Worker Expertise: Definition, Technique, and Finest Practices

I was first introduced to the concept of employee experience more than 20 years ago during my time in internal communications at McDonald’s. The campaign was called “employment image” and was designed to improve the reputation of working in the restaurants. A significant problem was that the campaign didn’t have much credibility inside or outside the organization, and the concept was gaining limited traction – and then we had that “ah-ha” moment:

What we came to realize over time was that the best way to improve reputation as an employer was to improve the employee experience – in this case, what it was like to actually work for McDonald’s. When the brilliant minds on the operations side of the business got involved and saw how their efforts (e.g., improving quality, service, cleanliness and more) could deliver a positive impact, everyone benefited – most importantly, restaurant employees. After all, employees were the ones delivering (or not delivering) the brand promise to customers. Changing the reality of working for McDonald’s, focusing on ensuring we were meeting the needs of restaurant workers and making things easier for them, was the realization we needed to truly make a difference.

The secret sauce, in this case, was focusing on the employee experience in real, meaningful ways that helped those on the frontlines better connect with the overall mission of the company while also helping employees derive genuine satisfaction from their work. Ultimately, that’s what employee experience is all about.

As Abraham Lincoln famously said:

Character is like a tree and reputation is a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.

Too often we focus on the shadow – on the reputation. Yet to make the greatest difference on a genuine level, we need to focus on the actual experience people have. When the experience is positive, the reputation will easily follow.

What is Employee Experience?

The employee experience is an accumulated mix of encounters, observations and day-to-day learning that takes place over the course of an employee’s tenure.

The full employee experience includes everything an employee confronts, observes, feels and perceives at every stage of their lifecycle with an organization. Moving the needle toward an optimal employee experience is complex and requires a multifaceted approach, well beyond basic benefits or HR programs.

It’s easy to confuse or conflate employee experience and employee engagement, but they are distinct. An employee’s experience is what drives their engagement, which is the emotional connection employees have with their work. If a person is not having positive experiences, their level of engagement will suffer. In fact, Gallup’s most recent survey indicates that employee engagement in the U.S. is declining:

  • Only 34% of employees are engaged in the workplace, and 16% are actively disengaged
  • Nearly half of remote employees feel exhausted after daily virtual meetings (Doodle)
  • 33% leave their jobs for new challenges (Korn Ferry)
  • Only 3 out of 10 employees are “very satisfied” with available career advancement opportunities (SHRM)
  • Employee disengagement costs the U.S. economy an estimated $450-550 billion yearly (Gallup)

Those numbers may seem bleak at first review, but they’re really employees’ way of saying that this is a relationship that needs tending, especially in today’s environment.

Why is the Employee Experience Important?

After two years of pandemic-related change, coupled with the need to adapt to a more digitally-driven work environment, employees are shifting their preference from the old adage of “work-life balance” to “life-work integration.” People want their lives to come first and their work to have meaning in their lives. This is not just about professional and personal gratification, but the desire and need to recalibrate relationships between our lives and work.

At its very best, this shift creates an opportunity to help employees find their connection to the organization’s purpose, mission, and values; cultivate their feelings of connection and belonging; improve communication; foster understanding of how they fit in and contribute. This may sound like a tall order for employers, but optimizing the employee experience is well worth the time and effort in terms of business impact, as recent studies underscore:

  • A highly engaged workforce increases profitability by 21% (Gallup)
  • Organizations scoring highest on employee experience have four times higher average profits, two times higher average revenues and 40% lower turnover (“The Employee Experience Advantage”)
  • Companies with a thriving corporate culture achieve more than 4 times higher revenue growth (J. P. Kotter and J. L. Heskett)

In short, the employee experience matters a great deal to employees and employers alike. So, what can be done to positively impact it?

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Cracking the Code to the Evolving Employee Experience

Before building an employee experience strategy, it is important to first acknowledge the realities of the modern-day workforce and workplace.

Impacts of the pandemic and other changes in recent years have added a layer of challenge – including the Great Resignation, wherein upwards of 5 million people reevaluated their career choices and voluntarily left their positions in 2021. In some cases, people chose to go it alone, choosing an entrepreneurial path rather than being forced to adapt to an employer’s values or expectations. In other cases, they left employers for what seemed like a better opportunity, with a work/life balance that fit their needs. This seismic shift is causing companies to ask, “What do employees really want?”

Here’s what the data says:

  • 76% of workers want more flexibility about where they work, and 93% want greater flexibility in when they work (Future Forum)
  • 85% of employees are most motivated when  management offers regular updates on company news (JobsInME)
  • Recognition is the most important motivator for 4 out of 10 employees (O.C. Tanner)

When you consider what’s driving the shift, themes such as flexibility, communication and recognition rise to the top. Now the key for employers is to determine how best to deliver in these areas. Today’s employees have made it clear that tried-and-true tactics of offering financial rewards, such as pay raises and bonuses, aren’t going to do it in most cases. For some workers and industries, a raise is importclouant and can help drive engagement. However, the majority of employees want more. They want to feel valued and appreciated, intangible assets that many corporations aren’t accustomed to making a priority.

So just how can employers respond to these trends? If companies shift focus to a more empathic leadership style, they can better attract, develop and retain top talent. This is a much-needed healing process in the current environment and will serve to build a strong foundation on which the employee/employer relationship can be built.

The change in mindset is ultimately about the journey that employees and employers are on together. Making the most of that journey starts with identifying key milestones along the way. Understanding the stages of the employee life cycle empowers employers to strategize programs and interventions that can deliver on a number of levels: retaining top talent, better serving clients, and improving bottom-line results.

What Are the Employee Life Cycle Stages?

According to Gallup, there are seven stages of the employee life cycle that capture the most important employee-employer interactions and shape employee perceptions. They include:

  1. Attract: There’s an ongoing war for talent – attracting the right talent takes time and dedication. To attract the top talent, you need to market what makes your culture unique and appealing.
  2. Hire: Talent is on the move. To compete, you should ensure candidates are a strong fit for the role and the culture. Making the hiring process smooth and authentic helps secure top candidates, as does accelerating it and paring it down rather than making it unnecessarily arduous. The days of 30 interviews are long gone.
  3. Onboard: Gallup discovered that only 12% of employees strongly agree that their organization does a great job of onboarding. Yet the onboarding stage is critical – it’s not just where employees learn the requirements of the job, it also provides insights into the company’s vision, mission, values, and valuable tools and resources. A proper introduction into an organization can make a huge difference in an employee’s desire to stay, their productivity and their perception of the company culture.
  4. Engage: Do you think your employees are engaged? The reality is that most aren’t. Interestingly, Gallup found that only 15% of employees, globally, and 34% in the U.S., are engaged. A key to keeping employees engaged centers on the manager/employee relationship, not on perks. As we all know, a good manager is a mentor and cheerleader – somewhat like a good coach. The relationship is built on trust, respect and a sightline for future growth.
  5. Perform: Only 2 in 10 employees surveyed by Gallup report that they are managed in a way that motivates them to perform at their best. Rather than the annual performance review, which often backfires, employees do better when they receive regular, informal feedback on their work. When recognition and praise are delivered for outstanding performance, both employee and employer thrive.
  6. Develop: In many corporations, the career ladder is broken. Opportunities to grow and take on more challenging positions are unclear or missing. People develop at different rates and have different skill sets, and it’s up to the employer to nurture each employee in routine coaching sessions and set their specific milestones for achievement. What are they doing well? What would they like to change? Would they like to try something new? Stay interviews are an important part of this employee experience best practice. We’ll address this in more detail below.
  7. Depart: Employees leave for lots of reasons: a better title, higher pay, retirement, or a life change. Exit interviews allow people to be candid about their own employee experience, where they often tell the good, the bad and the ugly. When this is managed properly, companies can build a network of grateful alumni who often serve as goodwill ambassadors.

Employee life cycle stages

How can HR and Internal Communications Improve Employee Experience?

Organizations leading in this space today focus on ensuring there’s a strong partnership between HR and communications. Employees often don’t distinguish where the information they receive comes from, so it’s critical for HR and communications to foster a deliberate partnership and work toward shared goals that meet the most pressing needs.

For HR and communication professionals, the challenge and opportunity is to help the C-suite look at enterprise-wide needs by first taking inventory of what the organization offers at each stage of the employee work experience to determine if it’s keeping up with employee wants and needs. This helps ensure the employee experience strategy is holistic and doesn’t just focus on individual aspects of life cycle stages.

A holistic employee experience strategy includes:

  • Agreeing on your organization’s specific definition for employee experience and aligning around that.
  • Linking employee experience to a key business initiative, which helps elevate its visibility and perceived importance.
  • Conducting an inventory of the current employee experience to determine gaps, needs, and opportunities for making immediate and needed improvements.
  • Codifying what the employee experience means, its components, and how to talk about it at an enterprise-wide level.
  • Creating tools for managers to understand what the employee experience is, their role, what employees care about, and how to best deliver for employees.
  • Developing an organization-wide campaign to tell the employee experience story and assessing whether the need exists for a re-set moment as part of the larger communications to launch the employee experience efforts.

By engaging experts from across leadership, HR and communication teams to plan and execute the employee experience strategy, the full complement of the organization’s expertise is leveraged to drive better outcomes.

What Can Leaders Do Now to Improve the Employee Experience?

It takes time to create an inventory of the employee experience across each of the seven stages and develop a holistic strategy, but there are also some opportunities for immediate impact that many organizations share. You might think of it as triage, a concept that has informed healthcare for decades and demands that you elevate the most at-risk issues to the top of your priority list to treat and resolve. To improve the employee experience, we recommend that the C-suite work closely with HR to identify specific company-related triage touchpoints. Here are a few examples of triage that your organization can address now:

  1. Promote employee health and wellness:
    In the wake of the pandemic, employee burnout and stress are significant problems. To help employees feel supported and encouraged to take good care of themselves, make sure they understand the range of health and wellness offerings available to them. This might include a communications campaign promoting everything from health benefits and wellness programs to stress management tips and safety information. When employees feel the organization and its leaders care about their wellbeing, their experience and engagement improve. Furthermore, people who are healthier are more productive and more likely to have a positive work experience.
  2. Prioritize career development:
    As employees reflect on how work fits into life and how to ensure the time and effort involved are worth it, they’re more focused than ever on career development. These days that means much more than promotions, moves, and/or title changes, which are inherently limited. What’s not limited are the ways to develop oneself, and we need to help leaders and employees see beyond the traditional definition to the virtually endless opportunities available to continue developing skills needed to grow. This is another area where leaders play a key role since these conversations are most productive at the individual level.

    And there’s data to back this up. More than half of Millennials (58%) and Gen Z (52%) indicate that success in their careers depends on frequently updating their skills and knowledge, according to a recent survey by getAbstract. It remains important for older workers, too. More than a third of Gen X (35%) and Baby Boomers (34%) said career success depended on continuous learning. Overall, workers who frequently engage in learning report feeling more fulfilled, accomplished and motivated. We need to help leaders and employees see the virtually endless opportunities available to continue growing and developing new skills, and this is another area where managers play a key role.

  3. Conduct stay interviews:
    People aren’t just leaving their job because of the paycheck today. Many are leaving because they don’t feel appreciated or connected to the organization or its purpose, or they don’t see the value of their work because what they’re giving is not in sync with what they’re getting.

    “Stay interviews” are gaining attention lately as organizations try to gauge how employees feel and identify surface issues and/or opportunities that could be improved to help employees stay and be more engaged. Stay interviews allow leaders to show genuine interest in their team members and how they’re doing, ask the right questions, and listen with an open head and heart. Done well, stay interviews can minimize the need for “exit interviews.”

    In addition to stay interviews, it’s helpful to have channels to regularly collect feedback from employees, such as feedback boxes, focus groups and anonymous options. These cost-effective tools can gauge the temperature of employee experience and job satisfaction. Managers should schedule regular touchpoints and one-on-one meetings with direct reports and encourage them to do the same with their teams to ensure the lines of two-way communication remain open.

  4. Focus on manager effectiveness:
    With the emphasis on stay interviews, career development, and more, manager effectiveness rises to the top of key care-abouts today. Leaders clearly need to lead differently, yet many leaders are wholly unprepared to do so. The type of leadership needed today isn’t something that comes naturally to many leaders, but it can be taught and practiced until it’s a muscle leaders have developed. When done well, it yields remarkable leaps in employee engagement.

One of our global HR clients talks about it this way: “The key to shifting ways of working is by shifting the ways leaders lead. They go hand-in-hand because the leader still makes the weather.”

Employee Experience Best Practices: Putting Triage into Practice

As you consider what can be done today to improve employee experience at your organization – whether it’s related to health and wellness, manager effectiveness, culture or something else – there are many ways you can begin to triage. Below, we share a few ways we’ve helped our clients improve employee experience and we hope these stories offer inspiration for you.

  • Boosting inspiration and connection: Associates at a global pharmaceutical company were experiencing change fatigue, and this coupled with pandemic frustrations resulted in rising feelings of uncertainty and anxiety – all impacting the employee experience. To address this, we created “A Dose of Inspiration” event which served as a reset moment to pause and acknowledge changes, recenter on the mission and inspire associates about the future of the organization and their role in that success. A mix of internal and external speakers helped everyone find inspiration from their patients and from one another. A post-event survey provided revealing insights into the power of coming together as a company around a shared mission to inspire associates and have a positive impact on employee experience. In fact, we found that 76% of associates reported being inspired by the event and 57% felt even more connected to the company mission.
  • Defining culture: A global marketing firm was struggling with the change that ensues when a company is the result of many acquisitions and combining multiple cultures into one. We helped by engaging leaders at every level to define what was most important, identify and articulate desired behaviors, move away from outdated philosophies and establish a new culture everyone could get behind and embrace through their ways of working every day. The end result was a culture – and related employee experience – that was greater than the sum of its parts.
  • Promoting health and wellness: We helped the CHRO of a medical device company package and brand their overall health and wellness offerings to speak to their culture and how they wanted employees to experience being part of the organization. The program, which we called “Take Care,” created a rally cry for employees to get a sense for the range of health and wellness offerings available so they felt supported and encouraged to take good care of themselves, especially during the pandemic. This was especially important for the workforce given the mix of essential employees and those who worked from home. It also became an avenue for sharing vaccine-related updates to encourage vaccinations and follow safety protocols.
  • Enhancing manager effectiveness: We worked with a leading national accounting firm to develop another creative solution for enhancing manager effectiveness. We developed a high-performance “Leader Playbook,” which clearly defined what it means to be a great leader at the firm. We created the guide in just one week in collaboration with a group of high potential leaders, who provided the core concepts, strategies and tips as part of a leadership training experience. The guide was designed with beautiful infographics and images, making it highly accessible and a reliable go-to resource for emerging leaders at the firm. It provided essential strategies, tips and tools to enhance leadership and communication skills.
  • Building leader communication capability: In today’s challenging work culture, setting the right tone as a leader goes a long way toward engaging your team. One of the best ways that we’ve found to address this pain point is by building a customized leader communication training and development program. We’ve done this for a variety of organizations, including Collins Aerospace, Form Technologies, Hillrom, Novartis Gene Therapies and many others. These interactive sessions focus on the evolving needs employees have today and ways in which leaders can evolve how they lead in today’s new reality so they make the kind of weather everyone appreciates.

How Do You Measure Employee Experience?

An important part of any strategy is identifying metrics for measuring success and identifying areas where adjustment may be needed. When it comes to employee experience, you can use both qualitative and quantitative data to assess how well efforts are working.

Ways of measuring employee experience can include:

  • Conducting quantitative surveys to gather insights on employees’ perspectives
  • Conducting benchmark studies to determine how your employee experience framework stacks up against industry norms
  • Looking at trends in HR data, including turnover, attendance records, internal promotions, and employee referrals
  • Gathering insights by talking directly with employees during one-on-one meetings, stay interviews, and through facilitated focus groups to get an accurate pulse on how they are feeling

Conclusion

Leaders make the weather and have the greatest impact on your employees’ day-to-day experience. More than ever, the success of your organization today is in the hands of your employees. Taking a thoughtful and strategic approach to creating a fulfilling employee experience is vital to maintaining a positive work environment and retaining top talent.

Take a deeper dive into the topic of employee experience, the benefits of leading with empathy and combating turnover with this new ebook, Holy Shift: Lead with Heart to Engage and Retain Employees During The Great Resignation!

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