Employee Engagement Vs. Employee Experience: Lessons From the Frontline

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Many businesses have spent huge amounts of time and money trying to build a high level of engagement among staff. While its importance should not be underplayed (Deloitte’s 2017 Global Human Capital Trends report found that employee engagement remains a top priority for businesses over the next year), companies are increasingly finding that this is just one step towards a greater goal to get the most out of their staff.

The Deloitte report found that 80% of executives believe that focusing on ‘employee experience’ is very important, or important. This new, more holistic approach will still include engagement at its core, but will also cover culture and performance management.

But how to put this more comprehensive strategy in place?

While employee engagement always seemed like an inconclusive ‘catch-all’, there is a growing consensus that the concept of employee experience is more honed and more useful

Giving staff what they want

Whether it’s surprising staff with the sight of a pot of Plasticine on their desks (complete with instructions about how to craft a model of themselves and put it up to share on the firm’s Instagram account), or ditching annual appraisals in favor of It’s You Time (managers having constant conversations with staff), it’s fair to say the experience of working at global digital agency Wunderman is very different from the norm.

In fact, anything that used to be a dull HR policy is now very much an activity. The deal for staff when they take training, for example, is that they promise to deliver on the firm’s 30:60 rule: applying what they learned within 30 days, then sharing what they learned with at least one other person within 60 days.

For CEO Pip Hulbert, far from this being HR gimmickry, she’s simply giving staff what they want – which is for work to be as much of an ‘experience’ as possible.

“Experience is a highly important term,” she says. “It’s a company philosophy. Work is such a big proportion of people’s lives; our view is that work has to be enjoyable. Work can no longer be somewhere people just ‘go’ to. It has to be something they feel.”

What sets employee experience apart?

For HR departments that have spent years convincing top leadership of the need to take staff engagement seriously, the arrival of this new e-initialed axiom might feel like a challenge. But while employee engagement always seemed like an inconclusive ‘catch-all’, there is a growing consensus that the concept of employee experience is more honed and more useful, and that 2018 will be the year when a greater number of firms should shift from one to the other.

“Experience is still a buzzword,” argues Yves Duhaldeborde, Director, Talent and Rewards, Willis Towers Watson, “but it also marks a point of evolution. Its new-found currency reflects the fact it’s become even harder to attract and retain talent, and that employers now need to offer ‘something else’ that’s distinctive and inspiring.”

He adds: “While experience has always been there, it was not always needed to be purposely thought of. Now it does.”

Experience arguably arrived in 2015 when, to great media fanfare, Airbnb announced it had appointed its own Global Head of Employee Experience. According to research by Charles Rogel, Senior Consultant, VP Product Development at DecisionWise, by November 2016, there were 1,850 people on LinkedIn with the phrase ‘employee experience’ in their job title, with a further 2,222 jobs advertised with the same term.

Firms with employee experience roles in their HR structures now include the likes of Adidas, Facebook and even at the world’s most famous store – Harrods – where experience is usually a customer feeling. This in many ways sums up the change. Staff require the same experiences internally as customers do of a brand.

Olga Aristova is HR Director, Russia, for cosmetics company Oriflame, which has embraced this approach of thinking of their employees like customers, even in terms of how they measure successful engagement.

“We’ve just introduced Net Promoter Scores for employees to see if they would recommend us as a place to work,” explains Aristova. “We’re asking different questions to measure those results to find any areas where they aren’t happy.”

“Well-being is part of our business strategy,” she adds. “We want our clients to improve their well-being with our products, therefore it’s important that our employees are able to promote the benefits of being part of our brand outside the company.”

Employee experience isn’t really something companies can just dip their toes into. “It requires jumping in with both feet, even if that means some pushback from staff who may think their particular firm isn’t being authentic”

Put the employee first

Presenting a holistic experience, from the moment an employee arrives (or even before that) to the moment they leave, can be more complex. “Experience is a sum of all interactions – but connected interactions, which means organizations have to be more thoughtful about how they set up their workplaces,” says Ben Whitter, founder of the World Employee Experience Institute.

“Although it borrows familiar HR concepts – like the extent to which people feel proud to work at a business, or how meaningful they feel their work is – firms haven’t been getting it right. One in four employees will suffer a mental health issue at some point, which proves this point.”

“The key is that experience has to start by firms focusing on the individual first, rather than them being the last port of call,” he adds, “but this is easier said than done.”

The problem, argues Whitter, is that experience isn’t really something companies can just dip their toes into. “It requires jumping in with both feet, even if that means some pushback from staff who may think their particular firm isn’t being authentic, or isn’t doing it from the heart,” he says.

Alexey Kolchin is Vice President and General Manager, Brazil, at global pharmaceutical company GSK. He is in no doubt of the positive effect the approach can have. “In my experience this concept is unbelievably powerful. Last year, Brazil was going through an enormous financial crisis. It was made worse because in the previous 10 to 15 years, it hadn’t experienced the same crisis felt in the West.”

“When I arrived here I saw enormous frustration in people. Moving our focus at GSK from what we do at work to why we do it made such a difference. Stressing the importance of our values and giving people reason to believe they could be successful by giving examples of success is enormously powerful.”

“By focusing on the overall engagement, our global employee survey showed that, in Brazil, 96% of responders were proud to work for our company.”

A chance to redefine processes

According to Jackie Jones, Living Business Design Director at Fjord, an Accenture-owned innovation consultancy that advises on creating customer and employee experiences, firms really must start from scratch to redefine all their processes.

“Most companies have policies that now seem very clunky,” she says. “Given employees now demand greater personalization – where employees expect companies to know about ‘them’ and what their skills path needs to be – it’s easy to see that an end-to-end approach is needed.”

To do this, Jones says firms need to take a ‘vitality audit’ – to understand all the things that affect the personality of a business. “Then you need to be realistic about what you change to create what impact,” she adds. “You can’t suddenly become a Google if your business’s vital signs show this isn’t possible.”

“One size doesn’t fit all in employee experience. You can’t manage everybody the same, so it’s important to customize each experience to each person”

Packaging solutions business DS Smith, which employs 27,000 staff across 37 countries, defines experience as the ‘ongoing and holistic view about how employees feel about their work’. According to Louisa Mellor, Head of Engagement and Culture, experience now forms the basis of its OWN IT! program, which is specifically focused on empowering its dispersed local teams.

She says: “We feel employee experience moves us beyond a world of engagement campaigns to a deeper and embedded cultural view of all HR policies and practices.”

She continues: “OWN IT! was developed on the principle that employees should have a voice to raise ideas and be involved in implementing any changes. It’s about saying all colleagues can make a difference, regardless of their role or level.”

She adds: “OWN IT! supports a range of activities, from on-boarding, communications and idea generation to performance management and recognition. As a result, personal empowerment and accountability enhance the employee experience through varied and valued work.”

Different staff, different needs

For some firms, seemingly simple measures make a big difference. Last year, Scottish craft beer producer BrewDog dominated the press with its intriguing ‘pawternity’ leave policy.

“We didn’t want staff to eat into their holiday, so have decided to offer all staff a week’s paid ‘puppy leave’ to help staff settle their new dog at home,” says Allison Green, its People Director. “The only direct cost to us is the time off, but we know it makes our people less stressed.”

Behind these headlines is the fact that this is just one of a suite of perks that, in combination, reflect that the firm has a strong and well mapped out view of what it wants to be. It also offers sabbaticals, while 10% of its profits are split equally among staff, too.

Janelle Reiko Sasaki, Executive Director, Diversity & Inclusion Services, EY Advisory & Consulting says that in Japan a shrinking, ageing population and a low birth rate means that focusing on employee experience is a must if companies wish to attract and retain talent. She says that trying to offer a more individual experience to each employee is key.

“One size doesn’t fit all in employee experience. You can’t manage everybody the same, so it’s important to customize each experience to each person. Find out what motivates them and what challenges them. When you are clear about those two things, you’ll have an engaged employee. They have to find that out themselves as well, but once you know, the sky is the limit.”

Share responsibility across the company

As well as reinforcing the fact that HR can’t just pick a policy and think it’s got experience covered, some say examples like these also reveal why experience can’t solely be HR’s responsibility.

“HR is just one leader of experience,” argues Whitter. “It’s not just HR’s thing. All departments and all managers must be held accountable to ensure a holistic vision for the business is consistent everywhere. One business I know has 40 experience officers – and they’re all charged with maintaining a common experience for all.”

Making everyone responsible allows for what Simon Fanshawe, co-founder, Diversity By Design, calls the ‘experience deficits’ in businesses to be addressed – everything from what people feel are blockers to advancement to how staff feel. The only way to do it, he says, is to directly ask staff what they want (something he says remarkably few businesses actually do.)

“Asking sounds basic, but how staff respond to this can reveal how processes often militate against the culture and experience a company is trying to create,” he observes. Findings revealed by his firm’s Insight tool include staff perceptions that new role openings are simply ‘jobs for the boys’, and that there is underlying sexism.

“Listening raises questions about things that could be done better, in a no-finger-pointing way,” he adds.

“Technology may be a part of this – from offering pre-joining and on-boarding web-based learning to empowering staff with apps to choose their benefits, or providing secure technology to work flexibly”

To be successful, Sasaki says, all levels of an organization must be on board. “At my last organization, we had an innovation campaign that went really well. We had an internal social media platform to share perspective on how we could improve as an organization through HR and leadership. In addition to that, we really encouraged intrapreneurship.”

“Leaders have to listen to their employees, but there needs to be a level of engagement from employees too. You also need processes and policies in place that allow change to happen. Employee experience needs to be looked at on every level of your organization.

Build processes in from the beginning

Mathew Paine is Director of Human Resources at the International Convention Centre Sydney (ICC Sydney). The convention, exhibition and entertainment venue opened in 2016, allowing Paine and his team to define employee experience from the start, focusing on three main elements – culture, engagement and performance management.

He agrees that putting responsibility on team members allows businesses to better match employee expectations of growth.

“Our feedback program is designed to set all permanent team members up for success, and is made up of two elements – Check-Ins and ‘Go’ Catch Ups. ICC Sydney Leaders are required to arrange four formal Check-Ins to discuss Key Result Areas and Key Performance Indicators per year. While these are arranged by the leader, they are driven by the team member.”

“In addition to Check-Ins, team members are invited to arrange ‘Go’ Catch Ups with their leader to talk about Goals and Opportunities (GO). These are also driven by the team member and only take place when they request them.”

On top of individual development, Kolchin believes a focus on team building could help organizations improve experience further.

“It’s more and more critical to have everyone working together. You could have a high performing individual, but collectively you will fail if people can’t work together,” he says. “You can offer basic team building, but I think there is something beyond it where you can focus this development further and that will give businesses an enormous competitive advantage.

“GSK is built on a team mentality. People have a better experience and are less likely to leave because they enjoy working together.”

Communicate clearly and be accountable

Ultimately, commentators appear to agree that what experience really means is a change of mindset – of a full-lifetime approach to employees’ careers. But this doesn’t mean ‘giving in’ to millennial desires.

“To me, experience is also about creating better conversations with employees,” says Duhaldeborde, “where people’s sense of empowerment and trust in others constantly confirms that where they work is the right place for them. In this sense, it’s more about creating a kinship – where all the ‘moments that matter’ across the employment life cycle are productive, authentic, engaging and joined up.”

“Experience is really about how an organization ensures people’s day-to-day lives reflect what they say it should be. In other words, does reality reflect what the brochures and posters on the wall say?”

He adds: “Technology may be a part of this – from offering pre-joining and on-boarding web-based learning to empowering staff with apps to choose their benefits, or providing secure technology to work flexibly. I think when experience is understood in these terms, staff themselves see their own responsibility in creating that experience too, and in engaging their colleagues to do the same.”

The key, says Marianna Karagiannakis, founder of boutique people and culture consultancy flowcultura, is not to ‘do’ experience. It has to be felt.

She says: “Lots of organizations try to ‘deploy’ experience, but it lands flat. Experience is really about how an organization ensures people’s day-to-day lives reflect what they say it should be. In other words, does reality reflect what the brochures and posters on the wall say? It isn’t rocket science, but neither is it always done well, especially as traditional HR is still transactional in nature.”

Karagiannakis should know what she’s talking about. In 2012 she was appointed Head of Employee Experience at insurance firm Direct Line Group – way before Airbnb was grabbing the headlines. Direct Line Group is famous for its customer experience credentials and wanted the same attention to experience internally as it did externally.

Karagiannakis says: “We did a piece of research to understand the current employee experience and then partnered with the Head of Customer Experience to share insights. The findings were indisputable. There was a direct link between what employees were saying about their experience and what customers were saying. The two are inextricably linked, which is just another reason why employee experience is so important.”

What’s significant is that, according to Karagiannakis, there was no sudden transformation. “It was slow-drip stuff,” she says. “Research around understanding how employees felt flowed into the work we did on our culture, and this in turn influenced how we started to understand the employee journey,” she adds. “Over time this then started to impact all our strategic conversations. We would start to ask how x or y policy would impact the employee experience.”

It’s this, arguably more honest, depiction of the true speed at which experience often gains traction, which should give others more comfort.

“We were probably a thorn in people’s sides for a bit,” she admits. But she believes initial reluctance really is the only hurdle because, after that, the benefits of thinking about experience at every turn are easy to see.

“Today, most employees won’t stick around in a place they don’t feel good at,” Karagiannakis says. “It’s when people truly ‘feel’ their company is experience-centric, that companies will reap the benefits.” She adds: “To me, experience is now a very rational, sound business decision.”

About the Author

Sandra Henke is Group Head of People at Hays, a global executive recruitment company.

Copyright 2018 by Hays Journal. All rights reserved