Maya Smallwood: ‘It’s time to fill in the employee experience blanks’

Thanks to technology, HR leaders can now capture data from almost every employee transaction. Yet the picture remains incomplete - so how do you fill in the blanks? Maya Smallwood, Principal at EY People Advisory Services explains why real life experiences hold the key


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It is remarkable that the biggest questions facing employers today are less about what they sell, or even who they sell to, and more about how they are perceived.

Organisations known for quality products, efficient execution and profitable growth are now being challenged by shareholders, customers, and communities to say more and do more – expectations from these stakeholders are higher than ever before. New questions are being asked:

‘What is your organisation’s actual role in the world?’

‘What is your true and committed-to purpose?’

‘How does your brand engender trust?’

These questions also reflect the rising expectations of an organisation’s talent pool, both current and prospective. They are the questions posed by those who want to work for employers that share their values, that have seen personalisation become part of their daily consumer life and who now expect work and the workplace to respond affirmatively.

Experience-centred design

Employees want either explicit or subtle indications that the environment they work in is aligned to them, and that there is mutual respect for one another.

In short, the task facing employers is to ensure they consistently enable employees to bring the best of who they are with them, by creating the environment they need so that they can unleash their true potential.

Increasingly this is being referred to as employee experience. Experience goes beyond engagement – which is a narrower construct – to bring in much broader themes around creating environments where people can work, innovate or just do the things they need to do.

Experience takes the nature of work conversations far deeper – using notions rooted in human-centred design – and surfaces insights about what it is really like for people individually and in groups to work within an operating environment.

Experience goes beyond engagement

When organisations demonstrate that they aim to create great environments by truly taking interest in the experience, they seek to understand ‘who’ their people are; ‘what’ they do; and ‘how’ they want to do it.

‘Employee experience’ ultimately forces greater accountability onto organisations – because to improve it requires concrete steps to define it, achieve it and measure it.

But for all the value fostering positive experience creates, it presents additional challenges too. To capture it, define it, and deliver it to employees from the time they are prospected to the time they exit the organisation, is an aspiration that many organisations fail to reach in reality.

Filling in the white space

‘Experience’ can stubbornly evade capture. There is too much experiential ‘white space’ that cannot be captured.

Experiences that reside within this white space can include inspiring conversations between employees and leaders, casual interactions around the proverbial watercooler, spending time in agile working spaces or working seamlessly between the office and home.

It is these interactions and moments that really matter to people yet occur outside formal ways of working and between traditional data capture methods.

Moreover, so much HR practice measures experience too formally, and in an overly transactional way – for instance at onboarding or appraisal, or following a training event, or in an exit interview. Filling in the white space gaps involves going way beyond these traditional measurement points.

What organisations need to do is capture the ‘friction’ in their employees’ day-to-day lives

What organisations need to do is capture the ‘friction’ in their employees’ day-to-day lives.

They need to know what impedes them doing what they want or need to do, otherwise friction points can become a constraint that prevents employees doing work well, from building enriching relationships or knowing that their personal efforts matter.

Ultimately, it is friction that impacts how people feel about their work and their workplace.

But the point about capturing authentic experience is that it almost needs to be done ‘before’ employees even realise they’re being asked about it. Lead people with a poorly worded question, be too intrusive or disruptive in capturing sentiment and organisations could get a very different answer.

Data driven employee experiences

At EY, in addition to point-in-time surveying methods, we’ve created ‘mood monitors’ through our PX360 platform to try and capture this hard-to-pin down white space and colour it with new people insights. The portal allows anyone, at any point in time, to simply say how they feel.

Crucially, they’re not asked to relate it to a specific process or anything in particular, for that would impact the immediacy of expressing their experience right there and then. It’s simply their opinion.

What leadership can do after the event, however, is correlate this sentiment back to the things that are happening in their teams and create an indication of people’s experiences that way.

Matching experiential data with operational data is extremely powerful. It enables us to better understand the environment people are being asked to navigate at work, and what hassles or delights might be hidden by ‘business as usual’ execution or technology usage.

Matching experiential data with operational data is extremely powerful

The potential for understanding new insights is vast – organisations that have started looking at this have barely scratched the surface of what’s possible. It gives leadership the tools to see if the culture they think they’re fostering is actually happening on the ground.

It’s time to measure the ‘now’

Understanding that there may be friction in the employee experience should matter to organisations. Because this way it at least gives them the opportunity to do something about it.

When organisations improve their employee experience, all the data suggests they also improve their retention, their engagement (which is merely an output of good experience) and their productivity rates.

More importantly though, while other HR concepts and buzzwords have come and gone, expect employee experience to stay. It is the long-term answer many HR professionals have been seeking.

Experience isn’t about what’s happened before; it’s a measure of what’s really happening ‘now’ (and thanks to analytics can possibly predict future trends).

It’s not possible to imagine a moment in time where experience won’t matter. We’re all human beings, and while the future of work (and the exact extent to which artificial intelligence will take over certain elements) remains unclear, work will still, fundamentally, remain a human activity.