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Why Employee Experience Initiatives Fall Short

From the July–August 2020 Issue

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Tim Bower

北京快3After a decade of growth and historically low unemployment, organizations now find themselves in a much different world. But even as companies are forced to shed jobs and dramatically tighten belts, smart managers must keep their eyes on the horizon: Recessions eventually end, and when this one does, companies in many industries will return to an atmosphere where keeping talent happy is a priority.

That can be a challenge. According to a global study by the research and advisory firm Gartner, in 2019 companies spent an average of $2,420 per person on efforts to enhance the employee experience. Such initiatives typically include flexible work policies, workplace redesigns, and learning and development opportunities, to cite just a few examples. When organizations meet their workers’ experience expectations, the researchers found, they see boosts in effort, productivity, and retention. But the ROI from such initiatives is disappointing: Only 13% of employees in the study reported being fully satisfied with their experience. “Simply investing in these programs is not enough,” says Caroline Walsh, a vice president in Gartner’s human resources practice. “Companies taking that approach only drive up expectations,” creating a vicious cycle in which employee desires and organizational spending fuel each other.

The study—a survey of nearly 150 HR executives and 3,000 employees worldwide—reveals that for better returns, organizations need to complement investments with measures to help shape people’s understanding of their experience. That’s a three-part process.

Calibrating expectations.

北京快3 Most companies ask employees what they want from their work experience—but too often they stop there. “Expectations are relative,” Walsh says, pointing out that they are influenced by prior jobs, personal events, peers, and other factors. They may also be incomplete: Research shows that only about a fifth of employees are candid about their wishes. And those may be infeasible or impossible to implement.

北京快3So an organization should be clear about what it can—and can’t—deliver given the available resources and priorities, which will change as the economy ebbs and flows. “There need to be some guardrails,” Walsh says. “Is this idea relevant to the entire company? Is it tied to our business goals and strategy?” Once those guardrails are in place, HR leaders should involve employees in creating a companywide “experience vision”—for instance, by surveying them about what changes they would implement and what makes them excited to come to work.

Managers should take a long view, focusing on salient events, not smaller incidents.

北京快3Finally, rather than issue top-down, blanket directives about what to expect, managers should engage in one-on-one dialogues to align each employee’s hoped-for experience with the organizational vision. At Silicon Valley Bank, employees create “experience blueprints” in daylong workshops designed to help them determine and document their priorities. These become the basis for ongoing conversations with their managers (whom SVB calls coaches) about what to anticipate and whether those priorities are reflected in their realities over time.

Personalizing the day-to-day experience.

Most organizations recognize the pitfalls of a one-size-fits-all approach, but customization usually falls to managers, who may have limited bandwidth, may lack full visibility into what each employee wants, and may not be completely trusted by direct reports. Firms get better results when managers partner with employees to this end.

北京快3The first step is sharing information so that workers can see places to make improvements. “It’s hard to benchmark your experience if it’s a sample of one,” says Leah Johnson, also a VP in Gartner’s HR practice. One large software company created a dashboard on which it posts biannual engagement survey results and personal descriptions of experiences employees have had. Town hall meetings and webinars can serve the same purpose. A team learning that members lack confidence in their digital skills might request training, for example, while an employee with young children might look for areas of the firm with the work/life balance he’s seeking.

blueprint illustrationTim Bower

北京快3Employees might fear repercussions from voicing their requests, so leaders need to create a psychologically safe environment for discussions. To keep people from being overwhelmed by possibilities, managers can provide each worker with a set of relevant choices—for instance, personalized suggestions for training opportunities. They can create default options to make it easier to act. And they can connect employees with others in the organization who have insights to share.

Shaping memories—both good and bad.

Organizations often focus on responding to negative experiences with all possible speed—but that doesn’t always help, and it can mean engaging in issues that don’t actually matter much to employees or the business. Managers should borrow a leaf from the customer-experience book and take a long view, concentrating on how employees will recall their experience over time and focusing on salient events rather than on incidents, such as technology glitches, that may feel urgent in the moment but quickly fade. They can seek to reframe memories of negative experiences by acknowledging that a problem occurred and emphasizing that because of the employee’s feedback, things will go better in the future. As part of Microsoft’s Acknowledge It email initiative, HR and business leaders send personal messages to employees who had rocky moments in their onboarding, thanking them for their feedback and underscoring how it made a difference for others. They also send thank-you emails during the offboarding process, acknowledging the contributions of departing employees. Since rolling out the initiative two years ago, the company has seen boosts in engagement, retention, and advocacy.

It’s equally important to reinforce positive experiences—an insight that was one of the researchers’ biggest “aha” moments, Johnson says. Too many firms treat employee experience initiatives like a marketing campaign, issuing formal statements when they are introduced—an approach that can feel inauthentic and irrelevant. One large government agency has taken a different tack. It created a road map depicting all its employee experience improvements, from new phone systems to a mental health resources program. HR leaders ask employees to reflect on how the programs have improved their work lives and encourage them to post their stories on the road map and share them in team meetings, off-sites, internal newsletters, and other forums. As companies emerge from the current crisis, leaders might seek ways to highlight examples of how they supported their employees, such as by continuing to pay sidelined workers or providing extended sick leave.

All these activities should supplement, not replace, an organization’s fundamental investments in experience, the researchers emphasize. “Companies have to be shaping the experience of something,北京快3” Walsh says. They constitute a significant opportunity for employees and employers alike. Each year, Gartner finds, organizations that take a shaping approach will have largely satisfied 32% more employees than their counterparts have, at a 32% lower cost. Those employees will be less likely than others to jump ship, and they’ll put in more discretionary effort and perform at higher levels—raising their companies’ chances of meeting their customer satisfaction, innovation, and reputational goals.

About the Research: by Gartner (white paper)
A version of this article appeared in the July–August 2020 issue of Harvard Business Review.
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