Has EX had its moment?

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Will COVID-19 knock employee experience (EX), off its upward trajectory and put paid to EX as a priority for HR and other people teams? I don’t believe it will and I’ll explain why. However, the premise is compelling. The buoyancy of the last 10 years with its confident assumptions of continued growth and growing demand for talent have come to an end. Abruptly. Employers may well be tempted to think a little bit less hard about the experience they create for their people. Especially if they perceive it to be a buyers’ market for talent and where there are more pressing things to be focusing on – like survival.

On the face of it, it is perhaps difficult to disagree. But this conclusion also stems from an overly narrow view of EX and the value it brings. 

EX for an employee is the experience they have of you from the moment they hear about you as an employer – whether they’re tempted or not – to the moment they’ve forgotten they ever worked for you. EX is about expectation, the moment and the memory. 

EX as an organisational focus is about design – about intentionally architecting the time someone spends with you. It’s about making it the best it can be within the sometimes competing, sometimes aligned needs of the organisational context (the commercials, culture, purpose, vision and values and more) the work (what gets done, where and how) and people. 

‘Best’ is a loose term – and deliberately so. Because EX is not a one size fits all. What best looks like is a dance between those competing and shifting demands – context, work, people. So, EX design is both the continuous revisiting of that equation and the evolution of ways to deliver on it. EX design is collaborative, iterative, creative and, of course, human centred (more on this in my second article). 

COVID-19 will prove a challenge to the maturing of EX design capability in increasing numbers of large and small organisations. But I believe EX design has as vital a part to play as ever as organisations seek to come back from COVID-19.

Here’s why. 

Great EX is magnetic and helps attract and retain talent. But EX offers much more besides. It is also a supercharger of engagement, innovation and productivity. Author Jacob Morgan has analysed and surveyed more than 250 diverse organisations, drawing on the Fortune 100 and various best workplaces lists. He suggests those delivering the best employee experience have four times the average profit and two times the average revenue. Meanwhile, MIT research suggests organisations with a strong employee experience outperform competitors on innovation and customer satisfaction.

Of course, a lot depends on how you define EX and how you quantify a good experience. Experience isn’t something you whip up from a predetermined list of ingredients, put on a plate and hand over. It’s a living evolving thing. Its context driven and individually lived. It’s why some of the most prescriptive definitions of EX are problematic and I prefer a more flexible and workable framework of the three elements of people, context and work (more on this in a book I’m co-authoring with Emma Bridger to be published next year). 

What is a given is that innovation and engagement will be incredibly important in the coming months and years as businesses seek to renew and reinvent themselves – they will be a key driver of renewal and survival. 

There’s no guarantee on the way out of COVID-19 or what the comeback will look like. It feels like we’re at the end of the react phase (the first of possibly many). There’s been a lot of disruption and firefighting. We’re now moving into an adaption phase where businesses are experimenting with new ways of working (among other things). 

Longer term the opportunity or necessity for renewal and reinvention will be urgent. However, organisations will only be able to respond – and at pace – if they can harness the creative, energetic, collaborative and inventive best of their people. The experience they create with and for their people now and going forward will dictate how well they can tap into those life-giving resources. 

So, EX will be significant, not the free beer and swish offices, but people’s human experience of their colleagues, their managers, the work and the daily expression of the company’s values in how well they’re treated. How they are supported not just to ride the waves of uncertainty around COVID (wellbeing is a key focus of IC right now and will continue to be so), but how they are supported to grow and stretch to step into new roles and challenge established norms. 

Only by curating an experience that is as supportive, connected, flexible and purposeful as people want and need, will they do their best work. Will they push themselves, their skills and horizons? And will they take their team and the organisation on that journey with them. 

For organisations that have been the most challenged by COVID – those that are less agile, digital and flexible for whatever reason – the journey to reinvention will be hard.  It will be turbulent but employees will be more likely to embrace renewal if they are treated like humans and active participants in the reinvention. 

IC BEYOND COMMENTS

Mike Klein: Interesting and intriguing piece. For me, while you present EX as an intrinsically worthy investment for any organization, organizations will have to make tough decisions about differentiation. EX is clearly positioned as a differentiator, but whether it’s the decisive differentiator for every company, or even every company in a sector, is open to question. In the COVID-19 and #postcorona world, EX has a future, but one that’s niche rather than commonplace.

Belinda: I take your point Mike. I would still propose that if you take a more holistic lens – and consider the impact on innovation, productivity and engagement – it doesn’t feel like differentiation, it feels like survival. It will be interesting to see how it plays out. 

Adam Fuss: Belinda, you raise some excellent points, and your defence of the value of employee experience is about as passionate and well-reasoned as I can imagine. Still, I wonder whether some of the underlying assumptions about employee experience will continue to hold true in a world where employees are likely to view job security and being treated with at least a modicum of respect as compelling enough and where many employers won’t be in a position to offer much more than that in any event. Do we need different sets of assumptions about what employee experience is and what drives it – one set for the companies that are thriving and will continue to engage in talent wars, and another for those that are surviving on the thinnest of ice, or perhaps even for those that are doing well but have ample talent to choose from?

Although this might bring about an existential crisis for some IC professionals who are more inclined to focus their work on people, purpose and values, I think that we as a profession had better come to accept the fact that, for the foreseeable future at least, our role is going to be dominated by the need to support smooth and efficient operations and drive employee performance. In a roundabout way, though, this might be just the ticket to creating the connections that drive a differentiating experience. Food for thought.

Belinda: Perhaps rather than a different set of assumptions, it’s about language? If experience doesn’t resonate, perhaps we should be talking about the outcomes – innovation, resilience, productivity. These may prove vital to survival, not nice to have.  It would be a shame not to bang the drum for EX because we don’t think stressed / stretched organisations are in a position to hear it. Perhaps we just need to bang it to a different rhythm. 

I love your last comment, Adam. Still rolling it backwards and forwards in my head. I suspect I agree wholeheartedly. I’m pondering what to do with it in practice. Let’s talk!

Janet Hitchen: I’m intrigued by why organisations would step away from EX to support the rebuilding and reinvention post COVID 19? Seems really odd to me.

Right now, how you treat your people is your brand. Employer Branding is your brand as a very wise friend of mine (I’m looking at you Marisa Bryan) stated as we went into lockdown. 

There is an enormous gap between how the CEO of Airbnb communicated with those he had to make redundant and the CEO of Wetherspoons telling his redundant staff to go and get a job elsewhere. Airbnb have been lauded and Wetherspoons have been condemned. It’s now part of their brand.

I’ve heard that now is a ‘buyers market’ for organisations — they can get good people for less. It’s a short-termist view and will bite back as employee attrition increases later in the cycle and all the consequences of high attrition rates hit with an even greater adverse effect on the EX – increased hiring costs, disengagement from others on the team, lower productivity.

Those that succeed will succeed by embracing and evolving their EX together. 

Belinda: I agree totally Janet. There is a difference in mindset between how employers ‘treat’ their people and how they ‘involve’ them in creating an experience that enables great work, engagement and wellbeing. The first feels transactional and makes the employee passive in the relationship – even if they are being ‘treated’ well. The latter is more about dialogue, co-creation and, yes, experience. So, it’s how it’s created – through dialogue and co-creation –- as much as the experience that set organisations up for success. 

Trudy Lewis: Great article Belinda. I think there’s something around continuity and a concern that the experience of employees through the lockdown phase of COVID-19 will be really different afterwards for a number of reasons. Most companies attempted and succeeded in being engaging through the crisis. They launched technology and showed that they had a level of agility as they mobilised the workforce to work remotely. This next phase, and beyond, presents the challenge to keep it going. However, isn’t it that if leadership values don’t align to putting this investment for their people, then I suspect EX will be difficult as priorities shift. The question is do they even have an appetite to look into EX further?

I believe this then becomes a big challenge for internal communications as they navigate how to continue engagement, while supporting leadership with all the potential change coming. And also address the need to keep going even though everyone is overwhelmed with other priorities.

Belinda: Yes, there are obviously things that can be done around the edges to architect parts of the employee experience. But if leadership isn’t bought in and EX is not a primary driver of people and comms, these efforts may be marginal. Marginal, but with the ability to have impact and start a conversation. I guess EX isn’t binary – it’s not either it is a focus or it isn’t. It’s an evolution. And comms should be part of that conversation and helping to keep EX as a focus. 

Image courtesy of FathomXP and PeopleLab