Beyond employee experience: A practical framework for embracing 'people experience'by
Although a popular buzzword in the HR industry, ‘employee experience’ means different things to different people and is not fully inclusive. Should employers instead consider the 'people experience'?
A core principle here at the People Experience Hub is that what we measure must be relevant to the organisations we work with, and therefore our concept of the people experience must allow flexibility. Another is that it must be evidence-based.
To help you better understand the people experience, and why we use this term instead of employee experience, I will delve into the issues with certain HR terminology and offer a practical framework that could be helpful to your own organisation.
The bottom line is that employee engagement is a problematic concept.
The people experience and not just employee experience
There are two reasons why we use the term people experience rather than employee experience.
We’re all people, but we’re not all ‘employees’
First, we believe that it’s more inclusive. The term ‘employee’ implies only people with an employment contract, when the ‘gig economy’ is increasingly important.
It can also conjure an image of the worker bee, versus management. We recognise that we’re dealing with people at all levels, and don’t want to imply a ‘them and us’ approach.
Employee experience comes pre-loaded
Although it is still a relatively new term, ‘employee experience’ already means different things to different people.
First is the idea of employee experience as EX, like CX (Customer Experience) or UX (User Experience) as something to be designed. I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be designed, but that our first and most important job is to understand, before trying to design against some idealistic notion of EX.
Second, sometimes employee experience is, inaccurately, equated with HR practice. In fact, its scope is any touch point that the employee has with the organisation – including the physical environment, work processes and systems, colleagues and so on.
The people experience and not just employee engagement
The bottom line is that employee engagement is a problematic concept. By this, I mean that there are many definitions and measures of employee engagement in use and most have not been tested empirically and subjected to scrutiny (though the recent work of Shuck and colleagues is promising).
Employee engagement as an umbrella term
This has led the CIPD to conclude that employee engagement is best thought of as an overarching umbrella concept related to people strategy. Under this umbrella, you can choose to measure more specific constructs (such as work engagement) that have a stronger foundation in theory and research.
We see the people experience similarly and this gives us flexibility, but a little structure can also be helpful.
Employee engagement as a narrow construct
Before expanding on this, it is also important to point out that there are many more constructs that might be relevant to both performance and wellbeing, than employee engagement.
Shuck defines the construct of employee engagement as, "a positive, active, work-related psychological state operationalized by the maintenance, intensity, and direction of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral energy.”
In other words, focused, emotionally committed and hard working.
These are all desirable – to a point – but may not be so relevant, say, in uncertain and complex situations or where relationships are critical to success. And how much focus, emotional commitment and hard work is too much?
Sharing the pedestal
Employee engagement tends to be put on a pedestal of its own. But while it might be useful, it is only part of the picture and that pedestal should be shared.
Employee engagement can also be thought of as a product of cognitive and affective (emotional) appraisals of our environment. Understanding these, I believe, should be our starting point to a more complete view of the people experience.
Three levels of people experience
Source: The People Experience Hub
1. Perceived Environment
Our framework starts with the idea that there is a relatively well-shared ‘reality’ of the work environment that, while not quite objective, might be described in a similar way by different employees. This might include structures, processes, practices and even work climate / culture.
The Perceived Environment is the first level in our framework.
2. Felt Experience
A shared perception, however, does not mean that it is experienced in the same way by everyone.
You and I might see the same things happening, more or less, at the organisational level but we might take different meaning from them and feel very differently about them. You might feel like you belong, and I might feel like an outsider. I might feel like I am growing but you might feel unchallenged and stagnant. You might have great relationships and I might not.
It's this Felt Experience that sits in the middle of our framework and represents the core of the people experience. It’s the point at which you and I, as individuals, bring our own needs, motivations and personalities into the mix and, to quote Anaïs Nin, “we don’t see things as they are, but as we are”.
Into this pot, based on our research, we’ve tentatively placed: belonging, purpose, (emotional) connection, enjoyment, autonomy and growth, as a range of cognitive-affective ‘feelings’ that we think that people can relate to. But we keep an open mind and I’m sure it will evolve as we continue to use it and test our own data.
3. Observable Outcomes
The next is concerned with implications, or Observable Outcomes. In this pot we can put what matters most to the organisation, the motivations, attitudes or behaviours that they want to see or use to define success, or to execute their vision, in their own context.
As a starting point, we can explore things like engagement, burnout, creativity, change orientation or collaboration. It’s important, however, to work with the organisation’s own priorities. This is where the rubber hits the road, where strategy becomes action, and all that.
You may ask, what does this model help us achieve?
It helps us to tailor an approach to measuring employee feedback, to the needs and priorities of the business in two ways.
Clarifying the why
First, the design conversation is framed by the organisation’s strategic objectives and / or their desired culture and the framework helps to guide this.
More specifically, when it comes to being efficient with use of questions – which is necessary even in an annual survey – it’s important to dig into what the business most wants to understand. Are you more interested, at this point, in understanding how well things are perceived as working, what it feels like to be in the organisation, or what impact that has?
Drawing actionable insights
Tailoring measures in this way, to a clear ‘why’ also helps further down the line, with the development of insights. If you just ask a bunch of vanilla questions, it’s harder to draw meaning from the data and turn insight into action.
That is how we use the three levels in our work. It’s still relatively new for us but is helping us to have more structured and productive conversations about the people experience.
If nothing else, I hope that it stimulates some thinking about your own work, whether you are measuring the people experience, designing interventions to improve it, or both.
Interested in this topic? Read 'Why the future of business and HR is indefinitely tied to the human experience.'
Rob is a business psychologist, specialising in organisational development and change. As Director of People Science for the People Experience Hub, his purpose is to help organisations to transform the employee experience and unlock business performance.
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