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How Employee Experience Became Table Stakes for HR Technology

June 11, 2021 Employee Experience
Mark Feffer
By Mark Feffer

One of the pandemic’s unanticipated results has been the prioritization of the employee experience, even as a record number of workers began working from home.  

Even before COVID-19 appeared in early 2020, employers and HR technology vendors invested a notable amount of time and effort into simplifying the way work got done and how employees were supported through easy-to-use tools and systems. 

Given the scope of the pandemic, one could be forgiven for thinking employers and HR tech vendors would focus on the nuts and bolts of their solutions — access, integrations, response time and the like — before anything else. But early on in the crisis, companies throughout the industry’s ecosystem began thinking about the employee experience more holistically than they had before.

Rather than consider experience to be a design or technical challenge, they saw it in the context of how workers interacted with the tools they used to get their jobs done, as well as with departments across the organization.

As a result, nearly every touchpoint between employers and the workforce became part of the employee experience equation. Industry analyst Josh Bersin said HR tech was in the process of shifting to “work tech,” and predicted the industry would spend much of 2021 seeking to improve employee experience through apps that were easy to use and integrated neatly with existing tools.  

Meanwhile, the pandemic encouraged employers to pay more attention to their workforce’s state of mind. According to a report from a report from Qualtrics, 70% of IT executives in France, Germany and the UK said their organizations had increased their employee listening activities in the weeks and months after COVID-19 appeared. Some 74% began kicking off IT transformation projects in direct response to what they heard.

Meanwhile, more than half of executives (63%) expected that at least a quarter of their employees would work remotely on a permanent basis. That, said Qualtrics Chief Product Officer Jay Choi, indicated that “the role of IT in improving the employee experience will only grow in importance.”

Related Article: Why Employee Listening Matters So Much Right Now

Technology Became the Employee Experience

Because of the pandemic, “the IT experience became the entire employee experience,” the report said. “Company-issued laptops, phones and software became the only connection between employees and their employers.”

Baseline technology issues like security, privacy, infrastructure and support services continued to receive the lion’s share of IT spending, Qualtrics said. However, investment in collaboration and communication tools quickly began rising. A notable number of companies introduced video conferencing and instant messaging tools, for example, while platforms such as Slack and Microsoft Teams positioned themselves as experience-building tools as more HR capabilities were made available through their environments.

As a result of all this, corporate leaders began to see IT as “an essential lever” of the employee experience, Qualtrics said. That’s not because the department began implementing new work tools. It’s because it facilitated employee listening and “taking action to address emerging needs and requirements that are now key drivers of the employee experience.”

Interestingly, the report also found that the average corporate board’s top objectives for IT were to improve customer experience and retention, improve employee productivity and improve operational efficiency. Improving the employee experience wasn’t mentioned. Also interesting: Just 26% of IT executives considered themselves extremely knowledgeable about which of their initiatives drove employee engagement, productivity and/or performance.

Related Article: 6 Ways Employee Experience Is Better Since the Pandemic

Employee Experience Now Foundational to Vendor Plans

But even if boards didn’t prioritize experience and IT leaders weren’t experts on it, employee experience has become table stakes to a number of companies buying HR technology, and not only because they want their employees to feel good. 

According to Gallup, highly engaged business units outperform the least engaged by 21% in terms of profitability, 20% in terms of productivity and 10% in terms of customer loyalty. When SAP SuccessFactors went all-in on experience with its “Human Experience Management” approach in 2019, Head of Product Amy Wilson said the move was customer-driven. “There has been a drumbeat” about employee experience, she said at the time. “It has been an area of focus, but I think the level of focus has intensified.”

“We see a definitive customer demand,” added SuccessFactors Chief Revenue Officer Stephen Spears. “When we … started to message this to customers and prospects, we got an enormous amount of feedback and interest.”

More recently, UKG, the company created out of the 2020 merger of Ultimate Software and Kronos Incorporated, revealed its vision for linking the different technologies people use at work and at home with the idea of “life-work technology.” It’s an approach that aims to bring together people and HR technology in a way that allows employers to support the balancing of work with personal life.

UKG describes life-work technology as an “approach.” It combines an understanding of people, their work histories and aspirations with data about individual work patterns, efficiencies and behaviors. By factoring in the emotions and preferences of users, it allows them to work in a way that’s suited to their own habits and preferences.

It will “lead to a more human-centered work environment and experience, supporting employee’s individual life/work journeys with our solutions,” said Cecile Alper-Leroux, UKG vice president of products and innovation.

UKG’s pitch took much the same approach as did SuccessFactors’ when it unveiled human experience management. At the time, Wilson referred to HXM as “an evolution of our platform” as opposed to a re-build or re-branding. Alper-Leroux described life-work technology as “an entirely new vision for designing HCM solutions.” In both cases, the idea of product design and experience became the product’s focus, as opposed to technology nuts and bolts (Artificial intelligence! Machine learning!) or channel (Texting! Mobile!)

Of course, SAP and UKG aren’t the only vendors talking about experience. In April, ServiceNow and Qualtrics teamed up to bring sentiment data from Qualtrics into ServiceNow customer and IT workflows. Among other things, the integration allows companies to connect operational and service delivery data with employee feedback on internal IT services. In turn, that lets IT measure the effectiveness of in-house technologies, optimize service management and provide an improved digital experience.

“Experience data,” said Qualtrics CEO Zig Serafin, "has become the most valuable data in every organization.” 

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