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PHOTO: Capstone Events

The sudden move to mass distributed work was unprecedented. Employees had to quickly get comfortable working with unfamiliar tools, such as video chat and collaborative project software. Employers had to quickly get comfortable managing work they couldn’t see. But companies rallied in a way many previously never imagined possible to maintain business continuity.

Six months later the reality of distributed work is setting in. Companies have moved from panic mode to tackling the challenge of keeping employees fulfilled and productive — outcomes typically orchestrated through day-to-day interactions — from afar, as employees struggle with the fatigue of working remotely (in the midst of a pandemic, no less) and lack of connection with the workplace.

Employee Experience Matters: For Customer Experience and More

Happy and fulfilled employees strengthen a company's brand and play a key role in delivering the customer experiences (CX) we so carefully craft. Conversely, disengaged and unhappy employees drag down morale, productivity, and potentially the bottom line. They are also at greater risk for attrition, which can be costly.

Resetting norms and expectations around employee experience (EX) will be critical during post-pandemic recovery. In a study by MIT Sloan Center of Information Systems Research, companies that excelled at employee experience saw twice the customer satisfaction, twice the innovation in terms of percentage of revenue from new products and services, and 25% greater profitability compared to competitors.

Related Article: The Intersection of Employee Experience and Customer Experience

Employee Experience Is About the Intangibles

According to a 2019 Gartner study, organizations spend $2,420 per employee per year on employee experience — including areas such as onboarding, workplace design and other features. While the media may spotlight standing desks, Ping-Pong tables, nap pods, climbing walls and free lunches, what truly characterizes a “great” experience is typically not so tangible: opportunity, inclusion, empowerment, trust, empathy, recognition, career growth and development, management and culture. The fact is that few companies are doing well: According to the same Gartner study, only 13% of employees are fully satisfied with their experience at work.

The sudden shift to distributed work presents a unique opportunity to do something about this. Following are several principles for creating an employee experience that inspires people to bring their best to the job every day. In our experience, companies often overlook or underinvest in these areas. Those that do them well, however, stand to gain much more than fulfilled employees.

1. Design and Cocreate the Employee Experience Together

You’ll never be able to improve the employee experience without involving employees. The customer-centricity techniques you use to design CX strategy, such as design thinking, work just as well for cocreating the employee experience: Empathize with your employees. Follow them around. Survey and interview them. Sit down with them in workshops and focus groups. Ask what bugs them at work, what changes they would implement, what fulfills them, and what excites them about coming to work. Have them prioritize/rank certain aspects of their experience.

According to Gartner, using this insight to shape how employees feel about the experience is critical: At organizations that go through this process, people are 38% more likely to report high intent to stay, 44% more likely to be top performers, and 33% more likely to report high discretionary effort.

Related Article: Designing a Digital Workplace for the Long-Haul

2. Be Clear — and Honest — About the Vision

Attempting to create a world-class employee experience can be overwhelming for all the stakeholders who need to bring this vision to life. Articulate expectations for success through a journey map, much like we do for customer experience initiatives, that everyone can reference. Furthermore, be honest and open about what the organization can and can’t be. It’s OK to set some boundaries. The last thing you want to do is overpromise and underdeliver.

3. Combine Efforts With Inclusion and Diversity

As Verna Meyers, vice president of inclusion strategy at Netflix famously told the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association, “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.” In order for people to have a “great” experience, they need to feel they belong.

This is also the true for inclusion and diversity (I&D) teams. Employee experience and I&D are often separate functions or initiatives working towards the same goals. These teams need to work together to create purposeful and equitable experiences while ensuring the organization is delivering on their experience promise. Having clear, integrated mechanisms between teams that share knowledge and encourage collaboration can make the difference between a good employee experience and a great one.

Related Article: It's Time to Change Our Thinking Around Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace

4. Measure Moments That Matter

Continuous listening programs provide insight into the overall employee experience. But recognize that some occasions are more important than others. Pivotal moments — such as the way you support an employee’s return to work from parental leave or how you recognize a valued employee who was recently promoted to a critical leadership role — can drive an employee to the point of departure or to that extra effort that leads to success. Identifying these moments is critical so you can emphasize and influence them in the EX strategy.

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Many organizations fail at measuring the employee experience because they are too quantitative or too qualitative. Striking a balance that blends objective outcomes with employee sentiment and storytelling is key to understanding and defining the moments that matter. Companies often find that when they engage with employees in a two-way dialogue, they can add additional meaning to survey data and confirm or squash hypotheses while evolving narratives.

5. Democratize Data and Planning

Even if a company doesn’t have the luxury of a dedicated EX team, it is possible to build a high-functioning network of employees who serve as EX ambassadors and “pulse managers” – bringing the voice of their colleagues to life and supporting the EX strategy locally within their functions, business units, or geographies.

Make sure such teams aren’t working in isolation but rather in a collaborative, cross-functional manner. They also need access to data and insight. Having an open and transparent culture where data is shared — with sensitivity and appropriate governance — empowers pulse managers and other leaders to enable the EX journey. Operationalizing this democratic approach requires training and extensive collaboration, along with clearly defined norms that everyone is prepared to follow.

Related Article: Great Design Drives the Digital Employee Experience

6. Ground Your Digital Workplace in Employee Experience

Distributed work is the future, and companies will rely more than ever on the digital workplace. Despite the herculean efforts to support distributed work during the pandemic, many companies lack capabilities for sustaining high productivity and engagement over the longer term and are now looking to formalize their approaches. This is important: Gallup research shows that the more digitally mature the employee experience, the higher employee engagement, productivity, customer satisfaction and profitability.

There is a tendency to approach development of a digital workplace as a technology initiative. That’s natural — it takes technology to make it work. But this approach often overlooks employee experience. An effective digital workplace strategy must consider the needs and wants of distributed workers and equip them to work anytime and from anywhere. So instead of viewing employees as a group that must be convinced to adopt new technology, include them in cocreating the path forward.

A Unique Opportunity to Define Your New Employee Experience

The pandemic has accelerated what were previously slow shifts in employee experience and pushed the boundaries of this concept for both employers and employees. This, in fact, presents a unique opportunity to create a future for employee experience — one that is purposefully designed, with a strong emotional connection between employer and employees. If done well, it can become a secret weapon — a true “EX”-factor — for customer experience and competitive advantage.