What is Employee Experience? | Definition & Analysis | Bonfyre

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What Is Employee Experience and How Is It Different From Engagement?

5 min

Like many things in life, it can be easier to first understand what is employee experience in relation to what it isn’t.

  • Employee experience is not employee engagement.
  • Employee experience is not a fancy perk like a flexible work policy.
  • Employee experience is not a benefits package full of attractive options for employees.
  • Employee experience is not an open floor plan office.

Employee experience is not any of those things in isolation, and yet it can encompass them all.

So what is employee experience?

Employee experience (which is often shortened to just “EX”) is an emerging business function focused on tracing how employees think and feel during every single touchpoint of their journey through the company. EX emerged as a direct response to a similar function you might have heard of: customer experience (or CX).

CX is currently the most sophisticated means of understanding an organization’s customers. Leveraging modern analytical techniques like journey mapping and audience segmentation, organizations seek to intimately understand and optimize the base consumer experience. CX’s impact is so important that 89% of companies today compete in the marketplace on the basis of differentiated consumer experiences.

CX is undeniably important, but in recent years people managers like AirBnB’s Mark Levy have started raising an important, but often unspoken question: why aren’t we applying this same focus on our employees? As the adage goes, happy employees equal happy customers. In 2015, Levy transitioned from a CHRO position to a new role as the organization’s Chief Employee Experience Officer. The transition was a public display that lent credence to the idea that EX was a valid, growing movement in people management.

Many HR business partners followed suit, and research suggests they were right to do so. A joint report from IBM and Globoforce found a strong relationship between better employee experiences and key performance outcomes. Employees who work for companies ranked in the top 25% of employee experience scores demonstrate better work performance and use more discretionary effort.

What’s the secret to these companies’ success? The EX sea change was brought on by the notion that organizations would need to work outside the scope of the standard Human Resources function to accomplish their goals. In order to turn work into a true experience, companies have to appeal to employees’ physical, intellectual, emotional, and aspirational wants and needs.

Related: Employee Experience, Explained

Which employee experiences matter most?

The first instinct of many who try to answer this question is to say “all employee experiences matter.” They’re not necessarily wrong, but trying to build a strategy to improve every granular moment an employee could potentially experience at work is simply not feasible—nor is it really desirable.

To hone in on the most important experiences, let’s return to the question that started this article off: What is employee experience?

Employee experience is the relationship an organization creates with employees. More specifically, it is the culmination of the various processes, spaces, and channels organizations use to communicate how they prioritize and value their workforces. This relationship is the byproduct of the design of three primary domains: the Procedural Employee Experience, the Textural Employee Experience, and the Emotional Employee Experience.

Procedural Employee Experience

The experience of the actual work we do. It encompasses how the work itself is structured, as well as the structure of the systems and processes employees participate in to fulfill their roles and responsibilities.

Of the three domains, companies have devoted the most time and energy to improving the Procedural Employee Experience. Think back to when Henry Ford introduced the assembly line to the Model T production process. Ford completely overhauled the procedure for building his flagship vehicle, saving employees energy and reducing assembly time from 12 hours to just 90 minutes. A process that was once exhausting and time intensive became faster, more repetitive, and safer overnight.

Not once in the intervening years have businesses stopped seeking procedural improvements. Today, they use things like Human Resource Information Systems and Customer Relationship Management tools to seek similar gains, albeit with smaller margins.

Procedural Employee Experiences designed with intent and forethought will revolve around optimizing how employees participate in the systems and processes they use every day. Intentional design of the Procedural EX will take into account ease of participation, speed of task completion, and how seamlessly an employee can transition from one system to the next.

Textural Employee Experience

This domain is all about the texture of our work environment. In other words, the literal and figurative places where we do our work. In The Employee Experience Advantage, author Jacob Morgan breaks out his definition of EX into three primary environments: physical, cultural, and technological. We view each of these environments as their own “places of work,” and part of what gives our experiences a unique texture.

  • The physical environment involves, you guessed it, how companies physically arrange their work spaces. The layout and design of everything from cubicles to shared collaboration spaces to open floor plan offices all impact employees’ ability to get their work done.
  • The technology environment concerns the technology companies provide employees to fulfill their roles. Utility is a chief concern in this environment. For any program or tool an employee uses, think about how useful, accessible, flexible, and intrusive they are.
  • The cultural environment is just that, a company’s culture. Culture is often defined as “the way we do things around here.” As it concerns the Textural EX, culture is an environment created by those shared practices. These values, rituals, norms, traditions, and beliefs all create an environment of shared purpose that motivates employees to go above and beyond.

The environments a company creates, and the experiences they provide, need to facilitate employees’ work and enable them to keep pace in a highly-competitive, rapidly-changing global economy. But critically, every employee population is different. What works at one company won’t necessarily work at another. What matters most is that employees feel each environment offers something intrinsically valuable to their work needs.

Emotional Employee Experience

The Emotional Employee Experience concerns how employees think about the company, how they interact with peers and leaders, and how they understand and navigate their work environment.

The Emotional Employee Experience is in no way limited to the experiences and feelings of any one employee. What employees think and feel in a day, week, month, or even a just moment ultimately cascades into thoughts and feelings about their collective experiences. Employees typically do not keep these feelings about their experiences to themselves. Rather, they communicate with their colleagues and, together, build collective perceptions about what it’s really like to work at the company.

This is important because our feelings are ultimately a rubber stamp on the sum of our experiences. They are a marker of final determination, telling us whether our experience was, in simple terms, “good” or “bad.” In this way, the Emotional Employee Experience is perhaps the most important of the three domains. If you operate a company where employees predominantly have negative emotions about their work experiences, odds are your EX strategy isn’t a successful one.

Employee engagement’s limits help us understand employee experience

You might be wondering where employee engagement comes into play here. After all, at the top of this article, we declared that EX and engagement are not one and the same. Yet plenty of data positions engagement as the key differentiating factor in how employees deliver the customer experience.

In 2016, the Temkin Group found that companies creating successful customer experiences had one and a half times as many engaged employees than those that didn’t. So in order to produce those results, does engagement need to be a separate focus from employee experience? Just what is employee experience in relation to employee engagement?

Business leaders are talking about employee engagement today because it’s the latest in a long line of labels used to describe employee motivation and performance. What is employee experience? This timeline shows how organizations have arrived at employee experience, focusing first on efficiency in the 19th century, and shifting to engagement in the late 20th century.

In the early 20th century, a product-centric and industrial era, the priority was making employees more efficient at creating goods and performing services. Focus shifted towards terms like morale, satisfaction, and commitment as more humane understandings of labor developed throughout the later 20th century. Notably, every single one of these metrics is still in use today in some fashion, signifying their value has not been lost in this progression.

When we finally arrived at the label of “employee engagement” in the 21st century, what made it different was that it more directly acknowledged that employees’ emotions and well-being impact their ability to “give it their all.” As our CEO Mark Sawyier observes, the path to long-lasting workplace engagement lies in fostering five core emotions: Trust, Altruism, Happiness, Belonging, and Achievement.

But employee engagement is also a tangible metric and KPI for many HR practitioners and other enterprise professionals. It is seldom measured without the explicit mandate that its “owners,” as it were, are responsible for raising scores and keeping them high (at least right now).

Here is where it can be easy to lose the forest for the trees. In pursuit of raising those scores, the emotional side of engagement gets lost. As Morgan writes for SHRM, business leaders tend to disregard these conditions in their engagement strategies, opting instead for short-term solutions to long-term problems.

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“Unfortunately, employee engagement has become an adrenaline shot that most organizations use to temporarily boost scores,” Morgan says. “Usually this is done in the form of perks such as free food, a new floor plan design and perhaps a work-from-home program.”

Morgan notes that these practices are not without value, just that they fall short in their intended purpose for both employees and the organization. The issue comes from implementing these initiatives as ad-hoc fixes in an outdated organizational framework, rather than thinking about how they can work in concert to create a cohesive, employee-centric experience.

Forbes contributor Denise Lee Yohn notes this is the key distinguishing factor between engagement and employee experience. “Employee engagement–that is, employees’ commitment to your company and their jobs—is the end goal while EX is the means to that end,” she writes.

Engaged employees are what leaders want, but building a great employee experience is how they’ll get them there. And if you’re careful to avoid the pitfalls that Morgan discusses of leaning on one too many quick fixes, engagement can ostensibly be a measure of how well your employee experience efforts are doing. After all, nearly every ounce of research and conventional wisdom we have on engagement tells us engaged employees do not come out of environments where their experiences are exclusively negative.

Ultimately, though, there will always be elements of employee experience that cannot be contained in a single metric, or even measured at all. The most vital difference between engagement and employee experience is that the latter is holistic. As Bonfyre’s own Director of Employee Experience Rob Seay observes, employee experience does not stay contained at work.

“Most people talk about engagement within the walls of their company, but don’t look much further beyond that,” Seay says. “Employee experience crosses that threshold.”

The memories and feelings employees have of their experiences with the company follow them home. They live with them long after they’ve left the company. In many ways, employee experience is every bit as important in defining a company’s legacy as any deliberate culture-shaping actions taken by leaders. What experience do you want employees to have?

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