the employee journey are priorities, developing improvement initiatives, and establishing realistic goals.

Brands are also recognizing and capitalizing on individuality. They recognize that a diverse employee base has diverse needs and expectations, and understand these differences. Next, they design training, development, and rewards + recognition programs that truly engage employees. These brands also work to understand what motivates employees and develop individual action plans to improve the employee experience for everyone.


How has the employee experience evolved since you began working in the industry?

Although the notion of employee feedback dates back more than 40 years when they were called personnel surveys, today’s feedback is nothing like it was 10 or even five years ago. Today’s employee experience is a science—it includes channels that facilitate instant two-way dialogue between employees and management, as well as technology, to identify those employees likely to churn so retention efforts can be put in place. In addition, today’s programs capture feedback throughout the employee journey.


What’s the most rewarding aspect of your job?

I have always been interested in research and statistics. However, being able to apply this to management and development is particularly rewarding. While all research is important, I think identifying and improving the basic tenants of a company’s relationship with its employees is among the most important work. I find great satisfaction collaborating with leaders to look introspectively at employee feedback—and really the entire EX journey—and helping them act on that data to improve employees satisfaction. I especially enjoy working for SMG because of our philosophy, technology, and consulting model. SMG was involved in the creation of The Service Profit Chain, a model demonstrating that engaged employees are more loyal, helping create highly satisfied and loyal customers. Through our work with clients over three decades, we’ve proved this time and time again.

Customer Experience Update