The EX Files

A journey towards a great EX at the British Red Cross

In early 2020, just before the COVID pandemic took hold, the British Red Cross (BRC) – the UK charity that forms part of the International Red Cross and the Red Crescent Movement - embarked on a journey to improve the experience of its 4,000 employees.  

With a specific ambition to ‘create a better employee experience’ forming part of the People pillar of its new 10 year strategy, EX had the explicit backing of the top team and work soon began to deliver on this commitment.  But, as this illuminating EX Files case study shows, driving positive change in such a large, long-established and multi-faceted organisation isn’t always quick or easy – it requires flexibility, self-reflection, patience and dogged determination to succeed. 

A large and complex organisation

The Red Cross was formed more than 150 years ago and today operates in multiples sites and in multiple ways. While its incredible work around disasters and emergencies is all too visible on our TV screens, the charity’s work extends far beyond this into health inequalities – providing care to people who fall through gaps in the UK’s health system - and supporting people experiencing displacement and migration.  These ‘big three’ areas of work are linked by a common theme which sees the British Red Cross put people in crisis at the heart of everything it does.   

Delivering all this takes a large and complex organisation, with more than 4,000 direct employees and a further 13,000 volunteers. Employee roles are many and varied and include home-based or office-based teams, people providing community-based care, people based in hospitals, drivers, retail employees and many more.    

“We knew from the start that creating a consistently great employee experience across such a diverse audience would be quite a challenge"

...says Sam Whitwham, People Experience Manager, who was part of the team tasked with delivering on the organisation’s EX ambition. 

“And we knew that what we were embarking upon would require significant change and necessarily take time.”

The journey so far 

“Literally within a month of us unveiling our new strategy at the start of 2020, we were in lockdown" said Sam, “and with it came the momentous challenges of trying to reshape how – and where we work and continue to deliver vital services throughout the pandemic. We got through this, but it meant that work on EX shifted to focus on wellbeing as a priority.”       
It took nearly two years to catch up and a dedicated People Experience team was finally launched in April 2022. This diverse group of 16 people brought together specialists in Equity, Diversity & Inclusion, HR systems & data and employee voice. Soon added to this team was Senior Service Designer, Laura Ewell, who was appointed to this newly created role on a fixed term contract for 12 months. With experience of service design and design thinking, Laura would play an instrumental role in leading the EX charge and embedding a new approach.  

In April 2023, the team launched the ‘Employee Experience Design’ project to showcase how a more human-centric approach builds certainty that products and services developed for employees will work.  Sam explains:
“A big part of our focus initially was to understand the end-to-end employee journey and, particularly, the pain points associated with it. Armed with that insight we would then put in place various interventions to drive though improvements.”

So how did they go about this?

Sam and Laura were clear that a new approach would be necessary to deliver a step change in employee experience and they found the answer in service design, a discipline with its roots in design thinking.  

Design thinking is a way of problem solving that puts the user of a product or service – in this case the employee – at the heart of the process. It’s something we’ll explore in considerable depth in our EX Designer Masterclass, launching early 2024.  

Under Laura’s expert guidance, the team followed the classic five-step design thinking approach - empathise, define, ideate, prototype and test – to start to refresh the EX.  

The work started with insight-gathering over a period of about three months. This involved desk-based research to review various internal data, and a series of interviews with members of the People Services team and frontline employees to really understand the employee journey and unearth issues and challenges. 
Armed with the insights captured during this phase, Laura, Sam and the team started to flesh out a series of working personas – behavioural portraits which help identify different types of employees within BRC, to map their journeys and to better understand their specific wants and needs. These are proving to be invaluable in promoting a better understanding of employees and intentionally re-designing experiences for them.
“This is really about embedding a design thinking mindset into the organisation and starting to shift its culture over time”, says Laura. 
The team knew they couldn’t fix everything overnight, so they adopted an agile approach focused on one priority area at a time. A good example is the team’s work around career progression, which was sparked by a low survey score in this particular area.

Applying systems thinking to address career progression 

Laura explains: “As you might expect, when career progression was identified as a priority area, our initial step was to identify the people involved in the design and delivery of services that influence employees’ career growth. These people juggle multiple priorities within their work streams and are often time-poor, making collaboration a challenge.   To engage with these stakeholders more effectively, we scheduled 16 one-on-one conversations across 11 teams. These one-on-ones, being relatively short and easier to accommodate than workshops or focus groups, also set the foundation for trust-based relationships, as there is a better chance for them to be heard. Trust also sets the foundation for long-term and more time-intensive engagement."

“Halfway through the one-on-ones, we knew enough about the world of career progression to build a systems map. A systems map visualises the intricate web of touchpoints, processes, and stakeholders involved in generating experiences. They’re helpful tools when working in a complex environment because they shift our focus from separate, siloed delivery functions (like Pay and Reward, or Learning and Development), to integrated services influencing the experience of the employee."   
“Service designers analyse how changes in one area might ripple through the entire ecosystem. By making these interdependencies visible, we can start to demystify the experiences of employees and promote cross-functional collaboration, ensuring that every feature of the ‘back stage’ works in tandem to deliver a unified and exceptional experience on the ‘front stage’ for employees."
“Our colleagues’ response to the map was testimony to this possibility, as we heard them say, “I didn’t realise how wide [career progression] was” and “REALLY helpful to see this all in one place…also highlights how hard this could be for people to navigate.   

Creating system maps isn’t without its challenges. Service designers sometimes hesitate to create them because the end result often gets filed away and forgotten. To overcome this, we made the mapping process a team sport. We involved stakeholders in the creation of the systems map during the remaining half of the one-on-one interviews. 

We also sent out weekly updates on our research activities and findings, to an even wider group of stakeholders with an interest or influence in the world of career progression. We’re testing which communication channels are most effective at getting engagement by embedding bit.ly links into messages and tracking the click-through rates. So far, our most effective channel has been 25-minute ‘Show and Tells’.   

When co-creating and sharing the map, we intentionally left it looking incomplete. As a rule, if you want people to give you honest feedback, make things that look unfinished, imperfect — generally a bit scrappy. If it looks like a polished final product, people hold back from sharing their full perspective. In the complex world of employee experiences, where multiple factors influence outcomes, embracing the inherently messy nature of systems maps proved beneficial.   

Now that we have gained insight into the current landscape of career progression within the British Red Cross, our next phase involves closely engaging with our employees, actively listening to their experiences, and getting a firsthand view of career progression from the ‘front stage.’   

Within our organisational constraints, our focus will be on enhancing existing products and services rather than creating new ones. Our aim is to collaborate with local teams in sifting through the multitude of career progression opportunities already available. This collaborative effort will involve pinpointing those opportunities that can have the most substantial positive impact on our employees and subsequently enhancing these services to better align with their needs.”

These employee journey ‘deep dives’ have become one of five priorities for the team, alongside ‘building capability’, ‘listening and building trust’, ‘improving existing experiences’ and ‘defining the EX ‘North Star’. 

Three big challenges

Becoming genuinely human-centric is a new and transformational way of thinking and operating for a very long-established organisation like BRC, so perhaps not surprisingly there were a few challenges along the way.   

“First, understanding of service design and design thinking was low, so we had to work hard to educate everyone touched by it, including senior leaders’’, said Sam.  

“Early on we identified a small cross functional group of champions whose support we needed, and building relationships with this group has been absolutely vital. There were already pockets of excellence in terms of service design across the organisation – for example the Service Transformation Team, which is part of the IT function, and also within our co-production team, so we worked hard to build a strong coalition with these groups and enlist their support.”  

One of the biggest challenges Laura and Sam have faced is the need to shift the mindset of the organisation away from the historic, organisation-focused approach to one that is genuinely focused on human/user needs.  Coaching and mentoring has really helped here – it’s a matter of slowing building those relationships, winning over one stakeholder at a time and continually widening that circle of influence.  Hand-in-hand with this, the team needed to build trust in the process and demystify what can be quite a challenging concept. Storytelling has been a really effective way to break down these barriers and build understanding and confidence in the service design approach.

Lessons so far

“This is an ongoing process and in many ways we’re just getting going" said Sam, “but we’re constantly learning and finding better ways to do things.”   Asked what her top tips for other organisations embarking on a similar journey might be, Sam identifies three:  

1.     Build resilience  
Be ready to have challenging conversations. “Not everyone will buy into the service design approach or accept that this is a better way to understand the root causes of positive or negative employee experiences , so you need to have thick skin and be prepared for a lot of tough questions”, says Sam. “Ensuring the whole team understands the fundamentals and then building a network of supporters around you is also vital”.  

2.     Start small  
“Taking on too much too soon can be overwhelming" says Sam, “so we recommend starting small, demonstrating the positive impact this approach has in one discreet area and slowing broadening out from there.  We talk a lot about ‘starting small fires’ and that’s very much our philosophy – if we can ignite progress in a number of areas, the EX fire will start to spread.”     

3.     ‘Work in the open’   
“It’s important to share insights continually and demonstrate that you know the employees – who they are, where they are, what makes them tick -. There’s also massive value in being a connector and joining-the-dots between different initiatives,” adds Sam.  

“We spotted early on that there was a degree of duplication happening – different parts of the organisation were approaching the same core problem in different ways. Where we identified this sort of silo thinking, we worked really hard to join the dots for people and build relationships across the functions. That’s been a really important part of our role so far – when you look at activities through the lens of the end user, the employee, you can see how they overlap and connect.”

About Laura

Laura Ewell is a seasoned Service Designer blending 6 years of expertise in non-profits and tech start-ups. Their passion for human sciences and emerging technologies, coupled with a keenness to crafting innovative solutions to complex problems, drives their mission to address social challenges. Also trained as a yoga teacher, Laura integrates creative trauma-informed practices into their design philosophy, emphasising empowerment, collaboration, and safety. Laura’s current work at the British Red Cross focuses on building values-driven and employee-centred workplaces to deliver strategic impact.


About Sam

Sam Whitwham is a communications and employee engagement professional with more than 25 years’ experience of putting people at the heart of her work. In her current role as People Experience Manager at British Red Cross, Sam plays a pivotal role in leading and designing initiatives that elevate the employee experience. Understanding the ‘people’ stories behind data and making sense of that information drives Sam to advocate for an inclusive, people-centre workplace where employees can thrive.

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