The Crusade For Employee Experience: How Did We Get Here? 

Guest article by Josh Bersin

Employee Experience has become a crusade. Every HR and IT department is focused on it, and the marketplace has exploded. In fact, if you total up the tools spent on surveys, feedback, case management, knowledge management, and portals it’s well over a $15 Billion market today, and it leverages more than $200 billion in training, wellbeing, and other benefits spending.

How did we get here? Well it has been a journey, so let me give you some perspective.

Employee Experience: What Really Is It?

First, let’s define the term. Employee Experience (now called EX, to compare with CX, Customer Experience), is a company-wide initiative to help employees stay productive, healthy, engaged, and on track. It’s no longer an HR project. It’s is now an enterprise-wide strategy, often led by the CHRO in partnership with the CIO. And it deals with all the day to day issues employees face at work.

Second, it has multiple layers. At its core, EX is all about delivering an easy-to-use platform of tools that makes work productive. Just like Microsoft Office made our email and document management easy, a good EX solution makes all the other workplace activities easy. This is why companies like Microsoft, Facebook, and Google are big players in the space.

Third, it goes well beyond IT and HR. Today the EX strategy includes safe workplace protocols, office scheduling, employee learning, and of course all the other HR issues including pay, leave, wellbeing, and benefits.

Fourth, EX is now an “active strategy.” You should define and design your Employee Experience, not just monitor it. The CEO should think about EX as one of the most important design issues in the company. Done well, the EX program drives employment brand, productivity, engagement, retention, and customer success. (When employees aren’t productive, customers aren’t happy.)

At Amazon or UPS, for example, EX focuses on how a delivery driver can quickly find their route and deliver a package. At Microsoft or Facebook, it’s about helping engineers be productive and collaborative. At Dow or Exxon it’s about safety and process compliance. And at Northern Trust or Bank of America, it’s about security, financial controls, and customer service.

Finally, EX should build and reinforce your culture. At Unilever, for example, Purpose is everything. So a core tenet of Unilever’s EX is “finding your purpose” and “living your purpose.” So Unilever’s EX includes tools for self-discovery, job enrichment, and personal improvement.

How Did We Get Here: Consider The History

As in many business trends, this one came over time.. and I can trace the EX roots through four major eras. (Very analogous, by the way, to the evolution of CX – customer experience.)

1/ Industrial Engineering

This space started with industrial engineering. In the early 1900s Fredrick Taylor, a mechanical engineer, studied the behavior of steelworkers. In his iconic book Principles of Scientific Management, he described how data proved that the optimum “load” a steelworker should carry is around 50 lbs. If the worker carried more weight he tired out or got hurt. If he carried less he wasted time.

While Taylor was looking at productivity, his time and motion studies moved us to look at more. Maybe personality matters too.

In 1921 Carl Jung, a psychiatrist (and disciple of Freud), developed the idea of “personality types” at work. He realized that different types (Introverts and Extroverts) behaved differently in groups. This work led Isabel Myers and her mother Katherine Briggs to come up with MBTI, one of the most widely used personality assessments in business.

The MBTI created a stampede of new ideas in Industrial and Organizational Psychology. And there have been hundreds of innovations since (DISC, Big Five, Predictive Index, Competing Values, and hundreds of others). All focused on trying to understand “what makes people perform better at work.”

So the core roots of Employee Experience started with industrial engineering: figuring out the physical, psychological, and environmental things that improve productivity, safety, and quality at work.

2/ Annual Surveys And Employee Engagement

The next big era was the focus on “Employee Engagement.” (Defined as an employee’s willingness to expend “discretionary effort.”) Companies like Gallup and Kenexa looked at these factors and came up with “Engagement Models” that tried to predict employee outcomes. Famously, Gallup discovered that “having a best friend at work” was the most predictive of employee retention.  (It was a big topic this last year!)

In the mid-1920s Western Electric (the manufacturing arm of AT&T), pioneered the famous “Hawthorne Studies.” They looked at the lighting in a manufacturing plant and tried making them brighter. Employee productivity went up. Then they made the lights dimmer. And productivity went up again! The finding? When people feel like you’re listening to them they actually perform better! So we started a few decades of employee surveys.

This became a big industry. When I worked for IBM in the 1970s we had the Annual Opinion Survey and it was sacred. Everyone took it, the results were carefully tabulated and analyzed, and several months later there were meetings, reports, and some managers lost their jobs. These annual “climate surveys” became huge.

They were very important because companies could track their “engagement” by location, business unit, or manager and then see where things were going well and where they weren’t. But they were not very actionable and didn’t offer much open feedback, because they were based on benchmark questions.

I always thought that engagement benchmarking was a little silly – why would you want to compare yourself to another company, wouldn’t you just want to make your company the best it can be? Well, it was a massive trend so vendors like Gallup, Kenexa, Towers Watson, and others sold benchmarking data, survey tools, and lots and lots of consulting.

What we didn’t yet know was that an annual survey was “interesting but not useful.” It doesn’t tell you what’s happening at the “micro” level, where each employee is frustrated by a series of little things that may be tripping them up. So in around 2008 or so the idea of a “pulse survey” started to take hold. (Read my article Feedback is the Killer App.)

I believe vendors like Glassdoor started this craze (people could “Yelp” their company online), by letting employees talk about their employer online. Initially, employers were horrified to see these comments appear in public, but then we all got religion and started listening to employees like we listen to customers.

3/ Pulse Feedback, Response, And Employee Services

Next we entered a world of “pulse surveys” and Yelp-like tools at work.  And this introduced a journey to always-on feedback” and the need to “design” a better experience at work.  (NetPromoter did this for customer experience about ten years earlier.)

Initially, companies were afraid of pulse surveys. Every HR person I talked with said “nobody wants all these surveys” or “we’re wasting people’s time” or “the data won’t be useful.” But actually, the opposite happened.

Employees started to love giving their feedback and the results were very useful, so the tools market exploded with growth. Today you can get feedback tools from hundreds of vendors and they let you crowdsource suggestions, look at sentiment analysis and mood, and even identify harassment, fraud, and safety issues by looking at what people say.

(And this data is powerful. One of the largest Utilities in the US found employee feedback about maintenance issues which later predicted a massive fire.)

This flood of employee information then opened up another big question: who is going to deal with all these feedback issues?

We need a service delivery center or a series of self-service experiences, that help employees deal with their questions. So over the last ten years, we’ve built up an industry of case management systems, chatbots, and service delivery tools to respond to employee needs. (ServiceNow’s enormous growth all comes from this era).

Consider this picture. On the vertical axis, I show the wide range of EX issues we have to address (from the bottom to top of Maslow’s Hierarchy). On the horizontal, I show all the various service delivery groups in the company that have to get involved. It’s a big “N x N” problem to solve, which takes an enterprise-wide focus.

By the way, this era also opened up the door to sentiment analysis, organizational network analysis, and many forms of intelligent analytics. Companies like Kanjoya and Glint, who pioneered text analytics, let loose a marketplace of systems that can identify mood, topic, and risk in employee feedback, case information, voice, and even video.  And now we’re closing the loop – monitoring employee feedback in near real-time and sending it to the right stakeholder.

(Read “Shortening The Distance From Signal to Action” for more on this trend.)

4/ Today: EX Is About Designing An Integrated Experience

And this brings us to where we are today. We’re moving from “passive” to “active.” Let’s not just survey and respond, let’s design the EX we want. So companies are investing heavily in this strategy and bringing together HR, IT, Facilities, Safety, Legal, and more. And the COVID-19 crisis has added “safe workplace” to the mix, creating a massive industry for workplace redesign, desk scheduling, and low-touch work environments.

How do you build an EX strategy? It’s a cross-disciplinary problem because there are hundreds of “employee journeys” to consider.

We’re working with a large global company (more than 300,000 employees) that developed a detailed analysis of more than 200 “employee transactions” to be automated. For each of these “experiences”, we’re looking at whether we can make it self-service, automate it with a new tool, implement in the core HCM system, or possibly delegate it to a business partner or line manager. Imagine the “design work” that this requires.

Well, this is where we’ve arrived. Now, in the post-Covid (soon) world, we realize we have to look at health and safety, workplace design, desk scheduling, and even commute and travel. These new “safety and operational” issues are vital to an employee’s productivity, so we’ve added them to the mix.

As we talk with companies about what’s going on, we found that there are three keys to success.

First, you have to create a cross-functional initiative, one owned by HR, IT, Facilities, and Legal. One person leads this strategy, but it has to be implemented in stages over time. Every service delivery center in the company is now involved (many companies have a Global Business Services function, but many do not), and there is a case management, knowledge management, and IT technology focus to consider.

Second, you need to “design” the experience you want. Every company has a different focus:  at Dow and Exxon and Shell, the central focus is safety. At Unilever and Patagonia, the central focus is purpose and personal growth. At Microsoft, the focus is on productivity and wellbeing. And in financial service companies, the core focus is often on compliance, accuracy, and accountability.

These higher-level strategies have to be in place so you can decide what to do and what not to do. While we all want a “perfect” experience at work, there is no end to the number of things you can focus on. I urge you to go back to your business strategy first, so you don’t get lost in the weeds of things to do.

We have been working with a large Tech company on this for a few months, and they’re looking at the myriad of systems they have to stitch together. This is a huge part of the design, because building a new or updated “employee portal” can take millions of dollars. New announcements from Microsoft and other vendors are starting to make this easier, but this is all part of the design.

Third, you have to look at service delivery. No platform or “designed solution” is enough. Employees need someone to call, a place to get answers, and a series of escalations when things go wrong. What if I spot a safety hazard and want to report it? What if I’ve lost my laptop and am worried about lost data? What if my manager starts to harrass me and I need a private conversation? And what if I”m just burned out and can’t find what I need and don’t know where to start?

Deciding how and where escalations occur is part of EX. Just as we want customers to find the “right person” as fast as possible when they have questions or issues, we need the same design for employees.

Creating Employee Personas

Around 2016, when this idea first came to light, people started to apply design thinking to this problem. And they quickly found out that “all employees are not the same.” The needs of a mobile sales professional are very different from that of a manufacturing worker, and likewise, a retail employee is different from a software engineer. So we started to look at “personas.”

In 2017 I interviewed the head of digital strategy for Deutsche Telekom and they created 22 “personas” for all the workers in the company. They used design thinking to study what these people do, and then created a series of digital workplace tools, HR practices, and productivity tools for each. This core work has served them well: as new problems come up, the team can quickly apply the personas to the problem.

And this is a chance to get to know your company well. In one of my conversations, I asked the head of HR for a large manufacturer if they had segmented their workforce for EX design. She answered “yes, absolutely. We have three workforce personas:  Executives, Managers, and Labor.” Well, it was a step in the right direction, but you can imagine my disappointment when I told her “I think you can go a little deeper with this.”

Today we have to look at “deskless workers” (store, plant, mobile workers) in a very different way from “office workers.” We have to look at employee journeys by role, age, and even location. So there are dozens of dimensions to segment the workforce, making EX even more interesting (and complicated) than ever.

Enter 2021: More Important Than Ever

Today EX is more important than ever. The Pandemic taught us that working at home, developing a safe workplace, and supporting people in their wellbeing, productivity and career growth is essential. So EX has crawled out of the corner of the HR department and landed on the desk of the CEO.

And this leaves me with one final point. Employee Experience is not just a program to improve retention or productivity, it’s now core to your brand.

If employees don’t feel safe, productive, or supported, they will tell their friends – and your employment brand will suffer. And in times of change and stress, we want our people to “power us to success.” Designing a great experience for them is as important as it is for customers.

This article was first published at joshbersin.com

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