Are You Experienced?
Anyone who’s ever held a job has had an “employee experience.” But were you to ask ten different people to tell you exactly what an employee experience is, chances are you’d get ten different answers, none of which would necessarily bring you any closer to a full understanding of the overarching concept that has become something of a buzzword in recent years. While studies show that a well-designed employee experience (or EX) leads to greater levels of engagement, enthusiasm, involvement, and employer brand commitment, the truth is that it's hard to build something that you can't even define. So just what is the employee experience? Allow us to explain.
Employee experience isn’t about any single thing, but rather it’s the culmination of countless experiences gleaned over time. And as day-to-day experiences are never exactly the same—unless you’re Bill Murray in Groundhog Day—employee experience tends to be in constant flux (and therefore in need of constant care and attention). All of this makes it even more difficult to get a fix on the full meaning and significance of what is an ever-changing process.
What can be said is that the employee experience is ultimately about people, and while it can be characterized in countless ways, it's made up of three basic elements:
An overall set of employee perceptions across time and touch points
A collection of environmental factors: cultural, physical, and technological
A broadening of traditional HR functions that recognize the correlation between employee engagement and customer experience
By focusing on these three aspects, organizations can take significant steps toward actively designing and shaping compelling experiences for their employees.
1. An Overall Set of Employee Perceptions
Globoforce Workhuman Research Institute and IBM Smarter Workforce Institute define the employee experience as “a set of perceptions that employees have about their experiences at work in response to their interactions with the organization.” This element of the employee experience should be easy for anyone to understand, because we’ve all seen it in our daily working lives.
One day, the EX might be defined by the traffic-jammed commute you were forced to endure; or maybe it’s the cosy cubicle where you sit with a calming view to a nearby park; it could be the way a supervisor reacted to your request to work from home, or the mentor who took you under his or her wing; it could even have something to do with the printer that’s always jammed, or your outdated desktop computer—the one that’s still running Windows XP.
What is certain is that the employee experience, however you personally define it on any given day, impacts the way you think about the work you do and the people for whom you do it. EX is therefore a matter of crucial importance, not only for your personal and professional wellbeing, but for the wellbeing of your organization. A positive employee experience gets you out of bed on a rainy Tuesday morning, while a negative one might make you consider calling in sick—or start looking for another job. Likewise, a consistently affirmative employee experience means that your company is likely to be getting the best, most engaged and productive you that you have to offer.
Industry leaders have long been preoccupied with the concept of employee engagement, which to this day drives an entire industry of study and analysis with a massive influence on the way companies think about their employees. Yet, according to a 2016 Gallup poll, we’re undergoing a worldwide employee engagement crisis. It seems safe to conclude that measuring employee engagement isn’t the same as improving it. Although employee experience and employee engagement are inextricably linked, it is becoming abundantly clear that companies focused on engagement alone haven’t been doing enough to understand the factors motivating it, employee experience chief among them.
Is it time to change your title? "Employee experience” professionals at the director level already hold a 14% to 13% advantage over those with “engagement" in their titles.
Building an engaged and empowered workforce means taking an intentional approach to how your organization designs its employee experience. Successful EX design focuses on HR products and services that strengthen the emotional connections people have to their work. While such designs are often co-created so as to produce mutually desired results across multiple touch points, “there’s no magic formula" according to Sir Richard Branson. In a 2010 interview with HR Magazine, the reknowned entrepreneur remarked, “The key is just to treat your staff how you would like to be treated.” Think of it as the Golden Rule for creating an exceptional employee experience.
2. A Collection of Environmental Factors: Cultural, Technological, and Physical
Jacob Morgan, author of The Employee Experience Advantage, writes that “as we shift to the future of work, where organizations are focusing on the reasons why employees want to work versus need to work, it is important to understand employee experience.” Morgan has concluded that every employee experience, no matter the size or scope of an organization, is comprised of three basic environments: cultural, technological, and physical. “All three of these aspects,” he says, “should be focused on creating an environment where people want to show up!”
Culture can be defined by the way an employee “feels” at work in relation to what’s expected of him or her on a day-to-day basis. It’s the aura given off by a company’s structure, hierarchy, and leadership, and it takes into consideration traditional work factors like compensation and benefits. For years, culture was thought to be the sole aspect of an employee’s experience: The belief was that if an employee showed up and did satisfactory work, he or she would in return be happy to receive a living wage and two weeks of paid vacation every summer. Needless to say, this one-dimensional, old-fashioned approach is no longer valid as employee values have shifted over time. The days of focusing solely on culture are over.
The technological environment is all about the tools an employee needs to do his or her job. If you’re working in a traditional clerical or administrative position, this means desktop computers, software, mobile devices, headsets—even paper and pens. Advancements in digital technology have greatly changed the ways that people work, and as technology continues to make exponential advancements (think about Artificial Intelligence, autonomous cars, or IBM’s Watson), it will continue to influence industry in profound ways. Consider, for instance, that more than 43% of American employees did remote work in 2016, a reality only made possible through advances in mobile technology. But no matter the setting, organizations are expected to provide the best tools available in order for their employees to do their jobs. That includes finding new and better ways to facilitate communication, collect and share feedback, and—perhaps most importantly—make data actionable.
The physical environment is everything you can see, hear, smell, touch, or taste: it’s your desk and chair; it’s the dusty fern dying in the corner; it’s the art on the walls; it’s the communal tables and the lunches you eat from them; it’s the noise from the street outside your window. These factors, which include temperature, air quality, and office lighting, all affect employee concentration and directly influence the wellbeing, performance, and productivity of your people. Workers who are satisfied with their physical surroundings are simply more likely to do better work. The physical environment is thus of crucial importance, especially for desk-bound employees who spend long hours inside their organizations. Those in charge of designing physical spaces need to make certain that they offer a motivational ambiance that promotes creativity and productivity.
The 7 ½ Floor, from Being John Malkovich. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext Collection
Of course, when considering the importance of physical space, remote workforces shouldn’t be forgotten. According to a 2017 Forbes article, 125 different companies “have gone either entirely or nearly fully remote, including small operations and larger businesses like Citrix and Github.” As more organizations adopt this approach, however, there is a clear challenge. While it’s evident that remote workers are just as productive—if not more so—than their office-bound counterparts, they experience obstacles when it comes to maintaining engagement.
Meeting these challenges means utilizing mobile solutions that facilitate communication, transparency, and inclusiveness (think chat, video conferencing, virtual networking platforms, and sharable meeting agendas and to-do lists). Remote workers have the advantage of being able to personally customize their physical workspaces for maximum productivity. Efforts that foster engagement through technology need to be made so that remote workers can do the the same with their virtual surroundings, encouraging a culture of inclusiveness that makes information and discussions open to everyone, no matter where they are.
3. A Broadening of Traditional HR Functions
My philosophy has always been, if you can put staff first,
your customers second, and shareholders third, effectively,
in the end, the shareholders do well, the customers do better,
and your staff remains happy.
It has long been understood that creating a positive customer experience (or CX) is pivotal to the success of a business. As a result, marketing teams have become more and more adept at creating compelling customer experiences. Some enormously successful corporate empires have been founded on the principle. But there is a counterintuitive concept behind this line of thinking: successful customer experiences depend upon putting your employees first, not your customers.
Employees are on the front lines of brand representation, and organizations are finally realizing that the same focused attention aimed at developing customer relations should be shown to to their workforces. It’s something of a cliche that corporate leaders refer to their employees as being their most valuable asset; but despite the sloganeering, many continue to focus on approaches that send the opposite message to employees. The customer, it seems, is not always right, and businesses that act on this realization by actively putting their employees first, consistently see that it ultimately leads to better customer service.
Leading organizations in the EX movement are now aiming to provide their people with positive touch points at all stages of the employee life cycle. This transformation is part of an idea that has been described as "the consumerization of HR,” and it encompasses how companies are beginning to apply a consumer and digital lens to their HR functions through the creation of social, mobile, and consumer-like employee experiences.
Such attempts often begin by identifying a company’s customer experience methods that also have HR applications. Efforts might start with a needs-based segmentation strategy, wherein a company will organize their workforce based on certain professional traits of their personnel rather than broader distinctions like title, department, or location. Another CX application is the journey map, which looks at various stages of the employee life cycle from the employee’s point of view so as to identify areas in need of attention, improvement, and reward.
Adobe is one company at the forefront of this type of employee-first strategizing. In 2016, they created a Customer and Employee Experience department. The press release announcing this move is an excellent summary of the ideas that prompted it:
Researchers such as Gallup have proven the correlation between higher employee engagement and positive customer ratings. Realizing this critical connection, we at Adobe have combined two previously disconnected parts of the company into one new entity. Our new Customer and Employee Experience organization combines our customer experience organization—the people who are on the front lines of helping our customers utilize our products—with our human resources and facilities organization, the team that was focused on our people and their workplace environment. We believe we’re one of the first companies, at least in the technology industry, to combine these functions. The unified focus of this organization is the people that are essential to our business, our customers and employees, and the understanding that people want the same fundamental things:
To be treated with respect for their needs and their time
To find the information they need quickly
To feel invested in a long-term relationship, whether it’s with the employer or the brand
Taking this kind of active HR management approach to employee experience design—one that reaches across hierarchies and departments—is an effective means for bringing a company’s brand to life. An ideally designed EX will mirror a company’s unique brand attributes. If qualities like technological prowess and ease of communication are what distinguish a brand, then the employee experience should also exemplify those characteristics. If a company wants its brand to be known for efficiency and speed, then every employee touch point should aim to be efficient and fast.
Employee Experience: A Design for the Future
As work radically evolves in the 21st century, with software set to disrupt most traditional industries in the next five to ten years, it’s becoming more and more obvious that try as companies might to create engagement with their employees, it is the employees themselves who are the ultimate arbiters of whether or not to engage with their work. The conclusion that successful customer experiences begin and end with your people is of critical importance to industries across the board. Whether it’s the flight attendant responsible for the care and comfort of John Q. Public in seat 23D, or a vast team in charge of managing the experience of thousands of consumers—like that same airline’s marketing and customer relations professionals—employees who have established an emotional connection with their companies will be far more likely to inspire positive customer experiences.
The bottom line is that a well-considered and wisely implemented strategy in regard to EX—one that takes into consideration employee perceptions, environmental factors in the workplace, and a consumer-style approach to HR—is certain to lead to greater levels of employee engagement, enthusiasm, involvement, retention, and employer brand commitment.
You may now consider yourself experienced.
For more information on employee experience and its relationship to employee engagement, you might also want to read: