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The Ultimate Guide to Employee Experience

The past few years have presented unprecedented challenges for organizations in attracting, engaging, and retaining top talent. As organizations worldwide went remote almost overnight owing to the pandemic-driven lockdowns, employees had to up their game and perform in an environment of uncertainty. Mental health came to the forefront, as issues such as burnout forced organizations to support and enable their people to cope. 

Come 2021, the Great Resignation took over, as fast-growing organizations looked at ramping up their talent needs in line with the growth predictions. Words such as 'Great Resignation' and 'Quiet Quitting' came to the forefront as the talent market turned employee-centric, especially in the tech space. 2022 saw a slowdown in the economic outlook, translating to layoffs. Indeed, today’s business environment is beyond just VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity). 

The multitude of macroeconomic factors, coupled with the changing employee preferences, make it imperative for organizations to look beyond mere employee engagement and focus on holistic employee experience (EX).  

Why Employee Experience?

Today’s employees are a different breed, thanks to a shift in the socio-economic and demographic factors. The pandemic provided them with an opportunity to reflect and reassess life priorities, including why, where, and how they work. Now, people are putting much thought into making the right employer choice. 

The rise of the digital-native population, such as Gen Z, Gen Y, and millennials, and the dominance of social media is fundamentally changing the ways of working and giving rise to new employee expectations. Gone are the days of working 9-5, and boundaries are blurring across ‘work' and 'life.' People expect the same ultra-consumeristic experience they enjoy in their personal lives with the Ubers and Airbnbs of the world. And they are voicing out their asks on various public platforms, impacting a company’s brand image. 

Also, the rapid pace of change in the external environment is spurred by digitalization, socio-political changes, and economic forces. This is forcing organizations to adapt to changing times quickly. Given the intensive War for Talent, organizations simply cannot ignore these changing dynamics. 

In a knowledge economy, talent is one of the critical keys to unlocking competitive advantage. Remote working, hybrid working, gig working, flexibility, hyper-personalization, authenticity, power of choice, consumerism, empowerment, meaning, and purpose are no longer just buzzwords but a way of life for today’s and tomorrow’s employee population. Organizations must move away from a traditional top-down approach and rethink and rearticulate how they wish to attract, engage and retain talent. These and many more facets will continue to shape the Future of Work, and the sooner leaders wake up to shaping an EX-driven Future of Work, the better organizations can tide over change and thrive.

In a world where money is no longer the primary motivating factor for employees, focusing on the employee experience is the most promising competitive advantage that organizations can create.

– Jacob Morgan, author of The Employee Experience Advantage

The business case for Employee Experience

EX is not just feel-good-do-good; there lies a true business case for EX. 

Companies that invest in employee experience are 4x more profitable than those that do not. 

Jacob Morgan

Many HR professionals apply the analogy of Customer Experience (CX) to describe Employee Experience (EX). It is the employees who interact and deal with customers and are entrusted with delivering customer experience. Hence, the employee's level of engagement defines their ability to attend to customers' problems.

Indeed, McKinsey research shows that employees at leading EX companies are more inclined to surpass work expectations, having a 40% higher level of discretionary effort. As Richard Branson once said, “If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.”. As a result, EX goes hand-in-hand with CX to achieve the desired business outcomes.

What is Employee Experience?

To be able to curate the ultimate employee experience, HR and business professionals must begin by understanding what EX exactly means for them.

Employee experience encapsulates what people encounter and observe over the course of their tenure at an organization.

McKinsey and Co. defines the employee experience framework across three core areas, namely:

  1. Social Experience: People and relationships, teamwork, and social climate
  2. Work Experience: Work organization, work control and flexibility, and growth and rewards
  3. Organization Experience: Purpose, technology, and physical environment 

The above employee experience examples will have a positive impact on employee engagement, that is, the extent to which employees are motivated to contribute to an organization.

What is not Employee Experience?

To truly drive EX strategically, HR leaders must deep-dive to know what it is not. The goal of employee experience is not to make people feel warm and fuzzy; it is to make them want to come to work and enable them to do their best work. Often, HR and business leaders may confuse employee engagement with the employee experience. 

The reality is that employee engagement is only one part of the employee experience journey. Employee engagement is the output that arises from all that an organization does to elevate the EX. Employee experience, thus, goes much beyond employee engagement. 

"It equals everything a worker learns, does, sees, and feels at each stage of the employee lifecycle."*2

In modern terms, EX goes beyond the workplace and focuses on the employee as a holistic individual, while employee engagement is more restricted to a workplace employee productivity construct. As a result, HR leaders must study each employee touchpoint, from recruitment and pre-hiring to onboarding, learning, and development, performance management, employee engagement to exit management, and beyond. 

Nowadays, the employee journey does not end with exit because an exited employee becomes an alumnus and may rejoin the organization or recommend suitable talent as an employer advocate. 

Key elements of a great employee experience

HR practitioners should begin by drafting an employee experience framework and strategy centered on a strong foundation of the shared purpose and values of the organization. It should comprehensively address all HR sub-functions: 

1. Candidate and Onboarding experience

Assimilating new joiners in the ways of the organization and cultivating a sense of belongingness is critical to effective EX. Employee experience begins before a person becomes an employee—it stems from candidate experience and employer branding.

2. Policy and Ways of Working 

Giving employees the power to choose how to work, where to work, and when to work is a reality. According to the Global Workforce Hopes and Fears Survey by Deloitte, 62% of respondents said they prefer some mix of in-person and remote work. 63% said they expect their company to offer that kind of approach in the next 12 months, compared with 72% in the 2021 survey. 

HR must personalize policy basis work profiles and personas. To amalgamate the diverse work cohorts, HR should invest in agile workforce planning solutions.

3. Physical Workspace

Despite new anywhere-anytime work models, the fact remains that certain employee populations may prefer working from an office location. Especially for core brick-and-mortar companies, this is a business reality. An inviting workspace with ergonomically designed facilities to ensure employees can focus on their work without worry is a basic hygiene factor. Post the pandemic, organizations have been trying to lure employees back to the office with fancy eatables and attractive amenities. 

Also, the workplace should reflect the company's values and culture. A great employee experience example is having an open floor plan to foster collaboration, open communication, and a non-hierarchical outlook.

4. Tech-first experience

Employees expect a digital employee experience where they have modules and tasks available and accessible at the touch of a button or a swipe away. HR must recreate the comfort and convenience of consumer-grade experiences. Start with an employee self-service model where employees can independently access basic information such as payslips, leaves, attendance, performance data, and learning paths. Such a model can ensure seamless employee experience management. 

The same applies to candidates. A candidate experience management system like an ATS must be designed to be multi-platform and multi-device for ease of use. 

5. Performance and productivity

Employees expect to have a clear understanding of what they need to do to succeed at their job. Clearly define KRAs and KPIs and train managers to communicate and discuss achievements and aspirations with their team members. 

Feedback mechanisms such as continuous feedback, 360-degree feedback, peer feedback, etc., can be integrated into the platform. At IBM, employees were an integral part of the EX - they created their performance management program and took pride in that.

6. Learning and growth

Learning and career development opportunities in career pathing, cross-functional projects, and global mobility are must-have components to build EX. Rope in the right learning technologies, such as artificial-intelligence-driven personalized learning recommendations, gamification, micro-learning, video podcasts, virtual classrooms, and conventional classroom training to cater to different learning styles and create a learning pull.

7. Rewards and recognition

A sense of appreciation and being valued, along with consistently being recognized and rewarded for their contributions, is an essential employee need. Recognition has to be real-time, meaningful, and customizable. Employees must have the power to choose what they want based on what means the most to them. An intuitive and personalized rewards platform is a critical element of EX.

8. Wellness and well-being

The pandemic accelerated the importance of wellness and well-being as critical employee enablers. Renewed importance was given to mental health. Yet, in a 2022 Gallup poll, only 33% of employees said they were thriving in their overall well-being. 

As per a McKinsey Wellness report, digital and social channels are becoming significantly more influential. However, the workplace wellness strategy must mix digital and offline to ensure maximum coverage of diverse employee groups. 

9. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)

Being a part of a fair and equitable organization helps build trust and can make employees go above and beyond their call of duty to add discretionary value to their organization. Today's employees value meritocracy and expect to be acknowledged for who they are as holistic contributors. The DEI policy should be a strong and sustainable part of the EX.

10. Management effectiveness 

Manager connects and interactions account for 70% of the variance in employee engagement. Great managers can serve as mentors or coaches, giving employees passion for their work and inspiring them to be more productive. HR must curate programs to train managers in various aspects. It can be people management for first-time managers, empathy training for top leaders, or gender sensitivity for all manager levels.

11. Leadership Connect

Employees wish to connect and converse openly and transparently with their seniors. They wish to be updated and involved in how the company is doing and how they contribute to the growth story. Moreover, a culture where the top leadership is seen as ‘walking the talk’ helps build trust. The EX must include authentic and regular connections with leaders, podcasts, town halls, bay visits, etc. Always open up two-way communication channels between employees and leaders.

12. Culture

Vision and mission are the first steps to aligning employees’ behaviors with what the organization expects and requires to meet its business objectives. HR should define and constantly communicate the organizational values to get them to imbibe and live the culture truly. 

Due to the multiple facets of the EX, it is important to put in place the right Employee Experience platform. A well-designed EX platform will cut across each of these tenets in a seamlessly integrated manner.

Design thinking approach for a seamless employee experience

Leaders can adopt the Design Thinking approach to create a systematic plan for employee experience journey mapping.

Design thinking helps create an engaging workplace that delights the workforce during the 'moments that matter.'    

- Deloitte Report: Reimagine and craft the employee experience

To begin with, HR can apply the design thinking construct to every people process. For example, instead of thinking in process terms, “What do we need new hires to do on their first day?” HR thinks in experience terms—“What do we want a new employee’s first day to be like?” Such holistic answers are then applied in every step of the curation, whether subscribing to a new HR self-service app or an entire performance management process and system. This approach ensures better alignment with both business and workforce needs. Another design element in EX design is tech. 

Technology as an enabler in EX design

Tech tools can foster instant connectivity and collaboration, social sharing, and data-tracking—key elements desired by the next-generation workforce. Investing in the latest technologies and skills is critical to unlocking a day-to-day digital-first employee experience. Data and analytics can help identify drivers of strong performance or high motivation levels, allowing HR practitioners a data-backed foundation for action planning on EX. 

Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning can curate a high degree of personalized experiences across HR touchpoints. Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality can enhance candidate selections, employee development, and even something as simple as fun at work! The key is to identify what technology works well basis the business needs and employee needs. 

HR leaders must evaluate the available options to implement a solution that suits their business model, and at the same meets employee needs. It should also have the right blend of tech and touch. It should be intelligent. For example, an NLP-driven tool which remembers contexts from previous chats and understands intents and, at the same time, responds with empathy and digs deeper wherever required to truly win employees' trust. Above all, it should provide an integrated and secure experience. Such a solution like Amber can enable people-first leaders to build a winning culture. And for a winning culture, EX is critical. Hence, investing in survey tools and technologies across HR arenas is a great start to improve and optimize the EX curation:

1. Candidate and Onboarding Feedback

Organizations must give weight to what is said inside an organization by new joiners because it can be heard outside as well, through social media. Seeking continuous feedback through candidate and new joiner surveys can provide quick wins. 

2. Pulse surveys and spot sentiment checks:

Be it an annual engagement survey or conducting spot sentiment checks, pulse survey analysis can throw up useful insights for Sentiment analysis. Sentiment analysis is a cognitive tool that picks up the words and tones people use to describe their feelings. This can help detect early warning signs and help HR commit to doing something about them.

3. Performance conversations and check-in surveys

PMS systems hold hordes of employee data. HR can seek feedback from multiple assessment raters, insights from individual development plans, and surveys centered around performance tracking and management

4. Exit surveys

Reason for leaving’ can be amongst the most helpful gap analysis insights for curating the EX. Design a structured employee exit survey for records and conduct an in-person exit interview to maintain the human connection. This will help build outgoing employees as employer advocates and contribute to the employer brand.  

5. Training assessment

Training evaluation has been around since the Kirk Patrick model days, but given today’s multi-format learning channels, L&D should constantly seek feedback from learners about what, how, and why they want to learn. This will help customize learning content, learning media, learning styles, and learning platforms. The right LX can drive a continuous learning culture and align the learning strategy with the organizational strategic goals.

6. Open feedback platforms

It is critical to enable open, available, and accessible two-way channels for employee feedback and communication. Cultivate a sense of security, so employees feel free to share, be it about their managers, teams, peers, leaders, organizational policies, or anything else. Making available both digital platforms and in-person forums, including anonymous sharing, will open up ears to the real employee speak!

Once employee survey and feedback data come in, it is important to action the insights and run it through to execution. Once implemented, HR should measure the EX's effectiveness periodically. 

A real-life case is when IBM moved away from the classic five-point satisfaction scale for measuring HR effectiveness to the more pinpointed Net Promoter Score. “Earlier, if someone rated you a 3.1, you ended up saying they were satisfied, whereas, with Net Promoter, you have to be at the far end of the scale for it to mean anything because you have to subtract all the detractors”, shares former HR Head, IBM, Diane Gherson. Such a metric gives much better feedback on what people are experiencing to fine-tune the EX further.

Balancing tech with touch for a truly human experience

We have seen the rapid acceleration and expansion of digital work in the past two years. However, to create a tech-first EX, companies may tend to implement technology piecemeal without thoughtful design for the employee experience, resulting in siloed tools and redundant tech, which dampen worker enthusiasm, limiting productivity and impeding business outcomes.

It is, therefore, crucial for organizations to create human-centered digital workplaces which place people at the heart of everything they do. Organizations must rethink their relationship with their employees and look at work-life through the employee lens.

  1. How can we bring more meaning into people’s work?
  2. How can we motivate individuals to bring their best selves to work?
  3. How can we create ongoing employee advocacy with our people?
  4. How can we communicate how work contributes to the organizational strategy? and many more…

Having the courage and conviction to keep asking these and more questions is necessary to retain the human experience in employee experience.

EX not just an HR prerogative

One should move away from the perception that EX is an HR prerogative. Today, EX is a top-of-mind concern for the CXO suite and is a combined responsibility. Organizations must let go of siloed thinking to create a great employee experience. An ongoing commitment with leadership buy-in is a must to make this happen. HR must set up an influential committee, a Centre of Excellence, to co-create the EX. 

For example, designating senior leaders or people managers as 'EX Champions' is a great way to kickstart participation in the EX agenda. Above all, bringing alive the employee experience is a huge change management exercise. Because it is all about meeting employee needs, it is important to co-create the EX in sync with the recipients—the employees themselves. “People are less likely to resist change when they’ve had a hand in shaping it,” shares former HR Head, IBM, Diane Gherson.

Perhaps the most important factor for creating the ultimate employee experience journey in 2023 is a mindset change. Being agile and receptive to change, continuously learning, being curious to know what employees want, and being open to listening to what employees say, is a leadership prerogative for EX's success.  

Start thinking about and believing that creating more human work will benefit everyone