crew, sculling on a river
Branded t-shirts, inspirational visions and the like are all well and good, but they don't go far in creating a truly beneficial employee experience PHOTO: Matteo Vistocco

The complex mix of people, facilities, IT tools and processes that make up a workplace are now being grouped under the umbrella of "employee experience." 

And it makes sense. Left on their own, each of these workplace components suffers by being 'owned' by different departments with different agendas and associated politics. 

Yet as laudable as it is to pursue employee experience, it is all too easy to focus on the superficial elements. Make things look nice and easy to use. Welcome pack: tick. Sexy user interface on the intranet: tick. Branded clothing: tick. Forced smile on your manager: tick. All glossy social media eye candy. 

But dig a little deeper, does anything actually change? The same old barriers to innovation and change remain. Hierarchies, fiefdoms, lack of time and traditional task-based rewards all impair a genuinely positive employee experience.

Dig Below the Employee Experience Surface

A workplace should ideally be a place where employees can be as effective as possible, where they feel both empowered and supported. Having welcome packs, cool interfaces and a clear brand is a start, but we need is an environment where employees can feel free to be ourselves. 

If we want innovation, we need an independent minded workforce. Superficial bells and whistles do not give us this. Conversely, nothing stymies innovation more than expectations of how we behave.

An engaged, empowered workforce naturally creates the fuel for innovation: opportunities. Ideas rarely full out of the sky, they arise from applying experiences, trends, insights and skills to business problems and customer needs.

Key Elements of a Positive Employee Experience

The following key elements of employee experience are instrumental in garnering innovation:

A Safe Place to Speak the Truth

More than just looking nice, a workplace needs to feel safe. Meaning, somewhere we are comfortable being ourselves. How are we supposed to innovate if we only copy what everyone else is doing? 

Innovation is a non-repeatable, novel practice. Innovation will never come about if all we are doing is repeating existing processes.

By being honest, we can start disrupting. Safely disrupting. What can we do better? Highlighting failures, making mistakes. All hard things to raise unless we are genuinely comfortable doing so.

How do we bring this about? Well, not by telling our teams to "be honest." Teams are bound by hierarchies, middle management and the dreaded word "expectations."

Coaching leaders on how to empower their teams is one tactic. Focusing on what they do (mostly unknowingly) to block the creative talents under their control will help. Showcase catalysts — teams and individuals who exemplify the right behaviors will make a difference. 

Having influencers (senior leaders, respected employees) open up as real people will, through their example, do an enormous amount of good. By admitting mistakes and providing honest commentary on what's happening, they make it easier for all of us to join the journey.

Most importantly, get truths flowing by hosting events that start with an already provocative angle. Want improvement? Host a workshop on what sucks. Want innovation? Ask attendees to challenge every workplace assumption. This disrupts, engages and promotes creative thought that is always held back by expectations of "compliant behavior."

Networking, Networking, Networking

Being able to find and connect with other colleagues is a must-have, requiring both digital and physical spaces to hold conversations. The heart of a positive employee experience should revolve around conversations and expanding your digital presence. Creating organic networks is essential for both a feeling of belonging as well as for improving what we do.

Having a well run, community-moderated Enterprise Social Network (ESN) of course helps, particularly in larger, multi-site organizations, but isn't always essential. Networking depends on the opportunity to meet new people with one or more shared interests. Having an environment where we can step away from the cubicle physically or virtually is essential. If our workplaces create barriers between us and other teams and influences, innovation is far less likely to occur.

A fluid network is where spontaneous conversations can occur. A fluid, informed network is where spontaneous innovation can occur. Proactively sharing knowledge, where questions and answers can mix without fear of vilification is all you need to generate new thinking. Allow and encourage this. Promote it though proactive collaboration, dedicated catalysts and community management.

A Clear Sense of Purpose

There's no point looking for innovation if we don't know why we're even turning up to work. 

Innovation is born from spontaneous thought and purpose. Having a prescribed set of processes and rules around idea generation will ensure compliance and tick boxes, but it won't get creatives juices flowing.

So get that purpose out there. The typical method of creating a purpose is the classic vision statement. But know this: static displays of the corporate vision only perpetuate static environments. The poster of a rowing boat and the caption 'Pulling Together' is almost always associated with dysfunctional, non-communicating teams. The vision has to be enacted, so we can live and breathe that vision.

Instead of a broad and rather meaningless vision, create a specific, tangible purpose. Then step back. Want teams 'Pulling Together' in their rowing boat? Explain where exactly we are heading and let them find their own best way to get there. There may be a few wrong turns, but that's exactly what we want. Knowing what doesn't work is the only way to find the best way.

If we want innovation, we need clarity of purpose, something our workforce can head towards, something they can grasp. Having a vision that says "delivering innovative outcomes" won't deliver anything more innovative than a bunch of cheap posters, coasters and mugs with pictures of light bulbs from the print shop. 

Having a focus on what we do for a customer, or improving what we do, or how we work gives our teams a destination to aim for. Let them work out what needs to be done to reach it.

What Does Employee Experience Mean to You?

Once we combine a safe place, a buzz of conversations and networks, plus that clear purpose, we have an environment that empowers our people. 

What's employee experience? It's an aligned yet independent and empowered workforce. The freedom to beat a path of your own with all the support you need. That's what creates the conditions for innovation. Not wishy-washy statements or pictures of light bulbs and rowboats.