Director of People Science, The People Experience Hub
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What's the difference between employee experience and company culture?

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Are employee experience and company culture two sides of the same coin? Or is there a notable difference HR professionals need to pay attention to?

8th Sep 2021
Director of People Science, The People Experience Hub
In association with
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There’s a lot of terminology in the HR world and it’s perhaps most noticeable in the broad area of culture and employee engagement. The landscape is cluttered with terms that seem, at the very least, to overlap and this must be frustrating and, perhaps, confusing for colleagues.

Two terms that might seem interchangeable are ‘culture’ and ‘employee experience’.

On one level, it doesn’t matter if culture and employee experience are the same thing because if it works, it works. There is value, however, in understanding... the relationship.

Most companies would probably tell you that they aspire to (or have, in some cases) a ‘great’ (insert other superlative) culture or employee experience. Putting aside, for a moment, our preference for the term ‘people experience’, I’d like to explore these concepts a little further. Some questions that I’d like to address include:

  • Is there such a thing as an objectively great culture or employee experience?
  • What’s the difference between culture and employee experience?
  • Does it even matter?

I’ll start and end with this question. On one level, it surely doesn’t matter whether you talk about culture or employee experience, if the result is that your people are happy, healthy, and high performing.

For a more nuanced answer, however, let’s park the question and return to it later.

Is there such a thing as an objectively great culture or employee experience?

For me, this is a trap. People that talk about a great culture, as if it’s something that you can benchmark, miss the point. Rather like the phrase, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’, because whether a culture is good or not is surely dependent on how well it supports or undermines the strategic vision and mission of the organisation.

Sure, there may be some desirable characteristics or values that are shared by many organisations, such as adaptability, innovation or inclusion, but the extent to which they are desirable – or indeed useful – is entirely contextual. What’s good for Netflix isn’t necessarily what’s good for National Grid. One creates and distributes entertaining content, while the other keeps the lights on.

The same is true of the employee experience. We all deserve processes that work efficiently, to be treated with respect, to have meaningful work – but you can’t separate the experience of your people from the contribution that you want from them. At Netflix, creativity must be a priority. At National Grid, safety is critical. Both must provide a reliable service, so they certainly have something in common, but if their employees have the same experience, one or both will fail.

What these examples highlight is that there’s obviously a relationship between culture and employee experience.

Are they really the same thing, two sides of the same coin, or even unrelated in theory and practice?

At a certain, general level, they are clearly very closely related. When you articulate a (desired) culture that doesn’t ring true, the experience will be incoherent, contradictory, and confusing.

So, deliberately articulating elements of your culture (either because you think it’s like that or you want it to be) such as values and behaviours means that you must also consider the implications for the employee experience.

A certain culture implies certain experiences, but, for example, if you describe an inclusive culture, your people must experience belonging. If you describe a high-performance culture, when processes and systems get in the way, it’s going to grate even more than if you didn’t. If you describe a culture of innovation, people must feel like their ideas and challenges will be listened to. There are fundamental differences between culture and employee experience, however.

Culture is a collective phenomenon

First, culture is a collective phenomenon. As described by Edgar Schein, a culture develops through shared learning and meaning. A perceived culture only exists when it is perceived as such by a group of people.

You and I might not use the same words to describe our culture, but the words we use describe – broadly – the same things. At its most fundamental level, a culture involves shared basic assumptions about the “system of beliefs, values, and behavioural norms that come to be taken for granted” (Schein, 2017).

Culture is relatively stable

As such, although culture is constantly moving, it is also relatively stable – compared to employee experience, that is.

Our perception of the culture where we work might not be greatly affected by one incident, which we’re likely to perceive as a blip if it’s uncharacteristic. It might, however, greatly influence our experience.

Experience is volatile

If I have a run-in with my manager, it can change a great deal. If I lose trust in my manager as a result, it can be lasting and damaging – but it doesn’t change the culture.

The employee experience is, therefore, both highly dynamic and personal.

Experience is personal

You can design ‘EX’ according to common principles, and this is how many people see the employee experience, but it’s a very narrow definition, based on the parallel idea that there is an optimal ‘user experience’ in software development.

While we perceive culture, however, we experience thoughts, feelings and emotions.

Experience is emotional

I’m a big believer in the importance of emotions at work, and their direct influence on specific building blocks of performance. For example, anxiety doesn’t generally promote creativity, but in healthy doses, will promote safety behaviours.

To many, however, emotions are nebulous and difficult to decipher. So, at the People Experience Hub, we talk instead about broader feelings (which you might describe as ‘cognitive-affective’), such as belonging, autonomy, growth, enjoyment, (interpersonal) connection and purpose. In other words, when we experience these things, we have a ‘good’ experience, though their importance is still relative in context.

While we can measure culture as a shared phenomenon (how well is open to debate), we can only actually aggregate individual experiences and look for patterns.

Experience is the key to unlocking culture change

I said at the beginning that on one level, it doesn’t matter if culture and employee experience are the same thing because if it works, it works.

There is value, however, in understanding the relationship between culture and employee experience.

The thing about culture eating strategy for breakfast is true, if your culture is a barrier to its implementation. Culture change is notoriously difficult, however, and takes a long time to see the result of, if you take the definition of culture as a deeply held, shared and implicit phenomenon literally.

On the other hand, people’s experience of work is malleable, and changes are relatively easy to measure. An intentionally designed employee experience that is aligned to the desired culture and strategic vision, delivered with relative consistency over time, however, feels less difficult, doesn’t it?

Eventually, however, that consistency over time will lead to shared learning and become taken for granted. In other words, part of the culture.

Interested in this topic? Read Why the future of business and HR is indefinitely tied to the human experience.

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