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Another X has entered the chat - how (not) to do Employee Experience research

Stefano Serafinelli
February 14, 2023

Imagine knowing that your company is in trouble, that there might be layoffs in the near future and your managers tell you nothing about it. Imagine them sipping coffee as if there’s no problem at all when you know they’ve been to not one but two or three emergency meetings this week. Stressful, isn’t it? And most of us have experienced a situation like this, some more than once.

Now a different, quite common scenario: you start a new job and the moment the onboarding starts you’re abandoned. Literally. You may have some meetings with HR, you learn about general company politics but no one has enough time to take you through your tasks and explain what you’re supposed to do. You pick it up as you go, watching your peers and trying not to make too much of a mess.

Both of these situations are great examples of what we call poor employee experience. And what do we mean by that, you ask?

First - using, now - trying to understand​

In almost every book about employee experience you can find a nice, often very visual explanation about how the relationship between the employee and their company has been changing throughout the last 70-80 years.

It started with basic utility - employers giving the employees money to do the work and not much more: in this perspective the employee is just another tool needed to achieve certain goals. Then, the obsession with productivity came around and bosses around the world started asking themselves: how can I make my employees work even more efficiently in an even shorter amount of time? However, it was mostly about quantifying the work being done, rather than thinking about a person behind the desk (some of the relics of this time are employee monitoring softwares  - still used by some companies). Finally, someone came up with a ground-breaking theory: there’s a big chance a happy person is more likely to work well. That’s how we welcomed a new term called employee engagement.

If employee engagement is all about making sure employees are content and, thanks to that, more engaged, employee experience is like its older, more mature brother (or sister, up to you!). Instead of carrying out annual surveys and organizing quick events that are supposed to boost engagement and interest in work, employee experience is based on ongoing research and designing a system that makes employee’s life better in the long run. It’s all about analyzing every step of the journey and discovering, as said Josh Plaskoff, “employee’s holistic perception of the relationship with their organization derived from all the encounters and touchpoints”. Using our examples from above, we might want to investigate and solve the painful onboarding process or explore when and why the communication between management and employees fails.

And, to be honest, we’ve seen it all before - only in a different context. The interest that once was mostly directed at researching customers' behaviors, now shifted to employees. User experience, customer experience, audience experience - now another X has entered the chat. The good thing is that, as researchers, we can use similar tools to explore the world of work as we did in the previous contexts, always remembering, however, how different the experience of an employee is to the one of a customer - it’s more intense, often more emotionally engaging, spread-out in time. Either we like it or not, work is a huge part of our lives.

What can go wrong if you’re not careful ​

We do believe in the value of great employee experience - but only if it’s appropriately researched. And here, as you probably already suspect, is when it gets tricky. Based on what we’ve seen and our understanding of the topic below we share just a few of many things that can go wrong in the process.

1. Employee Experience as a new way to work on company’s PR… and do nothing new​

Starting from the basics: in the last few years employee experience has become quite a buzzword. Many companies want to be associated with it as it’s in fashion, and it shows that you actually care and are a good employer. However,  it’s one thing to say you do employee experience, and a completely different thing to actually do it. Sometimes companies claim to be in touch with their workers’ needs but then it turns out they focus on organizing flashy events at the same time not taking care of the aspects that actually impact their daily life, like internal conflicts, unfair wages or lack of opportunities to grow. Fun attractions like a 2-day-trip to a theme park (true story!) might help but, as says Jacob Morgan, they’re like an adrenaline shot which will wear out before you know it. Employees need to be listened to continuously - and there’s a wide range of methods to do it apart from “the classic” annual survey.

2. Tracking engagement, not experience ​

Although tracking your employees’ engagement can be extremely beneficial and it gives you an insight on how people feel about working in the company, it usually does not explain the root of the problem. Only in-depth research can give us detailed answers about what’s behind the numbers taken from the engagement survey. If you want to know not only how the employees perceive their work but also whyyou might want to invest more time in interviews, focus groups, and regular employee feedback sessions. And this takes us to…

3. In love with numbers ​

Many companies rely heavily on quantitative methods as their only way to conduct experience research. And it’s understandable - they’re quick and can be extremely useful as they give us a quantifiable result, something that seems concrete and is easy to communicate. However, while surveys can provide valuable insights, they can also be limiting in their scope and subject to bias and misinterpretation. In many situations qualitative research is necessary - to dig deeper and understand what’s under the surface, like employees’ attitudes, motivations and thought processes.

4. Ambitious plans but no one to deliver ​

Some companies might actually want to carry out research and deliver great, insight-based employee experience - what they might not understand is that it takes time and resources to do it well. Although we already see quite a few job offers for “employee experience specialists”, often it’s the human resources department who gets all the workload connected to EX. It might seem logical but the truth is HR professionals don’t always have enough knowledge or experience to conduct research and they rarely have time on their hands to focus on analyzing the data.

5. Internal bias takes its toll​

It’s often quite tricky to research and measure employee experience from inside of the company. First of all, employees might try to censor themselves as they may feel pressured to present a positive image of the company. The pressure can be quite obvious like the one explained by Jacob Morgan in his book “Employee Experience Advantage”:  “Some organizations also have the scary habit of manipulating their engagement scores by either offering incentives to get people to score higher or reprimanding employees who don’t score their organizations high enough” which basically makes the research results useless. In other situations organizations might actually want to get honest results - but employees can still feel uncomfortable talking about their negative experiences directly to the company.

 

6. Relying on one-fits-all solutions ​

There are more and more books about employee experience available on the market but the common thread that connects a lot of them is that they give answers and rarely ask questions or leave space for doubts. “This is how to design a perfect employee experience” they seem to say, not taking into account how varied work environments can be.

This type of approach often ignores not only cultural and social differences but also contexts specific to each company. If we  really want to find solutions for our employees, we can use available materials as inspiration but most importantly we have to treat each workplace as its own microcosmos with its particular workflows, rituals, activities and problems. We should not assume what the employees need based on the opinions of experts who have never set foot in our company - it makes much more sense to hire someone to enter our microcosmos, look around, listen and investigate. Much like ethnographers exploring a new tribe.

That sounds like a lot of work, is it even worth it? ​

Quick answer would be: yes, and not just because we want our employees to enjoy their work. 

The truth is companies might not have any other option than to focus on investigating and re-designing their employee experience. If they want to be competitive, attract and retain talent - creating environments in which people want to work and not just have to is the way to go. And everyone benefits from good EX - not only employees. Multiple studies have shown now that well-designed employee experience translates into better performance and drives revenue growth (if you want something specific, just take a look at Campbell’s extreme transformation). But if we do it, let’s do it right.

References

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