Case Study: Employee Experience Immersion at an Iconic Outdoor Retailer

How might we better understand the lived experience of our frontline employees to better inform our 10-year business and people strategy?

At A Glance:

A global outdoor retailer

5 months

Culture Change and Strategy

Chief People + Culture Officer

HR + People Team

This work is so powerful and I believe in it so much: to transform the experience of work where people can be whole and seen and healed and we can do great things in the world together. I just want you to know what you have done and the impact you’ve had on me and our team and the ripples that creates—it’s huge.”

Chief People + Culture Officer

The Challenge:

An outdoor retailer, our client set the benchmark for what a values-led, human centered work environment looks like. As they looked towards their next chapter, they wanted to build on their legacy and model new ways of working for the broader business community. However, to inform their strategic priorities and investments, they needed to go beyond traditional pulse surveys. So, they partnered with The Design Gym to lead an immersive employee listening program. 

In a presentation to the company’s Board of Directors, our client partner put it this way:

“We are facing unprecedented changes in employer/employee dynamics – it’s time to consider where we innovate vs. ignore. In a world where we are limited in resources, we must be deliberate in every decision, including how we use our time, effort, energy, and dollars. Focusing on employee experience does not mean that we say yes to everything. It means we work to deeply understand what matters most and then root our decisions, investments, and actions in what will create maximum impact.”

The Solution:


We started this project with a four-week alignment phase. The goal was to better understand where the organization was at, where leaders wanted it to go, and what gaps or open questions lay in between. First, we immersed in the existing strategy, business performance, industry analysis, and existing employee feedback. Then, our team conducted interviews with 20+ senior leaders, including the CEO, C-level executives, and leads within the Retail and People teams. We also spoke with legacy employees and spent time in the company archives. These immersions helped us get a good understanding of the organization’s history and DNA as we looked towards the future. At the end of this phase, we facilitated a visioning workshop with the executive team to align on shared principles for our future state, as well as a research mapping workshop with cross-functional leaders to create a shared language around employee experience and begin defining our research objectives.


The outcomes of our Align Phase then informed our research plan. We outlined what we needed to learn, who we would learn it from and where, and the methods we would use. While traditional employee listening methods, like pulse surveys, are able to illuminate what is happening in an organization, our design-led research approach focuses on uncovering the why behind employee behaviors, mindsets, and beliefs. 

Over the course of four weeks, we conducted Employee Design Research at five retail stores across three markets. Some of the research methods we leveraged included:

  • Employee-Generated Journey Maps that document how work fits into an individual’s larger life journey
  • Day-in-the-Life Shadowing of employees to get a sense of their day-to-day experience within and outside of work
  • Card Sorts and Artifact Share-Outs that use visual stimulus to facilitate a deeper conversation with employees about their experience

From a change management perspective, building trust and community was critical to support our research. It also helped us ensure the long-lasting durability of insights that would emerge. Two key practices helped us unlock this:

  1. Building allies within the district managers, store managers, and assistant managers: Prior to each store visit, we created and managed a communications strategy to ensure managers felt confident in the process and their needs were reflected in our research plan. As extended members of our team, these managers also became incredible advocates of employee experience.
  2. Integrating cross-functional HQ leaders along the way: We worked hand-in-hand with leaders across the organization. We invited members from the People, Retail, and Internal Communications teams to join us in the field and trained them to lead research activities.

We returned from our research with countless stories, pictures, recordings, ideas, and beautiful memories. To make sense of it, our team leveraged a combination of research synthesis practices as well as AI tools. We uncovered connections and tensions between various employee behaviors, beliefs, mindsets, and needs. Then, we distilled our learning into a set of insights, a retail employee journey map with prioritized moments that matter, a first-ever set of Employee Experience principles to guide future initiatives, a set of psychographic-informed employee personas, and a robust 5-year roadmap with 12 detailed opportunity spaces. 

This type of immersive research approach allowed us to paint a more holistic picture. We uncovered opportunities to both amplify bright spots and address previously hidden pain points. The intent was not to take action on every single employee need that emerged. Rather, the goal was to identify the intersection between the needs of their people and their business to prioritize investments accordingly.

Our work culminated with a series of executive and cross-functional workshops to share stories and insights, explore opportunities, and prioritize big bets. Ultimately, this work helped leaders validate and de-risk their employee experience investment decisions. It also laid the groundwork for a new way of listening to and learning from employees that builds trust.

The Results

  • 75+ frontline employees shared their perspectives through immersive listening activities
  • 24+ executive and senior leaders engaged through the work
  • 20 actionable insights across the employee journey and brought to life through countless stories 
  • A 5-year roadmap of opportunities for the immediate and near-term, along with inspirational opportunities to aspire towards in the long term
  • Customized employe experience (EX) frameworks, including design principles, journey maps, and employee portraits, that help to better understand the employees’ perspective
  • A foundational library of EX approaches, templates, and tools that the internal  team can continue to build on with future employee listening work
  • Unquantifiable levels of trust and collaboration built between frontline employees and HQ leadership, deepened through the listening and research practices leveraged
Not your typical pulse survey, our Day-in-the-Life research gave us a glimpse into employees’ lives outside of work. We joined people for the couple hours before or after their shift, running errands, exercising, and meeting family. This unique perspective helped us to understand where work intersected with the broader landscape of their lives.
Spark your interest?
The Design Gym
[email protected]

The Design Gym is a strategy and innovation consultancy helping leaders to grow their business by fully unlocking the power of their most important advantage: their people. We work at the intersection of business strategy, experience design, and change management to engage the people that matter most to your work: your customers, your leaders, and your employees. See something that resonates with a project or challenge you're working on? Shoot us a note at [email protected].

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