Is Employee Experience (EX) just another buzz word or a true indicator of the evolution of employer-employee relationship? The corporate world is notorious for throwing around new terms and concepts for how an organisation should relate to its employees, but there is usually a gap in how the idea gets translated into reality.
There is a heavily subjective and contextual subtext to EX, demonstrated by numerous definitions that are available, and how different organisations are working towards raising the bar on employee engagement. Stories from organisations like Google, Cisco, Whirlpool, and Adobe that render mythical proportions to EX are not necessarily replicable in every organisation.
At best, most current approaches to EX are piecemeal, because there is a very poor understanding of the holistic nature of the concept. This tends to contradict the employee's view that everything that happens at work is an integrated experience that impacts daily life in and out of the workplace, including overall physical, emotional, professional, and financial well-being.
In the overview and at present, EX can be likened to an archer shooting arrows in the dark, hoping that he or she will hit an unknown and unmarked target at some point.
What in heaven's name is Employee Experience ?
There is no single definition of EX, which leaves a lot of scope for confusion, and there are as many ways to implement it as there are organisations. This can work in two ways. When viewed from a negative perspective, it could result in moving into a new way of handling the employer-employee relationship without including all the necessary elements - a sort of go-with-the-flow approach, which can end up being expensive without even providing the required impact. From a positive standpoint, this provides an opportunity to establish the practice in a way that is a win-win for both the organisation and the employee. Come to think of it, what can possibly go wrong if an organisation actually treats its employees exceptionally?
Currently, the most popular way to delimit EX is to say what it is not. So, it is not new and improved Human Resources or perks and parties, or even employer or employment branding, or treating employees as customers. It is definitely not employee engagement, although one may see engagement as the goal and EX as the means to achieve it.
In more technical terms, EX is not the Employee Life Cycle, the chronological and sequential, the beginning to end of the employee's relationship with the organisation, which falls under the purview of the HR department. It is also not the Employee Value Proposition, which, although a part of EX, focuses narrowly on the 'brand' of the organisation with respect to future or current employees. Talent management and employee satisfaction also contribute, but they are a smaller part of the larger landscape of EX.
Employee Experience has evolved from
Utility: What employees need to work
Productivity: What employees need to work better and faster
Engagement: How can we make employees happy so they perform better? Experience: How can we create a company where people want to, not need to, show up?
So, in broad terms, EX can be defined as a holistic view of an employee's life at work, which requires constant feedback, action, and monitoring.
Matt Wride, from Decisionwise, says, "The EX is the sum of the various perceptions employees have about their interactions with the organisation in which they work." When we talk about perceptions, we are talking about the totality of an employee's experience, including difficult performance reviews, how a manager handled an employee's personal crisis, or even whether the company addressed the concerns expressed in the last employee engagement survey. This definition puts perceptions at the heart, which can be positive or negative and can destroy an organisation or make it great. Basically, it says that every business outcome is rooted in an individual or a group of people. In other words, success begins and ends with human beings. The company's responsibility, then, is to pay attention to the moments that truly matter in an employee's day, year, and career.
Elizabeth Dukes writes in Inc., "EX is the sum of all interactions an employee has with their employer. It is the structure and culture of the organisation and how the employee perceives the company overall and their role in the company. It is influenced by three things - the physical environment in which the employee works, the tools and technologies the employer provides, and how an employer demonstrates its commitment to the health and success of its employees."
"The three basic elements of EX are - an overall set of employee perceptions across time and touchpoints, a collection of environmental factors-cultural, physical, and technological-and a broadening of traditional HR functions that recognise the correlation between employee engagement and customer experience," explains Robert Grover of Staffbase.
These organisations demonstrate what in psychological terms is called system two type of thinking, where experiences are high in effort, purposeful, dynamic, and designed, instead of system one, where they are low in effort, automatic, rapid, and default processes.
Human experiences follow a linear path - our feelings during an experience lead to memories, which in turn shape our decisions about whom to have a relationship with. This is the fundamental logic behind the employer-employee relationship.
According to Jacob Morgan, author of The Employee Experience Advantage, "As we shift to the future of work, where organisations are focusing on the reasons why employees want to work versus need to work, it is important to understand EX." He adds an organisation that takes care of three environments can provide amazing EX. These are:
Culture: Do employees feel a sense of purpose? Do they feel that they are valued and treated fairly? Culture essentially relates to how an employee can weave work and life together by treating the workplace as an experience, which provides physical, virtual, aspirational, emotional, and intellectual fulfilment.
Technology: Do the tools being used reflect the world we live in? Is the technology consumer-grade - would an employee use it in his personal life? Is it available to everyone in the organisation? Generation Z and Millennials lead the pack on technology usage as a lifestyle. Digital natives experience an organisation mostly through its technology, be it social media, wearables, robotics, virtual and augmented reality, or untethered learning and development programmes.
Physical Space: Does the employee have multiple modes of working? Does the physical environment reflect the values of the organisation? Physical space is the one that we can see, touch, taste, and smell. It is the art on the walls, the office floor plan, demographics of the people we work with, and physical perks like break rooms and facilities, or catered meals in a beautiful cafeteria.
Empowered organisations combine technology and culture, engaged organisations focus on culture and physical space, and enabled organisations give importance to technology and physical space. The experiential organisation that combines all three environments will dominate the future of work. The secret to success is to make EX a never-ending process by treating the organisation like a laboratory instead of a process-driven factory. As Adobe is learning through its combined Customer and Employee Experience Initiative, people want the same fundamental things - to be treated with respect for their needs and time, to find the information they need quickly, and feel invested in a long-term relationship, be it the employer or the brand.
The real methodologies of Employee Experience
According to the 2017 report on Global Human Capital Trends, Deloitte Insights on Employee Experience - Culture, Engagement, and Beyond, in order to provide better EX, the areas that need attention are -
Helping employees balance professional and personal work and life demands
Alignment between the employee's personal goals and the company's purpose offering programmes for a multi-generational workforce
Understanding and using design thinking
Considering diverse employee preferences when designing work, and integrating social, community, and corporate programmes
The report further delineates what makes EX a challenge. Most companies have not made EX a priority for HR leaders, often delegating it to an annual employee engagement survey. Although some companies have assigned a C-suite role for EX, most have not given the responsibility to design and deliver EX to a senior executive or team. Siloed HR departments find it difficult to obtain resources needed to address an integrated set of priorities, which range from management practices to workplace to benefits and the work culture itself. Companies need to update their tools to engage employees on an ongoing basis and to understand what employees expect and value. Many companies are still focused on 'point in time' engagement and have not pulled together other disciplines of performance management, goal setting, diversity and inclusion, wellness, workplace design, and leadership into an integrated framework.
The leap of faith
Here are some immediate steps most organisations can take in the design and delivery of EX to make the transition from ordinary to phenomenal employee engagement.
At the outset, elevate EX and make it a priority. Designate a senior leader or team to own it.
Right now, the default approach is to invest in technology to enrich EX. This is a double-bind because it actually makes work more complex with overlapping and time-consuming processes. Technology can provide a multitude of pulse feedback tools, wellness and fitness apps, and employee self-service technologies that enable cross-organisation collaboration and communication. The caveat - it should simplify work and HR programmes so that they happen in the flow of work. Expect every element of the technological interface to be accessible and easy to use on mobile devices.
Use design thinking - find out what makes work difficult directly from the employees - empathise, follow them around, survey, interview and run workshops. No one knows how to upgrade the EX better than the employees themselves. Include employees in the decision-making process. Do not neglect any employee feedback.
Leverage the expertise of marketing, product development, and sales executives working along similar lines to design an integrated customer experience.
Start with the basics to find the common 'moments that matter.' Create employee personas to map all HR transactions against these personas, and to develop journey maps.
Several apps are available for productivity and collaboration, performance management, employee service platforms, engagement, and feedback and well being, but each of these is marketed separately. The focus on end-to-end EX is quite recent. In the long term, such apps would need to be integrated through a common interface.
Consider experiences for the entire workforce including candidates, full time and part-time workers, freelancers, gig workers, and alumni. Co-create the EX with the C-suite, business community, and leaders. HR also needs to partner with IT and Finance to develop the EX strategy and programme.
Measure EX by moving beyond annual engagement surveys to pulse checks and open feedback surveys. Build a real-time understanding of the issues that employees face. Benchmark the organisation's EX against peer companies.
The latest Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE) report in January 2019 puts the present rate of unemployment in India at 7.2 percent, the highest ever. Eleven million people lost their jobs in 2018 as a possible consequence of demonetisation and the implementation of GST. The looming threat of unrest, withdrawal of foreign investment, and a skittish business environment does not bode well for both the short and long-term future.
According to World Bank, based on employment data from 2005 to 2015, India needs to create 8.1 million jobs a year to maintain its employment rate. Half of India's 1.3 billion people are under the age of 25, and two-thirds are under 35 years. Most of them are desperately looking for jobs. The problem is - one, a large number are unemployable, and two, there are simply not enough jobs to go around.
In this context, discussions of EX in India are happening in a rarefied environment without an understanding of the ground realities. India has many versions of the employer-employee relationship, some purely transactional, others exploitative, and a very small percentage where the employee is treated as a precious resource. More importantly, given the quality of resources available, a war for talent is imminent. This makes the need to focus on EX an urgent business imperative.
According to Josh Bersin from Deloitte, the irresistible organisation with outstanding EX provides meaningful work, hands-on manage-ment, a productive environment, growth opportunities, establishes trust in leadership, and focuses on the health and well-being of its employees.
The employer brand and its reputation are the stories employees tell about their organisation. EX is a critical competitive differentiator. An EX focus is necessary for organisations to function in a volatile global economy, and to succeed in attracting and retaining skilled employees. A holistic approach to EX should consider all contributors to employee satisfaction, engagement, wellness, and alignment, and provide a workplace that is flexible, collaborative, and humanistic.
Richard Branson, the serial entrepreneur and author, summarises EX, "My philosophy has always been: if you can put your staff first, customers second, and shareholders third, effectively, in the end, the shareholders do well, the customers do better, and your staff remains happy.”
Do you think hybrid work arrangements would be a common feature of the workplaces going forward?
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