woman shrugging
The term "employee experience" is coming up more and more frequently, but are we all talking about the same thing? PHOTO: Funk Dooby

“Employee experience” is the latest buzzword that has gained recognition from the likes of Deloitte, Forbes, PwC and leading companies like Airbnb — and for good reason. A study by IBM and Globoforce (pdf) linked positive employee experiences to higher work performance, higher discretionary effort and lower turnover.

In Deloitte’s 2017 Global Human Capital Trends report, almost 80 percent of executives rated employee experience as important or very important. But 59 percent also reported they were either not ready or only somewhat ready to address this challenge.

By now, we know we all want a great employee experience, but what exactly constitutes a great employee experience? Is it providing healthy food, gym memberships and dog-friendly offices?

The problem is the definition of employee experience isn't as straightforward as terms like turnover, Employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS) or real-time feedback.

Instead, the employee experience is a concept that encompasses all of the different factors that influence how your people think and feel about your work environment.

To gain deeper insights into what a great employee experience looks like, we talked to experts and thinkers in the field.

Use Customer Experience as a Guide

Last year, management consulting firm KennedyFitch conducted a global survey to learn what companies worldwide are doing to improve the employee experience. Elliott Nelson, a partner at KennedyFitch, explained that the survey, which involved 15,000 human resources professionals worldwide, aimed to find out how companies are going about building the employee experience, what measures they are putting in place and how they are restructuring HR as a result.

“One of our hypotheses was that there is actually no generally accepted definition of what the employee experience is, and no common, proven approach for building it, making it more difficult for companies to know what to do to drive real business impact,” Nelson said.

Nelson advises organizations to look at how companies have built the customer experience as a guide. The customer experience starts outside-in, with deep and broad efforts to listen to customers and look at holistic journeys. That differs from the typical HR approach of focusing on key touchpoints or “moments that matter.”

Nelson added that KennedyFitch works with a lot of companies that are undergoing a digital transformation and has found that, in that context, the challenge of creating a great employee experience “is to use digital to enhance and improve the human interaction, give greater access to development opportunities and communication, and help employees increase productivity as they connect with a greater sense of purpose and meaning in what they do.” At the end of the day, a more positive employee experience will lead to competitive advantage.

The Importance of Trust in Employee Experience

We also talked to John Ryan, CEO of Great Places to Work, a consultancy whose mission, as its name implies, is to help companies become great workplaces. “For me, the employee experience is every single touchpoint that the employee has, combined with their overall sense of who the organization is,” Ryan said. “This is interpreted through their interactions with leaders and colleagues, in their living of the culture and values, and through the behaviors they see in action every day.”

When asked what he thought was the most important element to creating a great employee experience, Ryan said that, from the employee’s perspective, it depends on “what stage you are at in your employee journey” and explained that different aspects of the employee experience will be more important to you at different stages.

“Significantly, if you are experiencing a high-trust relationship with the company, you will be predisposed to viewing your overall experience in positive terms,” Ryan said. “However, the opposite is also true — if you are experiencing a low-trust culture, then your overall employee experience will be poor and consequently your performance will be diminished. Organizations should therefore obsess about building high-trust cultures, because trust is the currency of success and will lead to a great employee experience.”

David Green, global director of people analytics solutions at IBM Watson Talent agreed. “While listening, analyzing and then acting on employee sentiment are all important, as is personalizing services for individual employees, I'd have to say the most critical element of providing a great employee experience has to be trust and transparency,” he said. “Without it, your efforts to create a great employee experience are doomed.”

To get a better feel for how these concepts are viewed in practice, we also spoke with some top HR managers.

Every Moment in the Employee Journey Matters

At Accenture, a Fortune 100 company that has been recognized as one of the top companies for employee experience, senior HR manager Constanza Loboguerrero believes the concept of employee experience goes deeper than the surface-level relationship between a company and its employees.

“Employee experience refers to each one of the moments that matter in my interactions with my employer,” said Loboguerrero. That begins “before onboarding, when I am in the process of recruiting, through onboarding, to my development,” she explained, adding that the experience includes the way the company handles work-life balance issues when employees get married or suffer illnesses and even continues “when I leave the company and become an alumni.”

One of the key things HR can do to streamline employees’ experiences throughout their journeys is to provide technology that will help them to pick and choose benefits and services according to their needs (a process that is known as the consumerization of HR). Loboguerrero explained that one of the most unique features of Accenture’s employee experience is, “having a one-stop shop for any need we might have in terms of career, benefits, learning, information, development, requests — you name it.” That one-stop shop is available “in our Accenture portal,” she added.

Large and Small Businesses Alike Can Be Employee-Centric 

However, this doesn’t mean that only big companies with big budgets can create a great employee experience.

For example, Orderbird, one of Berlin’s hottest hypergrowth companies, has just over 100 employees, but it offers a unique employee experience, said Rani Verschoor, head of people operations and culture. The key, said Verschoor, is that Orderbird maintains a very transparent culture.

One way Orderbird does this is by keeping communication flowing openly in all directions. For example, Verschoor said the company holds weekly business updates during a companywide breakfast every Wednesday. “It’s a great way to mingle and get to know more people while also getting an immediate update on important decisions that were made,” she said.

Her advice to other HR managers looking to transform their organizations is to break with outdated ways of thinking.

“In order to actually become more employee-centric, we need to completely change our mindset on how we see and approach challenges: Not being restricted by regulations and processes but by putting our customer first and leveraging digital to create a great experience around all we do,” Verschoor said.

Ultimately what we learned is there is no one-size-fits-all approach to creating a great employee experience. Your company’s employee experience will be influenced by your culture, people and values. However, the way your employees experience your organization isn’t fixed. It can be shaped by the processes, technology and trainings you put in place. However, trust and transparency are two of the most important and commonly agreed-upon cornerstones needed to create a truly positive employee experience.