As people return to the office, they are going to have expanded expectations—and no one knows how to create great experiences like the hospitality industry. Of course, employee experience has always been important, but as the office competes with the home and remote locations, creating experiences that are memorable, authentic, compelling, sensory—and more—will determine success. They will be fundamental to attracting people back to the office, but also critical to motivating them to join your company, stay at your organization and engage fully to bring their best to work.
I had the opportunity to interview hospitality aficionado and experience guru, Max Behesht, who is the Dean of the legendary César Ritz Colleges and Culinary Arts Academy in Lucerne, Switzerland. He shared some terrific expertise—that can make offices and employee experiences more powerful and more compelling.
Creating a great experience—any kind of experience—is both an art and a science. Here are the best ideas which will matter most to the future of the work experience.
Great Experiences Are Memorable
When we are deeply engaged, we tend to remember things better and more deeply. One of the hallmarks of great experiences is when they are memorable. A key way to create this kind of experience is through the senses. Consider walking into an office that smells clean, and where you can see sunlight penetrating the space from the windows. Consider feeling just right in terms of your temperature—neither too hot or too cold (a perennial point of contention for many office workers!). Consider stepping up to the coffee bar between meetings, and hearing the coffee grinder. Consider interacting with colleagues and enjoying the warmth of collegiality. These touchpoints all matter to the overall experience, even if people aren’t consciously aware of them.
Food is often an element of how we connect as well—and how we create memorable experiences. Behesht says, “We simply are social animals. We emotionally need that bonding and connection going back centuries and centuries based on how humans interact. Connecting it to the senses of flavors while we’re eating and drinking opens our minds and souls to connecting to each other and sharing those experiences. People don’t have to speak the same language, but if they’ve had the same experience, they can connect and start a conversation or relationship.”
Frank LaRusso, Director of Strategic Initiatives at Lavazza and industry advisory board member for the Society for Hospitality and Foodservice Management says, “As we all eventually return back to workplaces, a key area that will always be a place for connection with fellow employees will be breakrooms and work cafes. Hospitality at work with a cup of coffee will be a first memory that employees form. This kind of memory helps us create happiness at work over a great food and beverage experience—like a cup of coffee
Great Experiences Invite You In
One of the pillars of great experiences—a fundamental in the business and art of hospitality—that Behesht describes is “The Welcome.” He says, “It’s the ability to welcome guests, clients, customers, partners, and family members to your home or to your business…to catch their attention and attract them to us…within the first seconds of engagement.” One of the scarcest resources today is attention. We are bombarded, inundated and overwhelmed by information, marketing and noise. So when we can create an experience of welcome, we are attracting people and inviting them in—catching their attention and narrowing their focus away from all the distractions, this is a powerful part of any experience.
In an office, this might be the walkway toward the door with clear signage that helps you feel oriented and confident about where you are. It might be the ramp which passes the chalkboard where employees have written thoughts for the day, or it might be the smile and welcome from the barista as you’re offered a beverage upon entry. It could also be the view of the natural courtyard featuring the striking Chihuly sculpture which draws you more deeply into the space.
Great Experiences Leverage Storytelling
Storytelling is also a fundamental element of creating experiences. Storytelling engages seven parts of the brain and our mirror neurons—which allow us to learn through imitation—create the feeling we’ve lived the story ourselves. Stories are powerful ways to express culture because they provide information about context, challenge, resolution and learning. They also help to humanize lessons. According to Behesht, “If you’re sharing and experiencing a memorable, wonderful (culinary!) experience, that is the perfect setting for bringing people together and sharing stories.”
Great Experiences Attend to the Details
In creating a great experience, Behesht makes the point that attention to detail is paramount. He describes deconstructing and re-constructing experiences in intentional ways. “We need to be able to dissect small interactions—touchpoints—and then carefully put together an experience the audience, guest, clients or customers never forget. They should want to come back for more and tell the world about it.”
Experiences are significantly emotional, and deeply personal. Behesht says, “Experience is something I as the receiver emotionally take in, and you as the provider cannot entirely control. It is deeply emotional and related to authentically delivering excellence. Consider where experience starts and ends as a journey. It’s not about one interaction, it’s about the whole encounter.” Behesht gives the example of a trip. From booking the trip online to the hotel, the meals, the pools and even whether your luggage arrives safely back to you at the end of the journey, everything counts.
In hybrid working models, it will be important to consider elements of experience both at home and in the office, and technology will play a part. It will matter if an employee has a tough time connecting or the network is down. It will matter whether an employee feels they have enough choice and control about where they’re working. It will matter if an employee lacks a productive place to get work done at home. And it will matter if an employee can’t find a meeting room or an enclave in the office, or can’t get a good cup of coffee or grab something to eat due to safety precautions.
In creating great work experiences, success is also driven by culture. Beyond the physical experience, it’s important to consider the elements of the employee experience which include leadership, team relationships, the content of the work, alignment with company purpose, systems for recognition and approaches to all kinds of policies, practices and norms.
Great Experiences Are Authentic and Intentional
Great experiences also require effort and a commitment to caring and excellence. Behesht refers to this as authenticity. He says, “Authenticity is when the client or customer is able to feel you are going the extra mile and are genuinely doing what you can to offer that great experience. There is no “perfect.” By making people feel you are doing your best—as imperfect as it is—you can get away without being perfect, but still provide a truly wonderful experience.” Behesht shares a story of being a waiter when he was 17 and dumping a pint of beer on a customer. While it wasn’t his finest moment, it turned out to be an example of excellence. He so genuinely cared about the customer and effectively communicated his apologies and commitment, that she and her friend found a way to have a positive experience despite her unexpected shower. She became a regular customer who advocated for the pub and for Behesht.
Creating great experiences for employees is like this too. We won’t get it perfectly right and there will be a need to evolve, especially as we return from the pandemic. It will be especially effective to let people know you plan to learn, iterate and evolve. Be intentional about listening and collecting feedback and continually improving as you know more. I had a colleague who used to talk about places that were designed by “smart people who care.” Great experiences are created at the intersection of knowledge and genuine care for people. You need both.
Giving great effort and demonstrating this commitment is palpable. Behesht says, “There is nothing more exciting then when someone goes the extra mile. It’s so memorable people can’t stop talking about it. It goes back to the idea of being consistent. Even on your worst day, you can deliver magic continuously—and as Cesar Ritz said, ‘You can create experiences from moments of challenge.’ If you keep connecting with people and building the relationship…you don’t have to be exceptionally surprising, you’re focused on consistency and commitment.”
Great Experiences Build Relationships
Relationships and connections are core to happiness, fulfillment and joy. We are hardwired for connection and multiple studies over time have demonstrated the evidence that when people are more connected, they are healthier, happier and more fulfilled. Behesht sees our opportunity to create relationships as another pillar of hospitality. “Relationships are the essence of happiness. If you are a true expert in hospitality, then maybe you’re also an expert in creating fulfillment, happiness and joy for yourself and people around you.”
Great Experiences Are Unique
Another element of great experiences is they are unique and set you apart. Especially when people can work anywhere, you’ll need to create a work experience that competes with home offices and remote locations. Research from Steelcase found when places are stimulating and inspiring, they nurture a sense of community and in turn, have positive impacts on engagement, productivity, innovation and retention.
Experiences will be critical for success in the future—and about survival in some cases. Behesht says, “[Creating great experiences] attaches and connects to everything we do in life and in the world of business. Beyond tourism and hotels…this is what the future contains. Those who survive will be the ones who [create experiences that are] unique, and which people want to go back to and can’t get enough of.”
As we move to a more digital experience and are constantly distracted, creating memorable, meaningful and inspiring experiences will set us apart. Consider the way employees’ experiences are inherently mirrored in how they treat customers. When employees have great experiences, they will reflect these for customers, no matter what business they’re in.