Employee Experience changes everything: Realtime Reviews and Lifetime Learning

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We are at the beginning of a major transition in the relationship between companies and the individual worker, and the reorientation toward employee experience, where the lifecycle of the employee moves front and center.

As a result, we see the following shifts:

  • A deep transition from traditional human resources to ‘people operations’, with an increased emphasis on creating an engaged workforce.
  • Industrial-era, mass, job-based training is shifting to personal, lifetime learning.
  • Old-school annual reviews are shifting to much more frequent feedback cycles, and a refocusing on performance improvement rather than ratings and recommendations.

These changes are driven in part by the expectations of Millennials, but are — at core — still consonant with every company’s needs for agility and cost management in a fast-paced competitive economy.

As the pace of business moves increasingly to realtime, so too must internal operations, like the many activities in human resources, or people operations as it is increasingly known.

It’s already happening. The relationship between staff and company has been undergoing great change over the past decade as the consequence of demographic shifts, the blurring of work/life boundaries, and a disruption in the social contract between worker and workplace. In particular, the transition from long-term employment to something significantly shorter has made even full-time workers feel more like freelancers, moving from project to project.

I have been observing a new way of approaching the relationship between staff and business: Employee Experience. I explored some aspects of this new way of thinking in Redefining Work? Employee Experience, the first in a new series at Traction Report. In that post I wrote,

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.

And of course, the notion of user experience was also extended to the internet era marketing concept of customer experience. In effect, employee experience is built on rejecting the narrative of the employee as a cog in the machine, whose greatest contribution is to do what they are told. Instead, just as we have seen a revolution in marketing based on customer experience — where the processes of marketing are reorganized around the lifecycle of the customer’s relationship to the product — employee experience seeks to recast the processes related to the lifecycle of the employee’s relationship to the business. Just as with customer experience, this invalidates or reconceives the traditional forms of people operations.

The now-famous Gallup poll numbers show only around 30% of working Americans are deeply engaged at work, and those figures have held steady for a decade. This can be analyzed from any number of angles, and the low numbers can be used to support all sorts of analyses. Leaving aside any particular dogma, though, one thing is clear: Whatever it is that companies have tried to do to increase engagement has not worked, at least in aggregate.

Some companies may achieve higher levels of engagement, but those measures may be influenced by factors not directly in the control of the company, like higher profitability: money can have a profound impact on employee perceptions. But as the recent controversy at Google shows, even being an Internet colossus doesn’t necessarily translate into uniformly high levels of employee satisfaction, especially given gender imbalances, and perceptions of unfairness and inequality.

So how can companies leverage technology to get better at people operations? In the rest of this post, I will drill down to two areas of people operations and examine how performance reviews and training are being reworked in the shift to employee experience.

Reviews Go Realtime

Performance reviews have a checkered history. The motivations underlying annual reviews seem straightforward: employees need to be evaluated based on their performance in the previous year, so that their compensation — and opportunities for promotion or reassignment — can be considered. And, of course, the downside casts its shadow: those who haven’t performed to expectations can be counseled or perhaps let go. However, the difficulties involved in performing a massive, detailed, and hypothetically objective assessment of each employee on every imaginable factor make annual reviews costly, contentious, and unwieldy. And, perhaps most important, the primary objective of reviews — performance improvement and recognition — was obscured by inflexible processes and timetables.

In a fast-paced modern world the yearly review is simply too long a cycle, relative to the operational pace of the business. Just as businesses now seek to touch customers as frequently as possible, modern tools to support performance management aspire to a real-time orientation. At the same time, today’s increasingly Millennial workforce expects a more democratic, egalitarian feedback system, including peer review, and anonymous review of the performance of managers by their reports.

There is another aspirational goal, which is reduction in costs by shortening cycle times. The world of business has seen the benefit of just-in-time operations in manufacturing, and the transition to agile in software development. Costs can be lessened, as a general principle, by discovering problems and resolving them as quickly as possible. This is why assembly line workers can now stop the line if they encounter a problem that will lead to product defects, or why software teams build software in short sprints. Shortening the cycle of performance feedback lowers costs and increases benefits.

For example, San Francisco- based Refleckive built their platform for frequent and impromptu feedback — with Slack, Outlook, and Gmail integrations — so that feedback can be provided in the moment, shortening the delay between an interaction and possible performance improvement. This supplements, and forms an input to periodic performance reviews, but the period is now likely to be monthly or quarterly, and as a result can be much more lightweight.

Individual performance must be linked to both individual goals — such as gaining skills, or taking on greater responsibilities — as well as the company’s financial and operational objectives. Palo Alto-based Zugata positions its solution as empowering ‘employees to reach their fullest potential’, by balancing more traditional performance evaluation with employee-centric performance development.

Systems only work if the people involved invest the time and consideration necessary. One central facet of the conceptual shift to employee experience is making performance management tools that start by satisfying critical individual needs of the workforce, and balancing those with the needs of management. Tools that get this balancing act wrong will have a short trajectory.

Lifetime Learning for the Whole Person

The transition in employee experience to the lifecycle of the worker translates to a reorientation of training in today’s business. The simplest characterization is a shift of emphasis from training to learning. This means a prioritization of the individual’s learning goals relative to their personal development and career, and a decreased reliance on highly job-specific training.

First of all, and perhaps counterintuitively given the move toward real-time reviews, the timeframe of learning is lengthened, with the individual’s goals extending beyond the term of their current role, and beyond the likely timeframe of their employment at their current company. So, a graphic designer at a media company might want to study AI, prepping for a career change, rather than just taking company-recommended design modules.

The explosion of online learning resources, from companies like Linkedin’s Lynda, Treehouse, Udacity, Flatiron School, and the myriad offerings from universities have opened a new era in learning. Class-Central has a list of offerings from 736 universities, including Stanford, MIT, Harvard, and Peking University. Stanford is offering 150 courses, for example.

Individuals need a means to track their learning activities, and progress against personal learning goals. Degreed offers a platform that allows users ‘to search for learning resources, organize the educational experiences on their resume and track their progress’, as they say on their website. I found Degreed’s manifesto inspiring. Subtitled ‘jailbreak the degree’, and summarized this way:

The future doesn’t care how you became an expert.

That line emphasizes the informal yet aspirational nature of the new thinking about learning.

This learning for the whole person extends beyond simply attending IRL or online courses. For example, BetterUp offers management coaching for everyone, not just senior executives or a handful of fast-track superstars. The concept is democratic: if coaching helps the company’s most senior staff, why not everybody? To make it easy and affordable, BetterUp coaching is organized around online video as the mechanism of coaching, paired with online learning modules geared toward specific areas of leadership, management, and engagement at work.

When we show up at work, we walk in a whole person, with our own goals, talents, skills, and aspirations. This generation of learning is based on the whole person, and not a name and pay grade in a spreadsheet.

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