employee experience vs. engagement
It was bad. Violence continued to increase in Sydney’s Kings Cross—an area renowned for its vibrant nightlife. City officials were fairly certain they knew what was causing the violence—drunken party-goers.
Each Friday and Saturday night after the bars closed, patrons would head to the streets. And, that’s when the violence ensued. The first, and most natural, response to decrease violence was to increase police presence, and tighten up the laws. This worked to a certain extent. It reduced violence. But, it also greatly reduced something else—revenue. In fact, it impacted some well-known venues to the point that they were forced out of business.
There had to be another solution.
City planners then looked at the situation from a different standpoint—the patron’s. They wanted people to party and have a good time. But realized frustration and anger could be attributed to the overcrowded sidewalks after bar close—so they closed one street to serve foot traffic only. They also realized people were agitated by waiting in long lines for cabs or trains—so they brought in food carts and seating, which distracted some patrons from simply rushing into lines.
This story illustrates a common problem we have in the workplace—not drunken violence—but instead the way we often overlook the perception of work through the employee’s eyes. As leaders, we’re all trying to manage employees into adopting our workplace culture instead of us adapting to theirs.
For decades now the corporate world has been focused on increasing employee engagement—adding policies and perks, changing processes, and promoting cultural fit. Don’t get us wrong; all of these things are good. However, study after study shows global engagement scores continue to decline.
A fairly new concept has recently become a buzz with company leaders—it’s called employee experience. The two of us have heard ‘employee experience’ mentioned quite frequently at recent conferences and events we’ve attended. And, quite honestly, the concept is often being spoken about incorrectly—almost like it can be used interchangeably with the term engagement. But, it can’t.
Employee engagement is a top-down philosophy. It’s the hope of an organization that employees choose to engage with the company’s ideas, culture, work, and results. Employee experience, on the other hand, is a bottom-up concept—where processes, places, and workflow are designed around the pre-existing tendencies of the employees. Just like retailers are changing based on customer activity and desire, workplaces are following suit.
We recently toured Airbnb’s corporate headquarters for example. The company is considered a leader in the employee experience movement. One example of their leadership is the fact that employees don’t have designated desks. In fact the design of the office varies from some areas feeling like living rooms, other areas feel like workplace kitchens with available snacks, and if an employee wants some privacy, they can choose to spend their day in a work-pod. Leaders at the company actually encourage employees not to work in the same environment or with the same people every day. And, this constant movement exemplifies the company’s slogan, “Belong anywhere.”
But, it’s not just about workspace. It’s also about listening. Results from Airbnb’s culture survey suggested that the culture wasn’t as open and honest as they’d hoped. So, one founder, Joe Gebbia, created an idea to stir dialogue called Elephants, Dead Fish and Vomit. “Elephants are the big things in the room that nobody is talking about, dead fish are the things that happened a few years ago that people can’t get over, and vomit is that sometimes people just need to get something off their mind and you need someone to just sit there and listen.” This idea added to the employee experience simply because leaders could finally hear everything that had remained unspoken.
GE is also recognized as a leader in employee experience. Paul Davies, Head of Employee Experience at GE said, “We ask our employees, our people leaders and our candidates what matters most to them, we listen to their stories, listening especially for emotions.”
Of course, employee engagement fanatics might argue that they’re trying to listen to the voices—the thoughts, ideas, desires, and emotions of their people too. And, we don’t disagree with that statement. But, herein lies the simple, but huge, difference between employee engagement and employee experience. Elliot Nelson, a partner at KennedyFitch, may have said it best in a recent article. “Employee engagement asks the question, Here’s what we did. How happy are you? where employee experience asks the question, How can we enable you to do your best work and connect with your purpose?”
How do you become an employee experience-focused company or leader? Well, it’s not an overnight transition. However, we can offer a few starting points to get you thinking.
- Pay attention to reality. Your culture (team or organization) is a product of the shared beliefs and values of your employees. Watch them. Listen to them. Try harder to understand them rather why they’re not engaging in the leadership’s idea of what the culture should be.
- Let their path happen. If employees are sneaking through the back door but your policy suggests they enter through the front door, find out why, and change the policy. This is just an example, but you get the point. Our job is to look for their natural flow. Forcing employees into a culture that doesn’t work for them will definitely lead to disengagement. Of course, this doesn’t mean employees get to do whatever they want. It just means you’re being flexible enough to allow greater success.
- Tell lots of stories. While it’s true that we’re huge fans of appreciation, we’re also huge fans of storytelling as a tool to fuel, shape, and transform culture. And, when it comes to shifting to an employee experience focus, Mark Levy, Head of Employee Experience at Airbnb since 2013, says they borrowed the idea from Disney that ‘every frame matters’ in telling employee stories. Encourage effort, reward results, and celebrate careers by telling grand stories about them, and their achievements.
As leaders, employee experience is something we all should start looking at seriously…because, like it or not, there’s a silent revolution taking place with employees all over the world. And, if we do our best, we will see those engagement scores move in the right direction.
This post was originally published on Forbes.