Employees are having their moment.
The workplace is becoming more human. Recently we have seen an emergence of employee-first cultures, humanistic work principles and social advocacy among organizations. There are many reasons for this, among them an increasingly competitive job market, more technology innovations and increased access to information for job candidates.
To be competitive in this environment, organizations are explicitly shifting their focus inward — toward their people.
Although every company is unique, there are several principles of strong employee experience (EX) programs. The following principles will help companies advance their EX programs, regardless of the relative program maturity.
But, maturity does matter. While the principles are consistent, the “best practices” differ substantially based on program maturity. If adopted too quickly, certain best practices can backfire.
1) Create a culture of feedback
Edgar Schein from the MIT Sloan School of Management describes company culture as having three levels. I like to visualize these levels as an iceberg. At the top are the visible programs and behaviors the employee directly perceive, such as an existing employee survey program. Just under the surface are the cultural values of the organization. While cultural values are unique to each organization, I do consistently see themes of transparency, trust, and continuous improvement in organizations that have built such cultures. And at the deepest level, there are the underlying assumptions that underpin those cultural values.
A great jumping-off point for companies at this step is introducing formal engagement surveys and sharing results as quickly (and honestly) as possible. Companies farther along in their program maturity can introduce personal accountability for employee experience — empowering front line employees, for example, to provide feedback about their interactions with customers. This in turn empowers employees in growing the company culture themselves.
2) Establish employee feedback systems
Most organizations have some form of employee feedback system in place. But the vast majority of those programs are what I describe as organizationally-centered. They “survey” employees at times that matter to the company and usually focus on topics that are important to the company.
Mature EX programs are far more employee-centric. While traditional surveying is a completely legitimate way to solicit feedback from employees, they are unable to capture the discrete and personal experiences that matter most to employees.
Companies just beginning EX programs should begin with an organizationally-driven feedback tool to solicit feedback from everyone in the organization. As Stanford’s Ed Batista wrote in the Harvard Business Review: “If we want feedback to take root in the culture, we need to explicitly ask for it.” As feedback becomes more familiar to employees and the culture of feedback takes root, companies should begin to expand their feedback systems to be more employee-centered and tied to their journeys and experiences. For example, ask an employee for feedback on their fifth work anniversary. This evolution requires a sophisticated technology solution that can adapt to employees and fit into the natural flow of their work.
3) Naturally build accountability and action
Collecting employee feedback without action is pointless. Our research suggests that only 30% of employees believe their organizations respond extremely well to their feedback. Yet employees who feel their organizations act on feedback are four times more likely to say they intend to stay with the company.
Many of the traditional approaches to imposing accountability among leaders to act on employee feedback are problematic. And some completely undermine the culture of feedback, such as financially incentivizing leaders for employee survey scores. I cannot overstate how damaging this practice is!
For stagnant EX programs, reimagine the “action planning” experiences of leaders. Instead of dense reports of survey results, create short, consumable, and prescriptive reports. As employee feedback becomes more frequent, “lower the bar” for what constitutes action; many are tempted to undertake massive process changes, but often, communication and simple behavior changes can be highly effective. Companies farther along can extend the accountability of action down to the front line. Everyone is responsible for employee experience but companies must “prove” that they will hold up their end of the bargain before cascading responsibility down.
A successful EX program is never static. Even the most mature EX programs are still evolving.
Mature EX programs extend well beyond the walls of HR. While HR is best equipped to champion EX, successful EX programs quickly align multiple HR stakeholders and influence and integrate with functions focused on product development, operations and customer experience, for example.
Ultimately, the outcomes of successful EX programs are miraculous. Not only do they directly improve business performance, but they also quickly improve brand perceptions and customer experiences. Most importantly, they improve the lives of the people that benefit from them. And by the way — they’re downright fun to build.