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Employee experience 2020: a shift from ping-pong tables to respect


The things that mark out an organisation as a ‘good place to work’ are changing. Today’s employee experience strategies are moving away from ‘one size fits all’ tokenistic perks, and instead focusing on authenticity and respect.

30th Sep 2020
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Interest in employee experience has been growing steeply over the past few years, reaching a peak in February 2020 before attention diverted to pandemic response. Attention to employee experience has returned quickly though, with early signs that organisations are rethinking their approaches in a hurry. 

google trends graph for employee experience 

Given that carefully designed employee experience is a relatively new concept, it has been interesting to observe a shift in drivers of employee experience, from tokenistic collectivism to authentic individualisation.

This shift is good news because it moves employee experience from being an employee branding exercise to becoming a talent management, performance, and retention mechanism.

A marked change

Early on, the spotlight of modern employee experience shone on the kings of cool like Google, Facebook, and WeWork. They each had a greenfield opportunity to design employee experience and chose to do so with campuses that resembled playgrounds, a support staff of chefs, baristas and masseuses, beer and kombucha on tap, and catchy programmes like ‘20% time’. Lots of marketing and promotion took place to showcase them as creative and liberal employers and to reset norms of how workplaces should be.

Workers lit up green with envy from their cubicles and fought to become part of this new world of work, only to find that the extrinsic rewards came at a high cost of stress and burnout.

Nevertheless, tokenism worked for a while and many organisations followed the pack by tokenising their experience; even investing in technology to scale out tokenism in ways that required low or no effort from managers. 

the experience assessment grid

The tide is turning

Tokenism is failing the test of time, however. Employees of tokenistic employers have come to learn that sushi on demand is a poor trade if it’s served amidst discriminatory management practices, unchallenged bias, misconduct, and poor ethics. They have felt duped. They have become vocal with whistleblowing, protests, and social media movements, and it’s clear that a backpack with a logo on it won’t set things back on track.

The challenger to tokenism as the driver of employee experience is authenticity and respect. Not surprisingly, traditional brands are leading the charge by building these elements in to employee experience. Organisations like Arby’s, a US fast food chain, commit that “if employees take time to understand Arby’s goals, Arby’s will try to understand theirs as well”. They aim for employees not only to be successful at work, but also to have the resources to achieve their dreams beyond work.

Campbell’s Soup Company has also embraced authenticity and respect as the driver of employee experience. In a turnaround situation, then CEO Doug Conant introduced a simple promise of “Campbell’s valuing people. People valuing Campbell’s”, which he underpinned with a ten-point pledge of how the organisation would be led for its people.

Rewards and recognition hub

Contrasting the employee experience extremes

There is a marked difference of intent between an authentic employee experience and a tokenistic one. The authentic approach to employee experience is employee centric, it is empathetic, and it serves to enable employees to become more fulfilled through their own eyes in whatever way they measure their personal success.

The benefits imparted onto the employee have currency in the outside world, as transferrable skills, life changing insights, better wellness, or unstrained relationships at home through appreciation and management of stressors.

Authentic employee experiences work with the intrinsic motivation of the individual, and require the organisation to be attuned to what those motivators are for every single worker. Of course, a happy, fulfilled, developing employee yields huge value for their employer through the proven relationship between employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction and shareholder value known as the service profit chain.

With authentic employee experience design, that exponential value that each employee provides is a consequence of individual fulfillment though, not the goal itself.

By contrast, tokenistic employee experience is employer centric. It is manipulative, and serves to tie the employee closer to the employer through dependency. The rewards are far more transient and less transferrable. That ‘star performer” badge means very little in the outside world, and the iPhone you bought with your kudos points stops being a motivator from the moment you accumulated enough points to redeem it from the company catalogue.

An employer, (not employee) experience scorecard

Knowing where an employer sits on the authenticity scale for employee experience comes down to a few key measures. Perhaps it’s time to flip our idea of KPIs from being measures for employees to measures for the employer in this respect.

If we contemplate this for a moment, the scorecard for an authentic employee experience might look something like this.

proposed employer experience scorecard

This scorecard would be a high bar to reach, but how far from this is your organisation today? Answer truthfully, and if you are quite far from delivering on these metrics, then a good place to start is by reallocating time and resources from tokenistic experiences to authentic ones.

For a deeper dive, use the experience assessment grid to categorise each facet of your employee experience. If they are mainly tokenistic and mainly collective, consider where it would be beneficial to move to authentic and inidividaulised experiences instead.

Most importantly, find out what behaviours are impacting feelings of respect, and begin work to eliminate those, person by person with an individualised approach.

Interested in this topic? Read Employee experience: why teams of the future will be more dolphin and less worker bee.

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