February 20, 2023
Employee Experience: Definition, Strategy and Best Practices
Written by: David Grossman
There’s been a power shift as employees in many industries have the upper hand in a tight labor market and look for companies that meet their needs above and beyond traditional benefits and compensation.
Accelerated by COVID-19, many got a taste of extra flexibility with remote work, confronted burnout and re-evaluated how they want work to fit into their lives. It was fight or flight. Some flew and are only now discovering what their company and culture is and whether there was truth in advertising.
For others, their jobs got even harder. Those who can’t work remotely crave the flexibility that others have. Leaders are making tough decisions around cost-cutting and layoffs as businesses try to navigate inflation and concerns over a recession. People leaders are frozen in the middle – trying to lead and motivate teams while dealing with return-to-office mandates, staff layoffs, retention issues, change-fatigued employees and concerns over employee well-being that are top of mind.
To say the “deal” between employees and employers is delicate right now is an understatement. The employee experience is more important than ever right now, and for many companies, it’s never been as complicated to navigate. This is the new reality of the workplace. What worked well before isn’t necessarily what’s going to work now.
The goal is the right balance between company goals and employee preferences.
What is Employee Experience?
The employee experience is an accumulated mix of encounters, observations and day-to-day learning that takes place over the course of an employee’s tenure.
The full employee experience includes everything an employee confronts, observes, reads, feels and perceives at every stage of their lifecycle with an organization. This includes the people and everyday things employees experience like their job, relationships with supervisors, leaders and co-workers, decisions being made, communication, technology, processes, programs and events, culture and ways of working, and more. It’s the collection of the tangibles and intangibles that employees experience on the job.
Companies that care about and differentiate their employee experience have the edge. They see the benefits that come when employees are emotionally connected to and feel great about where they work.
Moving the needle toward an optimal employee experience is complex and requires a multifaceted approach, well beyond basic benefits or HR programs. It’s even more complex these days as companies and employees balance needs around flexibility, focus on health and wellness, connections with others, inclusion and belonging, returning to the office and business pressures with inflation and a looming recession.
Employee Experience vs. Employee Engagement
It’s easy to confuse or conflate employee experience and employee engagement, but they are distinct. An employee’s experience is what drives their engagement, which is the emotional connection employees have with their work. If a person is not having positive experiences, their level of engagement will suffer. In fact, a recent Gallup survey indicates that employee engagement in the U.S. is declining: Active employee engagement is down to 32% and active disengagement is up to 18%, which is the highest it’s been since 2013. (Gallup)
Those numbers may seem bleak at first review, but they’re really employees’ way of saying that this is a complex challenge and is a relationship that needs tending, especially in today’s environment. It also suggests that leaders aren’t prepared to lead in the way this moment requires.
Interestingly, while these numbers haven’t changed dramatically in the last 10 to 15 years, it might just be that people are paying more attention.
As ways of working have shifted and a tight labor market has employers on their toes, organizations have had to reflect on the kind of employee experience they offer and whether it meets employees’ wants and needs today and is enough to keep them there.
Why is Employee Experience Important?
After two years of pandemic-related change, coupled with the need to adapt to a more digitally-driven work environment, employees are shifting their preference from the old adage of “work-life balance” to “life-work integration.” People want their lives to come first and their work to have meaning in their lives. This is not just about professional and personal gratification, but the desire and need to recalibrate relationships between our lives and work.
At its very best, this shift creates an opportunity to help employees find their connection to the organization’s purpose, mission and values; cultivate their feelings of connection and belonging; improve communication; foster understanding of how they fit in and contribute. This may sound like a tall order for employers, but optimizing the employee experience is well worth the time and effort in terms of business impact, as recent studies underscore:
- Employees are more likely to stay when they are satisfied by their employers in key areas (MetLife):
- Purposeful work: 2x more likely to stay
- Flexibility and work-life balance: 1.8x more likely to stay
- Career development and training: 1.7x more likely to stay
- Social & supportive cultures: 1.5x more likely to stay
- Wellness programs and benefits: 1.6x more likely to stay
In short, the employee experience matters a great deal to employees and employers alike. So, what can be done to positively impact it?
Cracking the Code to the Evolving Employee Experience
Before building an employee experience strategy, it is important to first acknowledge the realities of the modern-day workforce and workplace.
Impacts of the pandemic and other changes in recent years have added a layer of challenge – including the Great Resignation, wherein upwards of 5 million people reevaluated their career choices and voluntarily left their positions in 2021. In some cases, people chose to go it alone, choosing an entrepreneurial path rather than being forced to adapt to an employer’s values or expectations. In other cases, they left employers for what seemed like a better opportunity, with a work-life balance that fit their needs. This seismic shift is causing companies to ask, "What do employees really want?"
Here’s what the data says:
- 76% of workers want more flexibility about where they work, and 93% want greater flexibility in when they work (Future Forum)
- 85% of employees are most motivated when management offers regular updates on company news (JobsInME)
- Recognition is the most important motivator for 4 out of 10 employees (O.C. Tanner)
- 72% of employers say stress and/or burnout are a challenge/concern for their organization (MetLife)
When you consider what’s driving the shift, themes such as flexibility, communication and recognition rise to the top. At the same time, many companies are pushing to get employees back to the office at least some days of the week if not the full business week.
The key for employers is to determine how best to deliver in these areas to meet employee needs while also delivering on business goals.
Today’s employees have made it clear that tried-and-true tactics alone of offering financial rewards, such as pay raises and bonuses, aren’t going to do it in most cases. For some workers and industries, a raise is important and can help drive engagement. However, the majority of employees want more. They want to feel valued and appreciated, intangible assets that many corporations aren’t accustomed to making a priority.
So just how can employers respond to these trends? If companies shift focus to a more Heart First leadership style, they can better attract, develop and retain top talent. This is about leading with authenticity, empathy, vulnerability, self-disclosure, listening and setting and re-setting expectations. This will build a strong foundation on which the employee/employer relationship can be built.
Three things leaders can do to strengthen ties with employees:
- WELL-BEING: Gallup’s State of the Global Workforce report emphasized well-being and makes a case for leaders to be concerned about employees’ non-work-related life experiences to be “competitive and maximize business performance.” This helps employees thrive and reduces burnout.
- HELP THEM FEEL HEARD: Feeling heard also is important. Often, leaders think they’re hearing employees but aren’t doing the consistent work to actually hear them through regular touchpoints, one-on-ones and consistent communication channels.
- INDIVIDUALIZED SOLUTIONS: This means offering enough flexibility and personalization to meet varying employee needs. One of the dilemmas facing leaders today is how to best follow HR policies and guidelines while respecting an employee’s desire for individualized solutions.
The change in mindset is ultimately about the journey that employees and employers are on together. Making the most of that journey starts with listening to each other and identifying key milestones along the way that matter to the employee and employer and where it’s especially important to have meaningful interactions. Understanding the stages of the employee life cycle empowers employers to strategize programs and interventions that can deliver on a number of levels: retaining top talent, better serving clients, and improving bottom-line results.
What Are the Employee Life Cycle Stages?
According to Gallup, there are seven stages of the employee life cycle that capture the most important employee-employer interactions and shape employee perceptions. They include:
- Attract: There’s an ongoing war for talent – attracting the right talent takes time and dedication. To attract top talent, you need to market what makes your culture unique and appealing.
- Hire: Talent is on the move. To compete, you should ensure candidates are a strong fit for the role and the culture. Making the hiring process smooth and authentic helps secure top candidates, as does accelerating it and paring it down rather than making it unnecessarily arduous. The days of 30 interviews are long gone.
- Onboard: Gallup discovered that only 12% of employees strongly agree that their organization does a great job of onboarding. Yet the onboarding stage is critical – it’s not just where employees learn the requirements of the job, it also provides insights into the company’s vision, mission, values, and valuable tools and resources. A proper introduction into an organization can make a huge difference in an employee’s desire to stay, their productivity and their perception of the company culture.
- Engage: Do you think your employees are engaged? The reality is that most aren’t. Interestingly, Gallup found that only 15% of employees, globally, and 34% in the U.S., are engaged. A key to keeping employees engaged centers on the manager/employee relationship, not on perks. As we all know, a good manager is a mentor and cheerleader – somewhat like a good coach. The relationship is built on trust, respect and a sightline for future growth.
- Perform: Only 2 in 10 employees surveyed by Gallup report that they are managed in a way that motivates them to perform at their best. Rather than the annual performance review, which often backfires, employees do better when they receive regular, informal feedback on their work. When recognition and praise are delivered for outstanding performance, both employee and employer thrive.
- Develop: In many corporations, the career ladder is broken. Opportunities to grow and take on more challenging positions are unclear or missing. People develop at different rates and have different skill sets, and it’s up to the employer to nurture each employee in routine coaching sessions and set their specific milestones for achievement. What are they doing well? What would they like to change? Would they like to try something new? Stay interviews are an important part of this employee experience best practice (and to prevent employees from entering the Depart stage prematurely). We’ll address this in more detail below.
- Depart: Employees leave for lots of reasons: a better title, higher pay, retirement or a life change. While exit interviews allow people to be candid about their own employee experience, at that point it’s too late to “save” the person from leaving. Done right, exit interviews can help to build a network of grateful alumni who can serve as goodwill ambassadors and perhaps even future customers or partners.
How to Improve Employee Experience
Employers have plenty of opportunities for meaningful interactions and experiences during each of these stages to reinforce why being part of the organization is the right choice. Companies should have a purposeful plan mapped for each stage so experiences are intentional and achieve the desired outcomes.
Watch out for a common trap. All too often, the energy around the employee experience is emphasized in the Attract, Hire and Onboard stages, but not enough focus is spent on Engage, Perform and Develop.
How Can HR and Internal Communications Improve Employee Experience?
Organizations leading in this space today focus on ensuring there’s a strong partnership between HR and communications. Employees often don’t distinguish where the information they receive comes from, so it’s critical for HR and communications to foster a deliberate partnership and work toward shared goals that meet the most pressing needs.
For HR and communication professionals, the challenge and opportunity is to help the C-suite look at enterprise-wide needs by first taking inventory of what the organization offers at each stage of the employee work experience to determine if it’s keeping up with employee wants and needs. This helps ensure the employee experience strategy is holistic and doesn’t just focus on individual aspects of life cycle stages.
A holistic employee experience strategy includes:
- Agreeing on your organization’s specific definition of employee experience and aligning around that.
- Linking employee experience to a key business initiative which helps elevate its visibility and perceived importance.
- Conducting an inventory of the current employee experience to determine gaps, needs and opportunities for making immediate and needed improvements.
- Codifying what the employee experience means, its components and how to talk about it at an enterprise-wide level.
- Creating tools for managers to understand what the employee experience is, their role, what employees care about and how to best deliver for employees.
- Developing an organization-wide campaign to tell the employee experience story and assessing whether the need exists for a re-set moment as part of the larger communications to launch employee experience efforts.
By engaging experts from across leadership, HR and communication teams to plan and execute the employee experience strategy, the full complement of the organization’s expertise is leveraged to drive better outcomes.
What Can Leaders Do Now to Improve the Employee Experience?
It takes time to create an inventory of the employee experience across each of the seven stages and develop a holistic strategy, but there are also some opportunities for immediate impact that many organizations share. You might think of it as triage, a concept that has informed healthcare for decades and demands that you elevate the most at-risk issues to the top of your priority list to treat and resolve.
To improve the employee experience, we recommend that the C-suite work closely with HR to identify specific company-related triage touchpoints. We think of these as “macro-moments” to address the larger employee experience and the employee value proposition. They can be everything from building trust in leadership, recognition and appreciation, flexibility in scheduling, ensuring resources are in place to do the work and proactively managing work-related stress, and more.
Then, leaders can address the “micro-moments”, which are about delivering on individual and personal needs one person at a time. These may require new skills for leaders so they can get to their know employees at a deeper level and lead with heart.
Here are a few examples of triage that your organization can address now:
- Promote employee health and wellness:
In recent years, employee burnout and stress have become significant problems. To help employees feel supported and encouraged to take good care of themselves, make sure they understand the range of health and wellness offerings available to them. This might include a communications campaign promoting everything from health benefits and wellness programs to stress management tips and safety information. When employees feel the organization and its leaders care about their well-being, their experience and engagement improve. Furthermore, people who are healthier are more productive and more likely to have a positive work experience.
- Prioritize career development:
As employees reflect on how work fits into life and how to ensure the time and effort involved are worth it, they’re more focused than ever on career development. These days that means much more than promotions, moves and/or title changes, which are inherently limited. What’s not limited are the ways to develop oneself, and we need to help leaders and employees see beyond the traditional definition to the virtually endless opportunities available to continue developing the skills needed to grow. This is another area where leaders play a key role since these conversations are most productive at the individual level.And there’s data to back this up. More than half of Millennials (58%) and Gen Z (52%) indicate that success in their careers depends on frequently updating their skills and knowledge, according to a recent survey by getAbstract. It remains important for older workers, too. More than a third of Gen X (35%) and Baby Boomers (34%) said career success depended on continuous learning. Overall, workers who frequently engage in learning report feeling more fulfilled, accomplished and motivated. We need to help leaders and employees see the virtually endless opportunities available to continue growing and developing new skills, and this is another area where managers play a key role.
- Conduct stay interviews:
People aren’t just leaving their job because of the paycheck today. Many are leaving because they don’t feel appreciated or connected to the organization or its purpose, or they don’t see the value of their work because what they’re giving is not in sync with what they’re getting.“Stay interviews” continue to gain attention as organizations try to gauge how employees feel and identify surface issues and/or opportunities that could be improved to help employees stay and be more engaged. Stay interviews allow leaders to show genuine interest in their team members and how they’re doing, ask the right questions and listen with an open head and heart. Done well, stay interviews can minimize the need for “exit interviews.” They also provide valuable information to validate and/or adapt the employee experience offerings that companies provide to be most relevant.In addition to stay interviews, it’s helpful to have channels to regularly collect feedback from employees, such as feedback boxes, focus groups and anonymous options. These cost-effective tools can gauge the temperature of employee experience and job satisfaction. Managers should schedule regular touchpoints and one-on-one meetings with direct reports and encourage them to do the same with their teams to ensure the lines of two-way communication remain open.
- Focus on manager effectiveness:
With the emphasis on stay interviews, career development and more, manager effectiveness rises to the top of key care-abouts today. Leaders clearly need to lead differently, yet many leaders are wholly unprepared to do so.The type of leadership needed today isn’t something that comes naturally to many leaders, but it can be taught and practiced until it’s a muscle leaders have developed. When done well, it yields remarkable leaps in employee engagement. One of our global HR clients talks about it this way: “The key to shifting ways of working is by shifting the ways leaders lead. They go hand-in-hand because the leader still makes the weather.”In addition, managers are feeling a lot of pressure navigating between senior executives and employees.According to a global survey by Harvard Business Review, middle managers (those managing 1-6 people) are 46% less satisfied with their jobs than senior executives (those managing at least 15 people). It also found that middle managers have struggled more than twice as much as executives when it comes to maintaining a sense of belonging, and they feel more stressed and less productive than their more senior colleagues.All that’s to say, pay attention to middle managers and check that their employee experience is on your radar and optimized as well.
Employee Experience Best Practices: Putting Triage into Practice
As you consider what can be done today to improve employee experience at your organization – whether it’s related to health and wellness, manager effectiveness, culture or something else – there are many ways you can begin to triage. Below, we share a few ways we’ve helped our clients improve employee experience and we hope these stories offer inspiration for you.
- Boosting inspiration and connection: Associates at a global pharmaceutical company were experiencing change fatigue, and this coupled with pandemic frustrations resulted in rising feelings of uncertainty and anxiety – all impacting the employee experience. To address this, we created “A Dose of Inspiration” event which served as a reset moment to pause and acknowledge changes, recenter on the mission and inspire associates about the future of the organization and their role in that success. A mix of internal and external speakers helped everyone find inspiration from their patients and from one another. A post-event survey provided revealing insights into the power of coming together as a company around a shared mission to inspire associates and have a positive impact on employee experience. In fact, we found that 76% of associates reported being inspired by the event and 57% felt even more connected to the company mission.
- Defining culture: A global marketing firm was struggling with the change that ensues when a company is the result of many acquisitions and combining multiple cultures into one. We helped by engaging leaders at every level to define what was most important, identify and articulate desired behaviors, move away from outdated philosophies and establish a new culture everyone could get behind and embrace through their ways of working every day. The end result was a culture – and related employee experience – that was greater than the sum of its parts. A key part of this work was engaging managers so they were well-equipped to lead by example and carry the new culture forward with their teams.
- Promoting health and wellness: We helped the CHRO of a medical device company package and brand their overall health and wellness offerings to speak to their culture and how they wanted employees to experience being part of the organization. The program, which we called “Take Care,” created a rally cry for employees to know the range of health and wellness offerings available so they felt supported and encouraged to take good care of themselves, especially during the pandemic. This was especially important for the workforce given the mix of on-site employees and those who worked from home. It also became an avenue for health-related updates and offerings to encourage employees to follow safety and wellness protocols.
- Enhancing manager effectiveness: We worked with a leading national accounting firm to develop a creative solution for enhancing manager effectiveness. We developed a high-performance “leader playbook,” which clearly defined what it means to be a great leader at the firm. We created the guide in just one week in collaboration with a group of high-potential leaders, who provided the core concepts, strategies and tips as part of a leadership training experience. The guide was designed with beautiful infographics and images, making it highly accessible and a reliable go-to resource for emerging leaders at the firm. It provided essential strategies, tips and tools to enhance leadership and communication skills.
- Building leader communication capability: In today’s challenging work culture, setting the right tone as a leader goes a long way toward engaging your team. One of the best ways that we’ve found to address this pain point is by building a customized leader communication training and development program. We’ve done this for a variety of organizations, from the aerospace and defense industries to tech, healthcare, medical devices, food and many others. These interactive sessions focus on the evolving needs employees have today and ways in which leaders can evolve how they lead to connect with and engage teams in ways that resonate and navigate through times of change and uncertainty.
How Do You Measure Employee Experience?
An important part of any strategy is identifying metrics for measuring success and identifying areas where adjustment may be needed. When it comes to employee experience, you can use both qualitative and quantitative data to assess how well efforts are working.
Ways of measuring employee experience can include:
- Conducting quantitative surveys to gather insights on employees’ perspectives
- Conducting benchmark studies to determine how your employee experience framework stacks up against industry norms
- Looking at trends in HR data, including turnover, attendance records, internal promotions and employee referrals
- Gathering insights by talking directly with employees during one-on-one meetings, stay interviews, and through facilitated focus groups to listen and get an accurate pulse on how they are feeling
Ensuring an Even Better Employee Experience
Leaders make the weather and have the greatest impact on your employees’ day-to-day experience. More than ever, the success of your organization today is in the hands of your employees. How well do you understand your employees’ needs in today’s workplace reality? And, what can you do as leaders to ensure an even better experience for your people?
Taking a thoughtful and strategic approach to creating a fulfilling employee experience is vital to maintaining a positive work environment and retaining top talent.
Take a deeper dive into the topic of employee experience, the benefits of leading with empathy and combating turnover with this eBook, Holy Shift: Lead with Heart to Engage and Retain Employees.
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