Is 'employee experience' the future of HR?

Technology, culture, physical workspace core environments identified in new trend

Is 'employee experience' the future of HR?
Employee experience can involve a radical organization redesign in an effort to put employees at the centre of all decisions, according to experts. Credit: Monster Ztudio (Shutterstock)

“Employee experience” is a term gaining ground in the field of human resources, and an impending talent shortage in Canada means quality employee experience will be a necessity going forward, according to Alana Free, vice-president of people and culture at GoodLife Fitness.

“We have to have amazing employee experience,” she said, speaking at the Employee Experience Summit Canada in Toronto on Sept 25.

“I don’t know what it’s going to look like, but it has to be outstanding because we’re going to be fighting like crazy to keep our people.”

Defining employee experience

One definition of the term could be “people’s perception of the sum of their interactions with (an) organization that lead to their feeling — their thinking — influencing their behaviours and their performance,” according to Stephanie Denino, employee experience manager at Accenture in Montreal, who attended the conference.

Different lenses exist in terms of viewing employee experience, such as a worker’s expected path through the talent life cycle, highlighted by “moments that matter” — recruitment or onboarding, for instance, she said.

“I find it interesting to see how wide open this space is, and how many people are grappling to define the term and the mandate. When you think about what’s next, a lot of people are talking about the need to break down silos and how we solve for our people more holistically.”

Various definitions of employee experience exist, though many remain vague, according to Jacob Morgan, author of The Employee Experience Advantage in San Francisco, Calif.

“I define employee experience as changing the core workplace practices around your people focused on three environments — which are culture, technology and physical space,” he said. “Those are the three environments that every organization can control and shape and design for, and I think that’s much more of a tangible way for us to think about it.”

Shifting the conversation

Employee experience can involve a radical organization redesign in an effort to put employees at the centre of all decisions, said Morgan. And companies that have embraced this shift are “spending much more time in HR thinking about how to transform the business, how to design experiences, instead of just spending all of their time thinking about HR, payroll and compliance,” he said.

“It’s shifting the mindset of the company to focus more on transformation and less on traditional HR.”

Companies have created job positions around the trend in an effort to attune core workplace practices towards people, rather than simply perks and benefits, said Morgan.

“It’s definitely caught on,” he said. “(But) I still think it’s in the very early stages and most companies actually still don’t know what that means and are not familiar with the phrase, so (there’s still) a long way to go.”

“This is going to be the greatest competitive advantage for businesses going forward,” said Morgan.

“I see employee experience as kind of the next arena that businesses will compete around, and the companies that design the greatest employee experiences will be able to attract and retain the best talent, drive innovation, have better financial performance, better customer experiences.”

“This is an evolution of traditional HR. And it’s absolutely going to be the way that we think about it going forward.”

The trend is a direct result of failed employers’ employee engagement programming, according to Morgan.

“The whole shift to employee experiences is because companies are realizing that all the time, money and resources they’re putting into these engagement programs is going nowhere — the engagement scores aren’t going up,” he said.

“Employee engagement — although it had very good intentions — has now basically become this idea of investing in short-term perks to try to drive employee satisfaction. That doesn’t work, at least not for the long run.”

Data insights

Meanwhile, technology and online experiences have provided copious amounts of data with which companies can make decisions and map employee life cycles, said Veronica Van, senior product manager of people experience and culture strategy at Telus Digital in Toronto, who spoke at the summit.

Employee experience is similar to customer experience, she said.

“It’s just a different product offering,” said Van. “It’s like the culture in the work that you’re selling versus the actual product. But you still need to attract talent in the way you need to attract customers.”

“As the entire economy moves to more of a digital experience… the benchmarks have changed in terms of traditional competitors,” she said.

“When people open an app on their phone, they’re comparing that experience from Airbnb to Telus.”

Accenture is attempting to be employee-obsessed in how it solves issues, according to Denino.

“We are attempting to be very data-driven or insight-driven in solving the right problems. We talk a lot about working from insight and not assumption when creating certain interventions that we think will help our people,” she said.

“I also think that we are attempting to move away from the desire to go after the shiny and new and really think about ‘What are the main needs we are solving for? And how does technology play in service to that technology and workplace?’”

Companies focused on bettering employees’ experiences see returns on investment in terms of improved productivity and performance, said Morgan.

“People want to work for an organization that invests in their experience,” he said. “That is something we all care about as humans; it’s something we all value as individuals.”

“If you want to be able to compete and succeed and grow and thrive in the new world of work, the best way that you’re going to be able to do that is by investing in the experiences of your people,” said Morgan.

“It’s a survival thing. You’re not doing it because it’s nice; you’re doing it because you want your business to be around for the next five, 10, 15 or 50 years.”

Advice for HR

Employee experience can be approached in different ways, according to Denino. Some employee experience managers report to their CHRO, while other companies have simply renamed their HR departments.

Accenture’s team is dedicated to establishing consistent measurements of experience, attempting to bring in employees’ voices to drive improvements and innovation efforts within HR, she said.

“What we have been appreciating is that there is a need to introduce new mindsets to how we improve experience, bringing in skills like human-centred design as you attempt to reimagine a certain experience. When you look at traditional skills within HR, not many people have those types of foundational skills.”

“A lot of what this area is meant to be is a way to become much more employee-centric in how we solve,” she said. “A lot of employee experience teams… have been created with the underlying desire to shake up how things work within HR, to bring in tools that we use when solving for customer experience in service of our own people.”

“There definitely is this desire to bring in a more radical or novel approach to what we provide to our people every single day.”

Senior leadership is essential for the success of employee experience initiatives, said Morgan.

“If you have managers and leaders in the company who don’t care about experience, who don’t care about kind of the human side of business, these initiatives will fail right away.”

Human resources also needs to ensure they aren’t operating in a bubble, said Van.

“If we’re only reading HR articles, we’re kind of in an echo chamber.”

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