Blog Post

Focus on Employee Experience—Not Employee Engagement—In 2021

Ira S. Wolfe

President, Success Performance Solutions

Modern employee-employer relationships are inherently complicated. Add a distributed workplace and a pandemic to the mix, and managing the modern workforce became exponentially more complex almost overnight. Today, leaders have to think about everything from culture to well-being to purpose and meaning—the entirety of the employee journey, known as the employee experience.

Over my four-decade business career, this conversation has evolved from discussing employee satisfaction to employee engagement to employee experience. Some might argue the difference is just semantics, that the terms are interchangeable.

The reality is the current movement toward employee experience is much more than just a change in verbiage. By first understanding how it’s different, we can begin to understand some strategies for creating a positive employee experience—with the help of psychologist Jason Cochran.

What is Employee Experience—and How is it Different?

"Creating a good employee experience doesn’t happen by accident," Cochran says. Instead, it’s an intentional evolution of thinking about how employees experience work—and a move beyond employee "satisfaction" and "engagement."

Employee satisfaction infers contentment. And while 50 years ago it might have been adequate to measure how happy an employee was at their job, the days of the 40-year career path with a single company are over.

As organizational lifespans of companies have decreased from 60 years to a mere 17 years today, competition forced companies to consider more than contentment—and employee engagement dethroned satisfaction as a result. Engagement was about treating employees as stakeholders in the company’s performance, and increasing an emphasis on things like development conversations and coworker relationships as a result.

While the global pandemic has certainly helped spur this shift toward employee experience, it’s also an opportunity. As Sir Winston Churchill once stated, "Never let a good crisis go to waste." Companies that lean in and focus on the full employee experience will keep employees happy, engaged—and more.

Understanding Employee Experience through Connection

In the spirit of Churchill’s infamous words, the challenges of the pandemic absolutely demand new, amplified efforts to maintain success through increased employee productivity and participation. Employers must pivot from the static objectives of employee satisfaction and engagement to a broader model of employee experience.

Cochran, my guest on a recent podcast, is a psychologist and employee experience researcher. Cochran has distilled over 20 years of research down to four core principles that inform human motivation and purpose from on-boarding to off-boarding—he calls it the 4 Principles of Connection™.

  • Connecting to Self: People want to work for organizations that help them develop as a whole person, not just in the rote skills of their job.
  • Connecting to Others: People want to work where they're accepted for their authentic selves and where they experience a level of connection with the leadership and their team that creates strong bonds.
  • Connecting to Role: People want to work where they have clarity about their responsibilities, know their importance in the company ecosystem and understand how their contributions matter.
  • Connecting to the Organization: People want to work where they know the greater whole, of which they're a part, is doing important work in the world.

Employee Experience Drives Employee Performance

According to one study, employees with more positive experiences at work reported significantly higher levels of discretionary effort—i.e. labor accomplished voluntarily by individuals passionate about their work.

"In other words," Cochran says, "People will go above and beyond typical job responsibilities, they will go the extra mile, and you can see discretionary effort in any organization, at any level."

This keen willingness to perform is essential to productivity, team cohesion and a company’s overall success. In fact, the same study referenced above indicates that employees are two times as likely to use discretionary effort when their experience is positive.

Understand Employee Experience in Real Time

According to Cochran, a lot of valuable data can be gained from engagement surveys. But like an annual performance review, by the time the data is received and ready to use, it’s often too late.

"The best companies invest time and money to make sure their employees are cared for throughout their tenure at the company in real-time," he explains.

Cochran’s advice is to create real-time feedback loops to track things like whether employees are receiving appropriate evaluation, how well employees are tracking goals and following growth plans, and their level of participation in learning and development programs. These create signals to be sent to leadership on an ongoing basis. Management needs to know more than once or twice per year what is going well and what needs improvement.

It’s Time To Lean Into Employee Experience

Mere emphasis on employee engagement isn’t enough. Instead, companies must implement changes focused on increasing positive perceptions of workplace experiences, scrapping ineffective measures of engagement, and escalating data-driven and real-time insights to drive change. Employee experience is the competitive edge necessary in today’s rapidly evolving, uncertain world.

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