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Think Employee Experience Is the Same as Employee Engagement? Don’t Be So Sure

February 02, 2021 Employee Experience
Lance Haun
By Lance Haun

Do you remember what you were doing about six months ago? 

If you were working, which was a bigger "if" then than it is today, you were either working from a worksite under very strange conditions or you were working from home under very strange conditions. 

And, at least statistically speaking, you were likely part of a cohort that was more engaged than ever according to Gallup. That time period beat other record high engagement numbers, reported in both February and May in, of all years, 2020. While daily tracking of employee engagement numbers has occasionally spiked when the polling firm did daily tracking, never before had it hit 40%. 

That’s right, the most engaged the workforce has ever been in 20 years of tracking was 40%. And we hit that record high number in the middle of the economic, social and political turmoil that was the summer of 2020. One has to wonder openly and loudly, “Are we sure about that?”

Related Article: Riding the Employee Engagement Rollercoaster

Is Engagement Still Relevant?

I’ve been writing about employee engagement for 15 years, since the early days of my own blog about the life of a human resources professional. It went from emergent trend to the top of the CEO scorecard in some organizations. Of course, in that time a number of solutions came out to help define, measure and improve engagement in the workforce. 

Yet in two decades of measurement of engagement, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of difference. At least on the macro level, engagement has been on the rise but the change has been incremental: an 8-point rise over the 11 years since the 2008-2009 global recession.

With the heavy investment and emphasis on engagement in organizations, shouldn’t this number be skyrocketing? 

Companies continue to cite progress at individual, team and organizational levels. As engagement measures have become more episodic rather than an annual affair, one has to believe that organizations that care about engagement have a better handle on understanding it than ever before. 

Related Article: Improving Employee Engagement in the Enterprise

Hang on a Second, Here Comes Employee Experience

As employee engagement hit the mainstream, employee experience started to emerge as a new concept. Some cynics, myself included, assumed that here was a new term that would confuse HR leaders and have software vendors finding and replacing all mentions of engagement with experience. 

While this did happen — because it always happens to a certain degree — organizations like McKinsey & Co. stepped into the conversation early to help organizations make sense of the trend. They defined employee experience as, “companies and their people working together to create personalized, authentic experiences that ignite passion and tap into purpose to strengthen individual, team, and company performance.”

Instead of a new metric to track, it became a new approach to thinking about the work experience. The results of a successful employee experience would show through improved company and individual performance, rather than as a new dashboard number. The more optimistic imagined a day where an ultra-personalized employee experience approach would disintermediate talent management as the prominent way organizations managed their people.

We might not be there yet but employee experience has set out to differentiate itself early.

Related Article: It's Time to Raise the Bar for Employee Experience

Not Better or Worse, Just Different

The distinction between these two came into focus after a big week for technology providers in both categories. 

On Jan. 28, Workday announced that they were acquiring Copenhagen-based employee engagement solution Peakon for a cool $700 million. The same day, experience management platform Qualtrics debuted their IPO on the NASDAQ exchange, valuing the company at $27.3 billion.

Now, Qualtrics does a lot more than employee experience management and most of their customers have either come from cross selling their other XM products or from their two-year run under the wing of SAP. Even if their platform today has a lot more in common with engagement solutions than not, the vision of the category is different. 

That’s a good thing. 

But the Peakon acquisition shows that the rise of employee experience doesn’t necessarily come at the expense of employee engagement. There’s value in both, often working in concert with one another. Even the cynic in me hopes they both contribute to improving work.


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