21 November 2022

How to improve the employee experience

7 minute read

Author

Jo Faragher

Jo Faragher

Jo Faragher is a writer and editor, specialising in HR and employment issues. She is a regular contributor to Personnel Today, People Management, First Voice (Federation of Small Businesses magazine) and Times Higher Education. She was awarded the Towers Watson HR Journalist of the Year prize in 2015 and was Highly Commended for the same award in 2019.

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Want to create a better employee experience? Collect feedback and make small, incremental tweaks that will add up to significant long-term improvements

Looking to find ways to enhance the employee experience in your organisation? “Buying and implementing HR software is perhaps less than half the battle. The bigger battle is always cultural and about people,” says Gary Cookson, author of HR for Hybrid Working. “Organisations who want to make the most of their new (or existing) people technology do need to put effort into finding the right technology – and for the right price – but need to be clear on their reasons for doing it and put just as much, if not more, effort into ensuring the culture supports and encourages its adoption and use.” In short, investing in technology to support an improved employee experience is all well and good, but it’s what you do with it that matters.

Using technology to create a better employee experience

How does this play out on a practical level? It’s a hiring manager intervening when feedback from an onboarding survey suggests someone’s first days at the organisation have not gone smoothly; it’s drilling down into engagement survey data and tweaking a benefit hardly anyone uses; it’s a manager being prompted to have a conversation with a remote worker who is not engaging on Teams calls but whose login details show they’re working long hours each week. “Data is useless unless it’s acted on,” says engagement expert Ben Whitter. “Employees are looking for signals that you’re taking their concerns seriously and there can’t be a lag between data and action.” Responding quickly to the things that matter most builds that all-important trust that creates that culture to which Cookson refers. Being proactive builds cultural capital too, adds Whitter. “Focusing on wellbeing in virtual meetings first rather than business performance shows you’re a people-centred leader – it’s ‘how are you?’ rather than ‘where are you with this project?’”

Using technology to support effective employee interventions became more important than ever during the pandemic. “People’s expectations of how their employers communicate with them have risen – the result of an increased number of remote workers, but also an increase in work-related anxiety,” says Ross McCaw, CEO and founder of OurPeople, a platform that enables organisations to unify their communications. “Speed is everything. From the start of the pandemic, it became very clear that no one knew what the next day would look like, let alone the next week or month. So managers needed access to feedback as soon as possible and delays would make responses redundant.” Even small elements such as read receipts on communications can help managers monitor who fails to respond or engage, meaning they can send another prompt if necessary. “It automates a process that would otherwise become a burden for managers. As well as the time cost, it prevents forgetfulness. It allows organisations to get on with the tasks they care about most,” he adds.

Technology increasingly supports employee interventions around work-life balance and diversity, both of which have become more important to employees since the pandemic and are central to retention. Combining data from a central HR system that shows someone is due to return from parental leave with a communications tool that reaches out to see if they need support in returning to work, for example, can be a low-cost but high-engagement intervention. Add to that targeted learning content on how an employee can build confidence after a long period away from the workplace and that value is heightened.

 

“Employees are looking for signals that you’re taking their concerns seriously; there can’t be a lag between data and action”

 

Integrating employee-facing systems effectively helps to create a ‘helicopter’ view of how they are experiencing work, although it’s not necessarily easy. “It’s all about the moment of intersection,” says Pringle. “You connect tools to a central HR system so you can see when someone has done their first 30 days or has got a promotion – you see a profile of someone going through a key moment at work. You can then listen to how they feel in a frictionless way, at the right cadence.” In reality this might be a pop-up prompt asking them if they need anything at the point of passing their probation, or reminding their manager to have a conversation about the benefits package they’re now entitled to. “Once that’s in place, it’s about understanding how to synthesise this information and bring it all together. For example, does a good onboarding experience mean someone is more engaged in six months’ time? It’s all about acting on the data and surfacing it in a simple way so people can see where the issue is,” he adds. Data visualisation through dashboards and similar tools can be useful here.

Ultimately, while technology can prompt interventions in this way, it has to be aligned with the organisation’s wider goals and the culture that supports them. Managers are central to bridging that gap between understanding where the business is heading and how employee experience supports workers to drive that journey. “Too often managers are left in no-man’s land seeking guidance and reassurance,” says David Godden, vice president of sales and marketing at feedback company Thymometrics. Tools that collate feedback from different cross-sections of the organisation at key moments can show managers how their teams are doing compared to others. “If something is not quite right, leaders can see if there’s a training issue and step in. Just because a team is not doing well it doesn’t mean the manager is bad, just that there might be something they need help with.” One area where supporting managers is crucial is wellbeing. Gartner’s research into the ‘moments that matter’ most to employees also identified that leaders need to “connect through emotional, not just physical, proximity”, urging them to identify moments when employees are likely to “feel seen rather than be seen”. Examples of employee interventions that might support this include recognition for a job well done; positive feedback on a difficult task; or being intentional about asking if someone needs help when they’re juggling something difficult in their home life. Responses will sometimes be immediate, others a conversation that happens after a bigger picture emerges from the data – the important thing is that the organisation has visibility of what’s going on.

Meg Price, positive psychologist and founder of Happybyme, argues that if organisations create “guide rails” for employees and managers, technology can support such interventions more effectively. The guide rails themselves stem from the company’s values and conversations around what works and what doesn’t within those values, she explains: “Rather than saying ‘here is our flexible working policy’, think about a human-centred approach. If someone has just taken on caring responsibilities, for example, how can you support them to work from a care home? Discuss hypothetical situations to curate how you treat people and have conversations around the guide rails.” The technology then becomes the facilitator in employee experience – the tool that helps someone navigate flexible working, rather than dictating how that policy will work. This also gives managers the confidence to support their teams because they know their interventions are broadly in line with company values rather than slavishly following a workflow.

 

“Effectively measuring the employee experience often depends on the maturity and integration of your HR and associated systems”

 

Creating an employee experience strategy

This is something that Claire Williams is actively working on as chief people officer at Ciphr. “We’re starting to think about every interaction in the context of how we improve engagement,” she says. “People talk loosely about engagement but it’s essentially the output of someone’s experience. So every decision we make from a people perspective, we’re asking: does it improve productivity or impact our employer value proposition? Retention is at the top of our list because it’s a candidate’s market, so we’re thinking about how we keep good people with us on the journey.” Gartner research reflects the need to centre employee experience at the heart of business strategy as we move out of the pandemic era: a recent survey of more than 200 HR leaders found that 40% had increased their “culture budget”, yet only one in four employees feel connected to their organisation’s culture. Using technology to support hybrid working rather than forcing people to come back to the office to create connectedness through osmosis is crucial, according to the analyst firm – more than half of employees (53%) felt highly connected to the culture where they had “radical flexibility”, it found.

One thing that can support effective interventions is the increasing role of automation and AI in employee experience. AI can be part of the working day in a number of ways, from the basic (an Outlook prompt telling someone they have a meeting and delivering the relevant documents they need) to the more complex (a feedback ‘heatmap’ hitting a red flag threshold that alerts leaders to low engagement in a particular department). It can smooth that process of “enablement” we covered earlier that is so crucial in employees’ ability to feel confident and productive, or speed up the response process when things are not going to plan. These technologies make it much easier to ask questions, to cascade information to managers, and to see whether interventions are working.

For example, an organisation could programme an AI prompt into a feedback tool so if a certain threshold is triggered this will send a reminder to the right person. If the AI recognises a worker has spent six hours in video meetings, for example, a message could remind them to take some time away from their screen. AI also sustains that all-important drumbeat of communication, as tools can be programmed to ask certain questions based on certain conditions – a pulse survey on the cost of living a week before payday, for example, or checking people are well after a busy or stressful period. It can also be the interface, with many employees feeling more comfortable sharing concerns with a ‘bot’ rather than their manager.

Of course, being able to measure the impact of these interventions both on employee experience and the wider goals of the business is crucial. “There are a ton of metrics that build up the whole picture,” says Williams. “We can look at whether customer NPS results go up at the same time as employee NPS, for example. Or look at customer feedback – if certain teams are getting a certain amount of negativity, how does that fit in with absence figures or other correlating factors?” Effective measurement will often depend on the maturity and integration of your HR and associated systems, she adds. Williams also advises collecting a base of data before starting projects so there’s a point of comparison. But don’t collect data for the sake of it, or if you’re not sure which questions you’re trying to answer. “It’s a waste of time if HR creates metrics that aren’t followed up on. Focus on how it’s being used, and why,” she concludes.

 

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

  • The definition of employee experience (and how it differs from employee engagement)
  • How to measure the employee experience
  • The impact of HR software on employee experience
  • Which employee experience interventions are most effective

 

Download the complete white paper now.