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Return to the Office and Employee Experience Are Two Sides of the Same Coin

April 21, 2021 Digital Workplace
Mark Feffer
By Mark Feffer

Nearly three-quarters of HR professionals say the employee experience is either more or much more important than it was three years ago, according to a report from HR.com’s Research Institute. Seventy-seven percent say they’re putting considerable effort into enhancing their workforce’s experience.   

Meantime, the pandemic has businesses thinking about experience more holistically, as a dynamic that’s created not only by managers, rank-and-file and HR, but by how workers interact with departments across the organization and the tools they use to get work done.

In fact, nearly every touchpoint between employers and the workforce has become part of the experience equation. That’s why HR analyst Josh Bersin talks about how HR tech is evolving into “work tech.” Vendors will spend much of 2021, he said during the HR Technology Conference, trying to improve the employee experience through apps that are easy to use, and which integrate neatly with existing tools. 

Why Companies Still Struggle With Employee Experience 

With all this attention given to experience, it’s striking that a third of American workers are frustrated by the technology they use to do their jobs. Fewer than half believe their companies prioritize solutions that would make their jobs easier, and 20% say technology makes their work more difficult.

This state of affairs is almost inevitable when companies don’t include employees in decision-making that surrounds purchasing and deployment, said Melissa Jezior, president and CEO of Arlington, Va.-based Eagle Hill Consulting, which conducted that research for its Employee Experience Survey 2021. Failure to involve employees, Jezior said, can negatively impact productivity, morale, work quality and retention — all of the things experience is meant to bolster.

At least in part, the solution is cultural, Jezior said. Getting the most out of technology depends on developing a culture where employees have a voice in decision-making, and then embrace the solutions that are incorporated into their work. In fact, technological change should focus on responding to employee needs and shifting behaviors to deliver more value. “That’s where organizations often fall short,” she said.

Among other things, Eagle Hill's research found that 37% of employees believe their technology has either no effect on collaboration or makes it more difficult. A third say tech doesn’t help with their work or makes it harder to serve customers. Even more, 44%, say technology either does nothing to help them be happy at work, or makes work harder.

Related Article: Reworked's Top 10 Employee Experience Articles of 2020

COVID Response and Employee Experience Are Intertwined

Vendors may be talking about COVID first, but the pandemic has pushed businesses to think about employee experience more broadly. It’s impacted not only by managers, co-workers and HR, but by how workers interact with departments across the organization, and the very tools they use to get their jobs done. Nearly every touchpoint between employers and the workforce has become part of the equation of employee experience. You see it in every new product.

SAP SuccessFactors launched new features to help employers return employees to the office after 12 months of remote work. In addition, its 2021 first half release included new tools to optimize workforce planning and improve the employee experience.

The update’s primary feature is a free health and vaccination monitoring portlet, added to SuccessFactors Employee Central. The portlet allows employees to share their vaccination status. That data can be combined with other employee and company information to help create reopening strategies and provide travel recommendations. The system can also identify and support employees who are considered at high risk because of their location, age and area of work. 

Meanwhile, Work Zone for HR, the digital workplace launched by SAP last year, added a new guided experience to provide personalized information and recommend actions employees need to take before they return to the office.

Related Article: 4 Ways Tech Is Helping to Fuel HR's Rebirth

Enhancing Analytics and Experiences

Within SuccessFactors’ People Analytics, the Stories reporting feature was expanded to include data from SuccessFactors Learning, such as information on training compliance and skills development. 

Several items included in the update are meant to provide users with a more consumer-grade experience. Among them: 

  • Central Payroll was enhanced with a payroll control center to simplify the creation and maintenance of payroll processes, alerts and analytics.
  • The continuous performance management capability of SuccessFactors’ Performance & Goals solution now integrates with Microsoft Outlook, allowing employees to provide feedback in the flow of work.
  • More Experience Management tools from SAP and Qualtrics were integrated across SuccessFactors to collect feedback at various touchpoints, with an eye toward helping companies understand and improve the employee experience.

Employee Experience Accelerated Through the Pandemic

Cynics might say that the most surprising thing about the release was that SAP talked more about returning to work than it did about experience. Others might argue that everything SAP does is about experience.

In 2019, when it rolled out its vision of “Human Experience Management,” the company said experience is central to the implementation of successful HR and recruiting strategies. Then-CEO Greg Tomb told the audience at the company's SuccessConnect conference that the focus on employee experience was the most meaningful trend in the HR world. As it did in its 2020 second half release — which was heavy on UI, analytics and learning — SuccessFactors signaled that it doesn’t believe the COVID-19 pandemic has changed that.

Senior Vice President of Products and Design Amy Wilson flat-out said it. In a blog post at the time, she said HXM “continues to guide the entire product strategy” for SuccessFactors.

A lot’s changed in the 18 months since HXM made its debut. In the HR technology community, the talk about employee experience has become all-encompassing, meaning it’s everywhere and wraps around everything.

Recently, ServiceNow and Qualtrics put their digital workflows and experience-management technology onto a single platform. The resulting solutions will let customers bring sentiment data from Qualtrics into ServiceNow Customer and IT workflows. The idea is to help companies use data to improve experiences.

Then, Oracle extended its approach to guiding employees through different actions or information. The company launched Journeys, a platform HR can use to create customized workflows. Oracle’s message is that Journeys can improve the employee experience and even the experience HR staffers have while they assemble resources for others to use.

Both announcements colored the experience discussion more boldly then we’ve seen it before, especially from HR tech vendors. For instance, ServiceNow CEO Bill McDermott, who previously led SAP, declared “Empathy at mass scale is the business differentiator of the 21st century.”

Dramatic? Sure. But no one laughed.

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