Technology and the future of employee experience

Employee experience remains a significant issue for many businesses. As Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson once famously said: “The way you treat your employees is the way they will treat your customers.”

When it comes down to it, employee experience, says Ben Whitter – better known as Mr Employee Experience for his pioneering of the idea – is all about creating positive human relationships within an organisational setting.

“From pre-hire to retire, using the holistic employee experience as a lens, we can maximise all the interactions an individual has with an employer over the long term to create a deep sense of belonging and co-create exceptional business and human outcomes,” he says.

Technology is central to your employee experience strategy

One way of creating a superior experience for employees from start to finish is undoubtedly through technology. This has now shifted to include emerging technologies, which can push employee experience to an even higher level. The impact can be great if companies know how to harness the power of technology, says Whitter.

Consider the myriad of tools that are now at employees’ disposal: artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots, wearable technology, facial recognition, cloud computing, collaborative work tools, employee social networks, human resources help desks, augmented reality and on-demand learning, recruitment bots, machine-learning and voice-activation systems.

One way of creating a superior experience for employees from start to finish is undoubtedly through technology

While these solutions are nice to have, their purpose is much greater than merely showcasing a company as a digital frontrunner with all the latest tech.

What matters more is the overall user experience with technology. Tech deployment is for one goal: to improve employee happiness and, subsequently, productivity and the bottom line.

Technology enables personalised employee experiences

As automated as technology is, Whitter sees it as a mechanism for companies to be more personable and human.

“Technology enables companies, at scale, to reach people and design experiences that connect with each person, rather than simply through a blanket approach that fails to incorporate the needs and personal tastes of the individual,” he says.

It is no secret that it has always been a challenge for HR to create a strong relationship between the employee and employer at scale. The role of technology here can be vital, from giving people platforms to share and have their voices heard, to making things more convenient across the employee experience.

Yet tech is only a strong enabler if it is implemented with the employee in mind. This means focusing on their individual wants and needs, and personalising experiences at a deeper level to ensure successful outcomes in the workplace. Every individual is different, so personalisation is a major factor with any technology that comes into the organisation.

It has always been a challenge for HR to create a strong relationship between the employee and employer at scale

An example of such personalisation can be seen in the increasingly customised e-learning systems that are now available to employees. US helicopter operator Air Methods, for instance, employs a cloud-based learning platform called Amplifire, which uses AI to identify gaps in a pilot trainees’ skills and knowledge. The system then stays on those weaker subject areas by re-presenting information to help the student relearn, before retesting them.

Such employee-centric learning and development programmes are offered at many organisations; a stark contrast to the days of one-size-fits-all modules that were not designed for the unique needs of each individual.

Technology enables collaboration, innovation and flexibility

Another area where technology has proven transformative for businesses is in how it has accelerated communication and collaboration between employees. With cloud computing and communicators, employees now find it much easier to collaborate.

For example, with cloud-based productivity tools such as Google Cloud and Microsoft 365, team members can work on documents at the same time from anywhere, while also seeing each other’s changes and notes. Embracing such technology can be a real enabler in the workplace, making everyone’s lives better.

“Progressive HR strategies are recognising that the role of HR in the enablement of workplace productivity goes well beyond traditional HR technologies for both employees and managers,” says Andy Lomas, Europe, Middle East, India and Africa digital HR leader at EY. “This can range from talent development and knowledge content provision, to incorporating the power of desktop technologies such as from Enterprise 5 and Microsoft Office 365.

“Virtual teaming, global collaboration, co-creation techniques and utilising machine-learning and AI can all be easily incorporated into day-to-day employee interactions, with functionality we often all have as standard on our desktop. A great employee experience is about looking at all the tools and technologies available and putting them all to work.”

The role of HR in the enablement of workplace productivity goes well beyond traditional HR technologies

With advanced digital solutions from machine-learning to data analytics becoming more commonplace, legacy and time-consuming business processes, such as procurement, capacity planning and infrastructure integration, can also now be automated, which leaves employees with more time for problem-solving and strategising.

The nature of work has also changed, thanks to technology. Flexible working, a policy and culture once frowned upon by more traditional conglomerates, is now increasingly embraced by financial services and banking institutions, technology firms and even manufacturers of fast-moving consumer goods.

US computer maker Dell is a good example of a company that has an organisation-wide policy on flexible working that is not limited to certain functions and departments. HR, in collaboration with IT, drove the design and execution of the practice by mandating and ensuring the effective use of digital work tools, including Microsoft Teams and Airtable, across all levels of the organisation.

The result? Dell has saved $12 million in office space rental every year since 2014, after the policy went mainstream.

Technology enables agile HR

Whitter is keen to stress that moving with agility has always been a challenge for HR functions. In the past, there was typically a lot of stakeholder management involved prior to any organisational or business change, often with a lot of consultation.

Progressive and agile HR functions, however, develop things at speed, in partnership with employees, and are very responsive to the needs of people, often iterating and scaling high-performing practices very quickly. They can do this because the starting position has changed, thanks to technology.

Whereas once it was about management centricity, it is now very much about human centricity, or should be. “This has changed HR structures, methods and operating practices to enable the delivery of high-quality products, services or practices that address clearly defined needs,” says Whitter.

If there is evidence to suggest an iteration is required within the employee experience, then the better HR functions will have established a team that enables them to do that, and running in an agile way is often part of the overall approach, he adds.

The future of HR is horizontal, not vertical. Nearly every strategic business imperative requires HR working side by side with other functions.

“We see great success when HR leadership teams intentionally build agile people-consulting teams into their permanent headcount,” says Danny Ferron, principal at EY People Advisory Services. “Design-thinking, change management, organisation design, project management and lean process expertise comprise the key skillsets in these scrum teams.

“Agile innovation is an everyday mindset and these agile consulting teams set the tone for innovation, continuous improvement, and a relentless focus on the employee experience and business outcomes.”

Overcoming resistance

While the return on investment justifies the costs of implementing an employee experience plan, there are still many challenges that deter companies from going all in.

On one hand, there is the problem of scaling solutions across a global structure, privacy and protection issues, and on the other, there is the issue of data privacy.

As technology continues to evolve and becomes more agile and more predictive, there is a growing pressure for legal guidance on how to use data without falling foul of the law. Ironically, such thinking can restrict organisations by preventing them from wanting to digitalise in the first place.

Yet there will always be problems and resistance with any new ideas or initiatives; it’s how you manage the various stakeholders and business goals. Ultimately, as Whitter says: “When technology works well, it works well for everyone.”