Redefining work is easy to say, but harder to do

(Want to get insights into emerging tech on a more regular basis? Sign up for the official Traction Report newsletter here).

We’re living in a time of sweeping change and unprecedented competitive challenges. It would seem sensible that business leaders would seek opportunities to increase competitiveness in all aspects of business. But the difficulty is knowing how to gain competitive advantage, and which of many possible approaches should be tried.

For example, you might think businesses with the cash reserves to invest in research and development would be making large down payments on new ideas. However, less money is being invested that way, and a greater share of profits is being applied to stock buybacks, which benefits shareholders and executives but may be shortchanging future competitiveness.

In this series, Redefining Work?, I will be exploring ways that business leaders are trying to reshape business operations — through technology, operations, or new business models — to assess what impact these efforts have on business, or may have in the future.

In this initial episode, I’m taking a look at employee experience, the idea that customer experience ideas can be reapplied to increase employee engagement.

Employee Experience

Over the past few years, we’ve seen a mounting concern over employee engagement, principally motivated by research like the now famous Gallup metric that only 29%¹ of workers are engaged at work. That figure — along with related concerns about improving organizational culture and attracting high-performing employees — has led to a reconsideration of the role of human resources in the enterprise.

Some have started to use the term employee experience, by analogy to the software design notion of user experience, as a touchstone for a set of principles to increase employee engagement and thereby nudge productivity and employee retention in a positive direction.

Here’s a description of employee experience by Deloitte:

In a digital world with increasing transparency and the growing influence of Millennials, employees expect a productive, engaging, enjoyable work experience. Rather than focus narrowly on employee engagement and culture, organizations are developing an integrated focus on the entire employee experience, bringing together all the workplace, HR, and management practices that impact people on the job. A new marketplace of pulse feedback tools, wellness and fitness apps, and integrated employee self-service tools is helping HR departments understand and improve this experience. Through new approaches such as design thinking and employee journey maps, HR departments are now focusing on understanding and improving this complete experience and using tools such as employee net promoter scores to measure employee satisfaction.
A productive, positive employee experience has emerged as the new contract between employer and employee. Just as marketing and product teams have moved beyond customer satisfaction to look at total customer experience, so is HR refocusing its efforts on building programs, strategies, and teams that understand and continuously improve the entire employee experience.

In the recent past, I’ve employed the term culture management to denote software that is directed toward measuring and influencing organizational culture and its constituent parts, like employee engagement. It seems likely that that term and others are going to be absorbed into the discussion of employee experience, the way that knowledge management and enterprise 2.0 were subsumed by social business a few years ago.

One of the possible reasons for a push forward on employee experience is that earlier efforts attempting to increase employee engagement have not had much success. The premise of employee experience is that these approaches have not gone far enough, that a more comprehensive approach is needed that simply measuring engagement, and trying scattershot initiatives to move the needle. Note that HR does have control of training and continuous education in the workplace, which can influence employee engagement either directly or as the secondary result of investing in upskilling workers. (Note: We will be working with CRV and General Catalyst on a Velocity Network Roundtable on September 7 2017, New HR Tools To Find And Keep Talent. Click the link to request an invitation.)

Alternatively, lack of progress in employee engagement could be interpreted in the exact opposite way, namely that companies generally fail to identify what is actually causing employee disengagement, and so their efforts are misapplied. Employee engagement programs may be something like the joke about the man searching for his lost house keys under the streetlight, not in the bushes where he lost them, because that’s where the light is better.

In fact, a great deal of research by Gallup has shown that low engagement is principally the fault of managers:

  • Managers account for 70% or more of the variance in employee engagement.
  • 50% of Americans have left a job to ‘get away from their manager at some point in their career’.

Only 35% of managers are engaged, and so this may be a cascade of disengagement, where disengaged managers increase or cause the disengagement of those reporting to them.

Notice that the descriptions of employee experience don’t talk much about managers, perhaps because the experience concept is drawn from company’s approaches to customer experience, and customers — in general — don’t have anything like managers. But perhaps its just as likely that HR departments don’t have control over who gets promoted to manager, and what managers do on a day-to-day, hour-by-hour fashion. But HR can come up with ‘employee journey maps’ based on the newest premises in ‘design thinking’.

And maybe that’s why companies are balking when asked if they are ready to adopt employee experience across the board. Fifty-nine percent of Deloitte’s survey respondents reported they were not ready or only somewhat ready to address the employee experience challenge.

The Bottom Line on Employee Experience

Employee experience is motivated by the end goal of increasing employee engagement, but doesn’t seem to be attacking the most likely vector of disengagement: bad managers. In that regard, it seems more like a PR campaign, or an attempt to leverage support by analogy with the success of customer experience in marketing, product, and service design.

The high levels of focus on employee experience may be an outgrowth of the current talent wars in high-tech companies, which are battling for the best and brightest talent in a tight and hot market. While all businesses work to find and retain the best people, they may focus on low tech approaches, like cultivating shared values, and helping employees find meaning and purpose in their work. We’ll have to wait and see what long-term effects come from the employee experience trend.

(Want to get insights into emerging tech on a more regular basis? Sign up for the official Traction Report newsletter here).

  1. The much-repeated number is from 2013, and most forget that the measure is for North America (US and Canada), and was the highest level of engagement worldwide. That measure has risen to 32% in 2016, but the overall trend has been flat for a decade or more, with only minor jiggles up or down.

Open Innovation Comparison Matrix

Traction Technology
Bright Idea
Idea Management
Innovation Challenges
Company Search
Evaluation Workflows
Project Management
Advanced Charting
Virtual Events
APIs + Integrations