What is employee experience?



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15 mins


Get a definition of employee experience, and understand how employee experience differs from employee engagement, with insight from experts at Ciphr

In the scramble for top talent or to retain the valued employees organisations already have, it’s not surprising that more and more technology companies market themselves as offering the best in employee experience. Even HR analyst Josh Bersin admits that the current noise around employee experience makes it feel like a fad, describing the market for these tools as “really crowded, really noisy and really confusing” in an August 2021 podcast.

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Definition of employee experience

But Bersin offers a useful definition: that employee experience is a “company-wide initiative that helps employees to stay productive, healthy, engaged and on track”. Its evolution can be tracked across the latter half of the 20th century to now – from the first annual engagement surveys sent out by larger employers, to more regular feedback mechanisms from around 2010 onwards, to something that is far more employee-centric and responsive today.

Employee experience also owes a debt to customer experience – something organisations have focused on for decades because there’s a direct link to revenue generation. The idea is that if you consider everything from the customer’s or user’s perspective, this will make them more likely to stay loyal to your product or recommend you to someone else.

This is sometimes also referred to as design thinking: a methodology popularised by software development teams that involves shaping processes to find the most desirable solution for the customer. By addressing pain points across the customer journey, such as returning an item or exchanging a garment for a different size, consumers feel good about the brand and come back. When it comes to employee experience, we simply replace ’customer’ with ’employee’.

David Godden, vice president for sales and marketing at feedback company Thymometrics, argues that the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated this shift: “Companies have been talking about customer experience for so many years but employees were often thought about second. Now that organisations realise how much it costs to re-recruit staff, we’ve seen corporate cultures around wellbeing and experience take off, particularly since the pandemic.”

What is the difference between employee engagement and employee experience?

It’s crucial to understand that employee experience is not the same as employee engagement, insists Phil Pringle, employee experience strategist at Qualtrics, an experience management company.

While engagement represents the way a person thinks, feels and acts towards the company achieving its goals, and is often measured through metrics such as pride or advocacy, experience covers everything that happens to an employee during their career with that employer.

“Employee experience combines all of those moments in an employee’s journey through an organisation, all of the touchpoints you have at work,” he says. “It’s broader than engagement because it’s more holistic and captures the day-to-day. If you’re driving [employee] experience in the right way, you should get high levels of engagement.”

In short, tracking engagement numbers alone will not tell you the full story, nor will it solve any problems with that experience. Employee engagement is the output, and employee experience is the input; both can be positive or negative.

Moments that matter

As with customers, there will be certain touchpoints across the employee lifecycle where a good or bad employee experience could have an impact on someone’s engagement or likelihood of leaving. In customer experience, they are known as the ‘moments of truth’. When discussing employee experience, analyst company Gartner has described them as the ‘moments that matter’ – the points during an individual’s working day, year or career that shape their view of an organisation and their role within it.

Some examples of these moments might be:

  • Seeing a job advertisement for your company
  • Applying for a role via HR and recruitment software or LinkedIn
  • How seamless the onboarding process is
  • Whether a manager is available to answer a question
  • What happens if your digital tools don’t work
  • How HR deals with a complaint
  • Whether suggestions are acted upon
  • Applying for promotion
  • Being offered training support towards a new career goal
  • Attending an exit interview
  • Being part of an alumni network for employees

But while these moments are important, organisations also need to be mindful of the journey between these waypoints. “There will also be transitional or change experiences to consider,” adds Pringle.

This could be the point at which a candidate accepts a job and the transitional points between an offer and a start date, for example. If that journey doesn’t go smoothly, the hiring team could face the financial and time penalty of losing that candidate and having to recruit again.

“It’s about being able to see a profile of someone going through a key moment at work, getting specific insights, quickly, in an accessible way,” he says. One piece of advice from McKinsey is to use data to form descriptions of hypothetical employee ‘personas’ and to build experience journeys around these. Focusing on “edge cases” where redesigning those journeys will have the most value will have the greatest impact in the short term, it suggests.

How the shift to hybrid working is affecting employee experience

Now, however, many of our assumptions about how these moments will play out have gone out of the window. The hiring process pre-pandemic would likely have involved at least one in-person interview, for example, and this is no longer a given.

Employees’ interactions with managers will not necessarily all be in an office or other on-site working location, so a different response is required. Some new recruits hired in the past two years may never have even met their manager, and will have completed an entirely remote onboarding experience – such is the escalating trend towards fully-remote work.

And while we hear a lot about executives such as Tesla CEO Elon Musk demanding that employees return to the office full time, most research shows that offering flexibility in working days and locations is becoming a deal-breaker when it comes to recruiting and retaining talent. In fact, mentions of ‘hybrid working’ on careers review site Glassdoor were up 1,074% in 2021 compared to the year before, reflecting jobseekers’ changing demands.

“Regular in-person interaction with other human beings is something that most people took for granted until it didn’t happen anymore,” explains Gary Cookson, author of HR for Hybrid Working. “Socialising is a core purpose and need for all of us, reflected in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and our ability to do this has huge implications for our mental and physical health.”

Indeed’s Work Happiness Score, a gauge of employee wellbeing launched by the job site during the pandemic, reflects this. It found that workers were happier before the pandemic than in 2021, and that the social elements of work were crucial to employees’ sense of wellbeing and belonging.

This is why organisations should avoid simply duplicating the physical workplace remotely when trying to recreate those moments that matter in the new hybrid world, adds Cookson: “There must be something noticeably different about the experiences in both places to give them both some attraction. This means we need to give proper attention to the setup of both the remote and normal workspace so that they are flexible and tailorable to the needs not just of the individual, but the type of work they are doing.”

“It used to be a privilege to have a job… Now organisations ask their employees how they can do things better and build a deeper connection”

The prominence of media discussions about returning to the office has only intensified the scrutiny into whether employees feel positively towards work. Cookson argues a focus on autonomy and trust is crucial: “We need to provide more choice to employees over when and where they work, trusting them to make the right choices without building onerous processes around such things,” he adds.

“At the same time, it is important to manage expectations that people in some roles may not have the same degree of choice as others do. We need to help managers to understand that what employees do is more important than dictating when and where the work needs to be done, and reflect these stances in the organisational culture, encouraging and consciously building opportunities for collaboration.”

The pandemic also highlighted the intersection between our work and home lives in a way few had experienced before. Whether it was cats appearing on Zoom calls or virtual socials with colleagues, the remote working practices necessitated for much of 2020 and 2021 offered a unique view into our peers’ and leaders’ lives.

Increasingly, employees seek managers that will consider not just the moments that matter while they’re ‘at work’, but see them in the context of everything that’s happening in their home life too. Cookson adds: “Some of the advantages of hybrid working include the ability to have a more flexible schedule and/or to work from anywhere, not having to commute, and the ability to spend time with family. These, of course, come with some disadvantages too, so it is important organisations really think through the experience they are creating – and note that it will not be the same for everyone.”

What matters to employees?

If you consider how our perceptions have changed as customers in recent years, the employee experience world has been evolving at a comparable pace. So while we might expect an instant response when we make a complaint to a food delivery service, workers also have different levels of expectations around how their employer might respond to feedback or an important issue.

There’s also been an explosion in how employees feel about organisations’ purpose and mission: McKinsey’s 2021 analysis found that “workers are hungry for trust, social cohesion and purpose. They want to feel that their contributions are recognised and that their team is truly collaborative… They expect their personal sense of purpose to align with that of their organisation.”

In May 2022, Ciphr asked a sample of employees and employers which job aspects they valued the most. Work-life balance was cited as being more important to employees than their pay and other employee benefits combined. Just over two-thirds of respondents felt this to be the case, with job satisfaction running a close second, cited by 57% of men and 53% of women.

Job security was the third most important consideration for over half of respondents. Almost half of employees (44%) said they wanted to feel a sense of belonging at work, and 49% wanted to be valued and appreciated. These findings echo research from analyst company Gartner, which identified that employees increasingly seek a “human deal” from their organisation rather than a transactional contract; one comprising deeper connection, flexibility and autonomy, personal growth, shared purpose and wellbeing.

The pandemic exposed companies that did not focus on that human deal, believes Godden from Thymometrics. “It became obvious which companies knew how to treat their employees, and one of the reasons we’re seeing ‘the great resignation’ now is that people understood that and decided to leave if they didn’t see that connection to the business or get the flexibility they needed,” he says.

It has also accelerated a sea change in the relationship between leaders and workers, with organisations asking more questions of their employees about how they feel. “It used to be a privilege to have a job but the deal has swapped around,” he adds. “Now organisations ask employees if they can do something to make things better, how they can build that connection to the business.”

“HR is not the owner of the employee experience – the majority of touchpoints sit with managers”

One aspect of this is whether employees feel their personal development is supported by their employer. This survey found that managers who hadn’t received any training to support them in their role were 36% more likely to leave their current jobs within the next 12 months.

More than three-quarters of managers who received regular training said they loved their current job, compared to 54% of untrained managers. With workplace collaboration increasingly moving online, supporting employees and managers with digital training will support retention, while learning interventions in soft skills will support managers to have better conversations with remote teams.

Furthermore, learning management systems such as Ciphr LMS can support employers to do this in a more agile and responsive way; gone are the days when a learning intervention would have necessitated booking an in-person, off-site course many months in advance. Bradley Burgoyne, head of talent at Ciphr and a former L&D director, says: “Technology can help make those career conversations really meaningful. You can see a skills analysis across the organisation, employees can self-assess and tools can suggest learning that will fill any gaps. The result is employees feel empowered to go to their manager and have that conversation about the training they need.”

That sense of connection is also intricately tied to how organisations support diversity and inclusion, and how HR policies and processes are set up in this context. An individual’s employee experience will be heavily influenced by flexibility to be able to pick a child up from school or nursery, for example, or the ability to take time out for a medical appointment. “The pandemic accelerated the need for decision makers to listen at scale, and the penny dropped for a number of leaders,” adds Pringle from Qualtrics. “They realised the experience might be different for people from a different socio-economic group than themselves, for example, and that they couldn’t rely on only their perspective to deal with this.” Burgoyne believes that responding to people’s needs in this way feeds into their sense of psychological safety and wellbeing. “Employees want to feel it’s OK to bring things up or to challenge things, and then feel empowered to develop a solution,” he says.

If an employer wasn’t already cognisant of the importance of belonging and wellbeing highlighted by the pandemic, a tight labour market and the need to bring skills on board quickly has brought this into sharp focus. “Employers took a lot of the employee experience for granted during the pandemic because a lot of it went ‘unseen’,” says Ciphr chief people officer Claire Williams. “But now it’s difficult to recruit and retain, so employers have to think more deliberately about retention, which ultimately rests on employee experience.”

Improving the employee experience is a collective effort

Because employee experience can encompass every single interaction between a worker and their colleagues, customers, physical workspace and even home life, it cannot be managed via one tool or one team alone. “The majority of touchpoints sit with a manager – HR is not the whole of employee experience,” says Whitter. So while HR needs to have a ‘heatmap’ of how employees experience working for their organisation and be able to support interventions where necessary, they also need to work closely with IT teams (who manage tools that support a better experience); marketing departments (who can help communicate the organisation’s mission and values, and change projects); and senior operational decision-makers who are driving the direction of the business.

This ‘all-hands-on-deck’ approach to employee experience is more important than ever as organisations move to hybrid working patterns. Gartner recently found that 76% of HR leaders are struggling to adapt their organisational culture to support a hybrid workforce. Despite many investing more in workplace culture, only one in four employees who work in a hybrid arrangement say they feel connected to that culture.

McKinsey’s research argues that a good employee experience “requires a profound reorientation away from a traditional top-down model to one based on the fundamentals of design thinking”. Within this model there are nine key elements:

  • People and relationships (how they contribute to the organisation)
  • Teamwork (a collaborative and trusting environment)
  • Social climate (sense of belonging and social side)
  • Work organisation (knowing your responsibilities and having the right resources)
  • Work control and flexibility (ability to be productive and integrate work with other aspects of life)
  • Growth and rewards (incentives and career development)
  • Purpose (the company’s values align with mine)
  • Technology (tools support me to work in a frictionless way)
  • Physical environment (safety and comfort)

Understanding and responding to what is going on across these elements of work life, in connection with those moments that matter, is how organisations can begin to build a great employee experience. Whether it’s an employee’s relationship with their manager, how technology helps them to do their job, or their confidence to deal with customers, this experience cannot exist in isolation. It’s only by teams working together – and with the systems that support them – that businesses can drive that experience forward and, in turn, create high engagement.


This article is an extract from Ciphr’s white paper, Employee experience: moving the dial on moments that matter. Download the free PDF to discover:

  • How to gauge the experiences of your employees
  • The role of technology and HR software in building employee experience
  • Which employee experience interventions are most effective


Download the complete white paper now.