Danger: Employee Experience Vacuum Ahead

In the industrial revolution employees were seen as mere cogs in the wheel, quasi automata whose only function was to serve the machines. Sitting alongside the concept of a job for life, in general the company/employee relationship was seen as task and process-based rather than personal.

Then in the 1970s and 80s, ironically alongside the growth of computers in the workplace, came a new concept, that of employee satisfaction; a concept which as it matured became the embryo of employee engagement. First mentioned in academic journals in the 1990s (eg [1]), the theory of employee engagement gradually became central to organisational performance; with low levels of engagement being seen as a cause not only for concern but also as a reason for a range of poor performances including customer service, profitability and outcomes.

Moving on to more recent times, management theory has further developed with employee engagement now being recognised as just one aspect of employee experience; albeit one which looks to deliver a more holistic and mutually beneficial relationship between employees and organisations. Leadership guru Josh Bersin describes employee experience as an ‘integrated experience that impacts daily life, in and outside the workplace, including overall physical, emotional, professional and financial well-being.’

Integrate not isolate

Does this mean that efforts to build employee engagement should be cast aside? Certainly not, but we should recognise that engagement is an experience outcome rather than a stand-alone destination. We should also recognise that employee experience is just one aspect of an overall organisational culture which itself looks towards delivering not just employee outcomes but also customer and partner experiences as well as interacting positively with wider society.

This is vital if organisations are to develop a cohesive structure in which all elements are mutually supporting in pursuit of the overall strategy. The danger is that, as with so many other leadership/management concepts, leaders could see employee experience as a universal panacea and concentrate on that to the exclusion of everything else.

The plain and simple truth is that employee experience cannot exist within a vacuum. It’s a bit like locking someone in a sweet shop and telling them that they can eat whatever they like; provided, that is, that they only like sweets. It may seem fantastic for the first ten minutes. But as hour after hour and day after day pass, the deficiencies in this diet become more and more obvious. Physical and mental health suffers as the disconnect between the closed environment and the outside world grows. And with little interaction or incentive, people lose their sense of purpose.

Concentrate on delivering employee experience without ensuring that it is supported by the overall culture, and that is exactly the sort of outcome that your employees will eventually arrive at. Conversely, look to deliver an integrated employee experience within a strong culture and not only will the organisation and its people benefit, so too will its customers, investors and the wider constituency.

Key experiences

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the key elements of an integrated employee experience. In their 2017 book [2], Tracy Maylett and Matthew Wride summed up employee experience as “the sum of the various perceptions (and related feelings) employees have about their interactions with the organisation in which they work.”

Does this sound like employee engagement? On a superficial level yes it may do, and as discussed above engagement is an outcome of employee experience. However, employee experience comes from a multifaceted approach of which engagement is only one part. So yes we look at areas such as how aligned individuals are to the purpose and values of the organisation. But we also consider other aspects such as the support given to people’s physical and mental well-being, personal and professional development, and worklife balance. Leadership authenticity also comes into play as does the relationship which the organisation has with the outside world.

In other words, employee experience touches every aspect of an organisation and its culture. That’s another reason why experience can’t sit in a vacuum. You can profess flexible working and employee care as much as you like but unless your words are supported by the culture they are soon seen to be nothing but hollow window-dressing. So what can you do?

Build relationships

“While it will be necessary for people to work with technology, we’re also seeing a growing need for people to develop specialized skills for how they interact with each other. These include creativity, collaboration and interpersonal dynamics.” [3]

That comment from one of the 2020 World Economic Forum’s papers is a call to action for all organisations which have yet to embrace the realities of working within rather than outside society. It’s hardly a new concept; 90% of respondents to a 2016 Deloitte survey rated what were once deemed soft skills such as emotional intelligence, collaboration and negotiation as a critical priority.

Let’s face it, any organisation which looks towards innovation has to promote communication and collaboration as it looks to work with flatter structures and external interactions. Then there are the expectations raised by Generation Z which look towards valued contributions and equality of recognition. And that’s before we get to the wider societal expectations that organisations will lead the way in combating global challenges such as climate change and pollution. 

Oh yes, and if you think that that sentiment is confined to society then a 2019 CEO survey for Fortune [4]revealed that 72% of respondents believed that companies should be mission driven, with 64% believing that a company’s primary purpose should include making the world better.

So building relationships not only helps organisations to deliver their innovation goals, it also helps to deliver good employee experiences. Whether that be in helping to develop personal qualities and skills such as communication and understanding, or by exposing employees to a wider range of internal and external encounters; outward -looking, inclusive, organisations are far more likely to be high up on the engagement scale.

Personalise the environment

Your people want to know that they matter to you as an organisation. Key to this is the environment which you provide for them to work in. That doesn’t just mean physical space, it also requires an attention to the mental well-being of your people.

Let’s start with the physical environment. We all may be familiar with the health and safety guidelines on providing safe and secure working environment including the need to review desks and seating arrangements or consider the provision of equipment such as telephone headsets. Organisations which are really concerned about delivering exceptional employee experiences are those which look beyond immediate to deliver outstanding levels of care.

Take the effects of pollution for example. A Michigan State University study [5] revealed that introducing portable air filters could reduce blood pressure as effectively as introducing lifestyle changes such as increasing exercise or reducing salt intake. Retrofitting buildings may be expensive or impractical but that doesn’t stop organisations looking towards portable air filters or introducing the best natural air filters; plants. In fact, not only do plants improve air quality, humidity levels and noise absorption, they also have a positive impact on stress. Oh, and if you want a win-win, a 2014 study [6] concluded that the introduction of plants into a workspace improved productivity by 15%.

So attention to the physical workspace can improve engagement levels, but so too can the attention to the way in which you expect your employees to interact with the organisation. More than half of all employees are unhappy at work because of the software they are using, with a quarter of employees considering leaving their employment solely because of the software deployed in the organisation. [7] If your people aren’t happy then there is something lacking in your attention to employee experience.

Software is only as good as the benefit which it brings to people’s roles. So why not work with your people with a view to helping them to do their jobs effectively? When it comes to that, don’t neglect the importance of offering flexible working in order to boost work-life balance. Providing the right conditions in which your people can commit to the organisation means providing the conditions in which they can best work. Enabling your people to work from home or an alternate location may help to relieve a range of personal stresses including the need to provide adequate family care, or the cost or time commitment of a long commute.

Here again, working with your people to identify and create the conditions which help them to work best, benefits the organisation in the long term.

Share the journey

We may no longer live in an era of jobs for life but that doesn’t mean that your employees’ journey should be any less caring. From the first interaction to the last, the organisation should be looking to optimise the employee experience. That means paying attention to the advertising and recruitment process, on boarding, training, progression, and even the way in which an individual leaving the organisation is treated.

It’s not just about the cost of training replacement employees although employees who report feeling a lack of support for their professional development are three times more likely to look for another job. It’s not even about the negative impact on the organisation of an unhappy team member. Quite simply, the more valued an employee feels, the greater the attention to their well-being and professional development, the greater the levels of engagement and the more that they will contribute towards a positive culture and great outcomes.

And finally

The areas covered within this article are of necessity brief glimpses into the world of employee experience. Every organisation will have its own starting point and its own developmental needs. No matter what the requirement, the key message is that attempts to deliver employee experiences in isolation will end in failure. Just as engagement is an outcome of experience, experience is an intrinsic element of a strong outward facing culture.

We finish with a quote from the 2020 Davis manifesto: [8]

 “A company treats its people with dignity and respect. It honours diversity and strives for continuous improvements in working conditions and employee well-being. In a world of rapid change, a company fosters continued employability through ongoing upskilling and reskilling.”


References and sources:

[1] https://www.talenteck.com/academic/Kahn-1990.pdf

[2] https://decision-wise.com/the-employee-experience-book/

[3] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/01/reskilling-revolution-jobs-future-skills

[4] https://fortune.com/longform/business-roundtable-ceos-corporations-purpose/

[5] https://msutoday.msu.edu/news/2018/high-blood-pressure-an-air-filter-may-help/

[6] https://www.exeter.ac.uk/news/featurednews/title_409094_en.html

[7] https://learn.g2.com/state-of-software-happiness-report-2019

[8] https://www.weforum.org/events/world-economic-forum-annual-meeting-2020