What's Next for Employee Experience: New Platforms and New Paradigms
Creating an exceptional employee experience has become essential for companies that want to recruit and retain talented people. Since the emergence of COVID-19, employee priorities have shifted and there is heightened importance placed on how organizations can better support a sustainable work-life balance.
A positive employee experience (EX) contributes to the well-being of employees and, as a result, to motivation and productivity. But what exactly are those employee priorities in 2022? And how is EX changing, and how can organizational leaders foster a positive experience, particularly when so many are working remotely?
How Employee Experience Has Changed
Employee experience is highly individual. It can center on the at-work encounters employees have with each other, management and leadership, and the feeling workers have as they sit down at a desk every workday, whether that desk is in their home, at a cafe or in an office building.
A negative employee experience can be filled with feelings of frustration, burnout, stress, boredom, depression and lack of personal satisfaction. On the positive side, a good employee experience can create feelings of engagement, success, connection and belonging. The difference between these experiences is often personal, although there are indications that the need for belonging in the workplace is more common among Zoomers and Millennials.
Nevertheless, because each employee is often seeking different things from their employer, organizations have no choice but to rethink their employee experience to ensure it is positive for everyone.
"The Great Resignation has forced employers to dramatically up their game to attract and retain the best talent, and it’s enabled employees to be extremely choosy," said Adam Zuckerman, leader of WTW's employee engagement software global product team. "Many employees have reevaluated what’s important to them at work, and a positive healthy experience is seen as more valuable than ever."
According to Zuckerman, while compensation will always be a motivating factor, today's inflation levels can make it very difficult for companies to compete on that basis. Plus, he said, there is overwhelming evidence that a positive employee experience contributes to financial success. All of these factors combine to emphasize the importance of employee experience in today's workplace.
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Remote and Hybrid Work Opened New Frontiers
Chances are, those who long to return to working together in an office define employee experience with concepts like face-to-face engagement and camaraderie. For many, being in an office environment brings with it aspects of what has long made the work week "normal." And after two years of chaos, normalcy can be a relief.
For others, a return to the office can mean a long commute, office politics, business attire and stale office coffee. These employees may view employee experience through a different lens, looking for flexibility and the ability to choose their preferred work space and schedule. The last two-plus years of pandemic working have created new workforce dynamics that have brought new terms to the discussion, such as the Great Resignation and the Great Reshuffle, and have highlighted the criticality of employee experience to attract and retain talent.
“In light of the Great Resignation and subsequent Great Reshuffle, today’s workers are at a critical point of reprioritization, as are the enterprises that employ them," said Lakshmi Raj, co-founder and co-CEO of Replicon, a time-tracking software company. "Many burnt out by the early days of remote and hybrid work sought to find companies that better align to their vision of an ideal life.”
As this reprioritization continues, keeping a pulse on the employee experience is imperative. Companies that pay attention to indicators of potential burnout or more subtle signs of a degrading culture will have an opportunity to react before it's too late.
“Remote work has opened up a lot more options for employees to choose from, meaning they can now look for jobs in markets that were previously off-limits before. The more organizations need to compete for talent, the more employee experience matters,” said Zuckerman.
Employee Experience in Remote and Hybrid Work
The move to the remote workplace was swift by necessity, but despite the initial concerns, it has opened up a new world of possibilities. Several research studies have shown that productivity, engagement and personal satisfaction did not drop with remote work, as initially expected, but that in many cases, these things have actually improved. A study by the Society for Human Resource Management, the world's largest HR association, showed employees that were given the ability to choose when and where they work were more productive, even when they were sick.
What's more: Employees are demanding more flexibility. They're also willing to walk if the company doesn't offer what they want.
“On a very practical level, one big difference since the pandemic is a desire for greater flexibility to work from home, or anywhere for that matter, and to work the hours that make the most sense for you as long as you are delivering value,” said Zuckerman.
Another benefit of the remote or hybrid workplace is that it provides an opportunity for employees to see one another as people living their lives, just like themselves. As Zuckerman explained, while there have been downfalls to the blending of work and personal lives, there have also been advantages.
“We’re now regularly staring into each other’s living rooms and seeing one another’s pets and children," Zuckerman said. "This has emphasized the reality that these two parts of ourselves are inseparable, and things that happen in our personal lives impact our professional lives profoundly, and vice versa."
Flexibility also makes it easier for employees to take care of family members, personal obligations and responsibilities. Companies that recognize how they can help support employees at the intersection of life and work will win.
Related Article: Employee Experience Is About Work-Life Integration, Not Balance
Making Mental Health a Priority
According to a February 2021 study by The Hartford, 27% of US workers struggle with depression or anxiety most days or a few times a week. That number was up from 20% the year prior, in March 2020. A 2021 report from McKinsey showed half of employees (49%) surveyed reported having felt some effects of burnout. McKinsey noted that figure may be an underrepresentation since employees experiencing severe symptoms of burnout are less likely to respond to survey requests — and the most burned-out individuals may have already left the workforce.
WTW's 2022 Emerging Trends in Health Care Survey states that the COVID-19 pandemic and the move to remote work contributed to a worsening of mental health among employees and their families. In April 2022, a report from Zippia revealed that 86% of employees who work from home full-time have, by now, experienced feelings of burnout.
The numbers are sobering, and organizations play a key role in formulating a response. On one hand, they must ensure the culture of the company does not reward overworking, working when sick or any other practices that prevent employees from separating their work from the rest of their lives. On the other, leaders must also provide the tools and assistance employees need to recognize signs of stress and burnout, and address them in a timely manner.
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The way a company approaches mental health plays a huge role in how its culture is perceived by employees, said Liz Hall, chief people officer at event marketing company Splash.
"In this day and age, with the growing awareness over the last two years, it’s evident that potential candidates and current employees expect mental health to be addressed directly by their employers," Hall said. "If a business falls behind on this, candidates and employees will have great concerns about the company culture."
An increasing number of companies are intentionally embedding wellness programs into their culture, Hall said, by reevaluating benefits and perks beyond health insurance — offering therapy programs, time-off programs, alternative work schedules, temporarily reduced hours, training and educational opportunities, and initiatives that build empathy in the workplace. Employees want to know that the company they work for values them as a person, and truly cares about their health and welfare.
“People must understand the purpose of the company," Zuckerman said. "They want clear goals, fair rewards and to feel supported."
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The Rise of Digital Employee Experience Platforms
In November 2021, a Forrester study commissioned by Microsoft indicated that 90% of employees said an integrated employee experience platform would be valuable (50%) or extremely valuable (40%). Among the expected benefits of such platforms, employees mentioned increased personal satisfaction, mental well-being, work-life balance, productivity and engagement, improved personalized employee experiences and greater learning/skilling opportunities.
“To accomplish strong EX, leadership must specifically recognize the enormous role digital plays in the larger EX ecosystem,” said Mark Banfield, CEO of software company 1E.
Many of the big software companies have made employee experience central to their enterprise software, including Microsoft, Oracle, Workday and SAP, among others. Banfield said we’ll continue to see employers turn to digital employee experience (DEX) platforms to address the ongoing pitfalls of employee experience. The software runs the gamut from an integrated suite of services that span collaboration, knowledge management and employee development throughout the employee lifecycle, such as Microsoft Viva, to point-of-service solutions that ease the frustration of everyday HR and IT requests.
"DEX platforms can boost network connectivity, decrease app downtime and delays, and proactively solve IT issues before they become workday frustrations," Banfield said. "The latest DEX platforms use automation to diagnose, analyze, repair and optimize the hybrid IT experience to eliminate the digital friction between your people and their best work."
Employee experience platforms can help organizations create a positive employee experience in two ways:
- Listening and surveying: "Today the best companies develop a holistic, strategic listening strategy for continuously understanding the employee experience," Zuckerman said.
- Democratizing access to data and services: Platforms provide managers with tools to understand and improve employee experience without needing heavy support from HR.
Employee experience platforms can also facilitate more effective communications within a business by getting personalized information to employees when and where they need it.
"Gone are the days when employees can book a face-to-face meeting with someone in HR to get answers to their questions. EX platforms are the key to filling this gap," said Zuckerman.
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Employee experience comes down to supporting the widely variable human experience at work. A flexible workplace with remote or hybrid options, access to mental health care and employer support all contribute to a positive employee experience.
Perks like performance awards and foosball tables are not enough to keep employees happy and engaged. It's a different world and the organizations that recognize it are most likely to succeed in the long run.
"People want clear goals. They want to know what they’re responsible for, and they want managers to support them and help them succeed," said Josh Bersin, an industry analyst and the founder of Josh Bersin Academy. "If these elements are in place, employees can find jobs they love and the experience can be meaningful."