Executives are becoming more and more aware of the importance of the employee experience. But they struggle to define it. Most HR leaders have looked to the employee lifecycle model to shape their employee experience strategy. While this model provides a helpful framework, it represents more of a corporate, rather than an employee, point-of-view. Therefore, many leaders miss what matters most to employees: the personal, everyday, career-defining, micro-experiences that shape life at work. Organizations that improve these day-to-day work experiences create a more engaging overall employee experience. They help people thrive by creating a culture where clear expectations, behaviors, and celebrations inspire organizational success.
WHAT IS EMPLOYEE EXPERIENCE?
Over the past few years, the phrase “employee experience” has become associated with the “employee lifecycle,” which effectively takes a time-based view of significant career events from prehire to post-retire (or separation). Companies have concentrated their employee experience efforts on these major milestones in an employee’s time with the company: when they are hired, through the onboarding experience, during training and development, while they are trying to engage and retain their people, and when employees leave. Most organizations implement company-wide programs around these stages to reach employees and try to provide an improved experience as they progress through each milestone.
Employee experience author and futurist Jacob Morgan1 outlines the evolution of the employee experience. What started as a focus on utility—efforts to provide employees with the minimum of what was needed to work (desk, chair, phone, computer)—then shifted to what would drive employees to work harder, faster, and be more productive (employee optimization, repeatable processes). This evolved into employee engagement and how to make employees happy (annual survey, mission statements, perks). Now the employee experience encompasses things that make employees want to come to work, with an emphasis on culture, workspace, and an intentionally designed experience.
Despite company efforts, we found that only 66% of employees feel the employee experience matters at their organization. Deloitte reports 84% of employees said the employee experience was an important issue to improve, with almost 33% calling it one of their organization’s top three urgent issues.2 This is for good reason. Nearly 1 in 5 employees, especially Millennials, left their jobs in 2017 due to a poor employee experience.3
WHY ARE COMPANIES STRUGGLING TO PROVIDE GREAT EXPERIENCES FOR THEIR PEOPLE?
Most organizations are missing a crucial piece of the employee experience. Companies create programs and experiences to talk at their people. Equating employee lifecycle with employee experience often leads to a “one-size-fits-all” approach when it comes to interacting with employees. What organizations overlook is the wide variety of everyday human interactions and events, trials and triumphs, adventures and misadventures that define life at work. This is the real employee experience. But rather than empathize with it, many organizations operate as though it doesn’t even exist.
Figure 3. THE EMPLOYEE LIFECYCLE
The traditional corporate view of employee experience involves
six distinct career stages known as the employee lifecycle.
THE EMPLOYEE IN FOCUS
Employees view the employee experience differently than organizations
When employees think of the employee experience, they aren’t thinking of company-wide programs and perks or benefits. They also are not thinking about where they are in the employee lifecycle or journey. That’s the corporate point-of-view. Employees are thinking of their personal experiences—a collection of thousands of interactions they have in an organization, both positive and negative. Every conversation they’ve had, email read, poster seen, appreciation received (or not received); how they are treated by leaders; how easy or difficult it is to get resources, answers, and information. What employees experience is not the once-or-twice-ayear HR initiative, but all the micro-experiences they encounter each and every working day. 92% of employees describe their employee experience as their “everyday” experience. Moreover, only 42% of employees would rate their employee experience as positive or extremely positive.
Figure 4. EMPLOYEE EXPERIENCES
To foster a positive work environment, HR leaders design programs
to deliver employee experiences around each lifecycle stage.
The employee experience is going through a similar transformation to the one customer experience went through several years ago. First focusing on customer service, then customer personas and journey mapping, organizations now understand that customers are real people who interact with their companies in a multitude of ways. Rather than just being an end-user or persona, customers are real people with real needs and emotions. Customers have stories, a desire for connection, families, and feelings.4
This shift to the customer perspective has led organizations to focus on ways to create more positive experiences, not simply agonize over call center wait times and user interfaces. How do we anticipate and answer questions and satisfy needs without going through four layers of supervisors or digging through 16 pages of a user guide?
Sue Barret, sales philosopher and speaker, writes in Smart Company, “This concept is not new. Peter Drucker, the father of business management and culture, wrote in his 1953 book: ‘The purpose of business is not to make profit but to satisfy the needs and expectations of customers. The consequence of satisfied customers is incremental profit.’ For too long, many businesses ignored the advice of Peter Drucker and focused on profit only, looking at customers as numbers and a means to an end for profit.”5
The same can be said of the employee experience. Our research shows that nearly one-half of employees believe their organization regularly sacrifices the employee experience to improve the customer experience. For too long, companies have looked at employees as a means of production and profit, as evidenced by the term “human resources.” Ironically, most organizations have neglected to incorporate the human element into their employee experience.
“Experiences are key to defining human interactions. Just as consumers choose the experience of shopping, as much as they choose the products they buy, progressive companies see the workforce as their ‘customers’ and look to turn current and future employees into the best thing possible: true believers.”
—CINDY COLEMAN, GENSLER6
THE EMPLOYEE LIFECYCLE IS JUST A SNAPSHOT OF LIFE AT WORK
The employee lifecycle is only the tip of the iceberg. For starters, each lifecycle event or period is actually made up of many smaller micro-experiences. Onboarding is about accepting an offer, receiving a welcome letter, your first day at work, orientation, meeting your team, settling into your workspace, learning about the company purpose, logging on to your computer, meeting your leader, getting your first assignment, being overwhelmed by policies and procedures, finding the cafeteria, and so on. These experiences determine whether you get a good or bad start to your new job, whether you buy into the company’s purpose, whether you fit and belong, even whether you want to stay. And while some stops on the lifecycle happen over a few days or weeks, like recruitment or separation, others can last half a lifetime, like development or retention. The point is, the lifecycle looks very different when you put the employee at the center, and when you look at the lifecycle from the employee’s point of view.
When you look from the employee’s point of view, thousands of new workplace experiences come into focus. The employee’s experience at work is, in reality, made up of countless micro-, or everyday experiences, as well as less frequent, but more memorable, “peak” and “valley” experiences, as demonstrated by the next chart. In their book, The Power of Moments, doctors Chip and Dan Heath describe why certain experiences have an extraordinary impact on our life stories. We tend to remember the best (peak) and worst (valley) moments, and often forget the rest7. Are organizations paying attention to creating these peak moments that matter? Our research found that peak experiences and everyday micro-experiences play a role in shaping our employee experience and work/life stories. Each generates a different impact.
Figure 5. EMPLOYEE MICRO-EXPERIENCES
The true employee experience involves many daily micro-experiences that go
beyond the employee lifecycle and define life at work.
In order to make sense of the thousands of micro-experiences we might have in any given week or month or year, our brains simplify our interactions and group them into what we call “peak” experiences and “valley” experiences. These are different from “everyday experiences” as they tend to be more notable or remarkable than everyday interactions. Peak experiences are superbly positive experiences, while valley experiences are significantly negative experiences. Peak experiences could be as simple as an act of appreciation shown to someone or a great conversation they had with a senior leader, or as big as winning their first client or finishing a major project successfully. Valley experiences are formed when employees experience unnecessarily negative interactions with leaders and peers, unnecessary challenges and frustrations in getting resources or answers, feeling a lack of support, major undue stress, or a failed project.
Peak experiences, in particular, have a substantial impact. Because peak experiences tend to be accompanied by deep, positive emotions, they tend to be memorable. They serve as signposts and reference points to a broader story of the employee’s overall experience.
Peak and valley experiences help craft the overall story employees tell. Employees use them to create a narrative about their life at work. Day-to-day, personal micro-experiences, especially peak and valley experiences, are the real building blocks of a career. They are the wins and losses. They are the struggles and accomplishments. They are the moments remembered—the instances that create emotion from high and low points. The everyday micro-experiences impact our ongoing, overall sentiment about an organization, and the peak and valley experiences create the narrative we use to talk about it.
The impact of peak experiences lasts longer than valley experiences. Peak experiences affect an individual’s perception of their employee experience for approximately four weeks, while valley experiences impact their perception for two weeks. That’s why a few peak experiences can dramatically improve an employee’s overall experience. HR groups work tirelessly to improve valley experiences because they can be challenging to address and often take months or years to fix. Creating peak experiences is not only more straightforward, but also a more effective path to shaping a positive overall employee experience.
Micro-experiences and peak and valley experiences are very important. But employees have numerous micro-experiences in any given day. How can organizations possibly affect them all?
Figure 6. EXPERIENCE IMPACT
The influence of peak experiences lasts four weeks
while valley experiences last only two.
CULTURE AND EMPLOYEE EXPERIENCE GO HAND-IN-HAND
HR leaders have been increasingly tasked by CEOs and senior leaders to cultivate a positive workplace culture and improve the employee experience. It’s a daunting task. HR teams are implementing different initiatives and programs to try and tackle both successfully. While these unaligned, separate efforts on culture and employee experience have led to some improvement, we still have a long way to go.
Josh Bersin8 argues that “employee experience” has become a “giant vortex for everything in HR”, to the extent that all the programs that companies have invested in over the past few years have become part of the employee experience: think leadership, work environment, growth and development, health and wellbeing, etc. Organizations now struggle with too many programs, too much technology, too many fragmented tools at work—all under the guise of employee experience efforts.
Our research shows you can do both—build a vibrant workplace culture and an incredible employee experience—by better understanding the powerful relationship between the two.
The importance of an employee’s micro-experiences cannot be emphasized enough. And workplace culture and employee microexperiences are deeply interconnected. They work synergistically. Culture affects how employees interact, think, and work. It causes people to have specific micro-experiences, including peak and valley experiences. These experiences then, in turn, reinforce your corporate culture.
If you want to build a thriving workplace culture, create great micro-experiences. This is where the Talent Magnets come into the picture. They define the essential categories of experiences that employees look for in a great place to work. So think of creating micro-experiences that connect employees to purpose, opportunity, success, appreciation, wellbeing, and leadership. An organization filled with peak and positive micro-experiences in each of those areas is one that employees will seek to work for, engage with, remain at, and give their heart-and-soul to help succeed.
“Our belief is that if you get the culture right, most of the other stuff , like great customer service, or building a great long-term brand or empowering passionate employees and customers, will happen on its own.”
—TONY HSIEH, ZAPPOS
Rather than trying to implement disconnected programs that reflect the company point-of-view, intentionally design a culture focused on micro-experiences that connect employees to their work, their team, and the organization. We recommend you:
1. Diagnose if burnout is a problem in your organization and then find the cultural issues causing it.
2. Rethink leadership. The outdated leader-knows-best style and lopsided power structure of leadership are not working anymore. Help leaders encourage a model of shared leadership with their teams.
3. Build connections with people by better utilizing regular one-to-one conversations between leaders and their team members.
4. Enable teams where employees feel included, supported, and psychologically safe.
5. Actively listen to understand your people—don’t ask for feedback just to “check the box.”
There are many tools to craft a best-in-class workplace culture with excellent employee experiences, but these five are critical for lasting impact. Each will be covered in detail in sections 4 to 8 of this report.
Focus on the importance of the employee point-of-view and designing up rather than defaulting to top-down. Look at the microexperiences your employees are having and improve daily interactions. Create peak experiences. Not only will you significantly impact employee experience, culture, and business outcomes, but you will also reduce the likelihood of employee burnout, which is becoming the next workplace crisis.
EXPERIENCE—4 KEY TAKEAWAYS
Companies are missing the human part of the employee experience
Employee experience is made up of everyday micro-experiences
Peak experiences shape the narrative employees tell about their organizations
The employee experience and culture are intrinsically connected
1. “The Evolution of Employee Experience”, Jacob Morgan, Inc., August 3, 2017.
2. “From employee experience to human experience: Putting meaning back into work”, Deloitte 2019 Global Human Capital Trends, April 11, 2019.
3. “Employee Experience: 5 Big Reasons Why It’s The Future of the Workplace”, G.I. Sanders, Dynamic Signal.
4. “Human Experience is Greater Than Customer Experience”, Anthony Stephan and Amelia Dunlop, Deloitte/Wall Street Journal, April 7, 2019.
5. “Creating ‘human’ experiences: Why businesses with a CX-HX focus will outperform the market”, Sue Barrett, SmartCompany, August 27, 2018.
6. “Corporate Headquarters: From the Inside Out”, Cindy Coleman, Gensler, Dialogue Issue 31.
7. Chip Heath, Dan Heath, “The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact”, Simon & Schuster, October 3, 2017.
8. “Employee Experience is Trickier (and more important) Than You Thought”, Josh Bersin, March 24, 2019.