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Future HR: Employee Experience meets Neuroscience

What do you get if you bring together the latest thinking on the supercharged employee experience (ex) model, which represents the evolution of the HR field and you fuse it with the latest understanding of our brains being delivered through the field of neuroscience? Well, not many organisations know just yet, but think about it for a second. Imagine the possibilities.

Workplaces designed and developed with the employee experience in mind are being cited and referenced m

ore often as not only great places to work, but also in many cases, they are increasingly the envy of many within their respective sectors.

With over 600,000 people reading it, Ben’s earlier article called Bye, Bye, HR? continues to cause a global stir. In that article, Airbnb’s employee experience model was discussed as one which transcends the usual HR remit. It is just one tangible example out of many now embracing the idea.

In 2015, and at its first attempt, Airbnb went on to become the no1 workplace on Glassdoor, a site that allows employees to anonymously rate their employers, usurping Google no less. This is a company leading in the shared economy. Even with high profile employee experience approaches coming to mainstream attention, the questions for practitioners remain:

“How and why does focusing on employee experience really work in practice? Why should you move to an employee-centred approach throughout your business operations?”

To help us answer these questions we have to understand more about the way in which our mind actually works. One simple thing we know from neuroscience is that each of us has a brain. (You knew the field was groundbreaking!). A brain. Singular. That brain comes with us to team meetings, when we work on our own, when we visit clients, when we have performance reviews – and strangely even when we leave the office. The relevance of this is that the neural networks that are created when we, for example, are fully present during a workout are still in our brain states when we try to have a challenging conversation. So too are the feelings when we have a bad performance review and we have to try to motivate a team.

We often see segregation between business strategy and people strategy. The business strategy being the responsibility of senior leaders while the people strategy is seen to be the responsibility of HR. The first existing with the purpose of moving the business forward…while the other with the purpose of playing a supporting role in making sure that business plans and people are aligned, as much as they can be. This makes absolute sense – if employees have both a business brain and a human brain. In reality though, an employee within an organisation has a single brain, which means that having two independent and separate strategies is sometimes a recipe for problems. This is where neuroscience can really help us.

Understanding the latest research that helps us further understand people is a huge job. There is absolutely a place for these experts within any organisation. However, it actually does more harm than good if they are squirreled away. They should be assets and the input they share highly respected. The aim would be for everyone in the organisation to be inspired and equipped to learn more about people and the meaning associated within everything within the business.

“The best people and HR leaders…challenge the status quo, and they see beyond the perceived limitations of their function and therefore extend well beyond it. They bring meaning to the workplace and it runs through everything that affects people.”

Do you have a purpose beyond making money? Do you like your work to be meaningful? The answer for most of us is that we would like to live a life with meaning and impact, and the long-standing research which featured in Amy’s book, Engaged, suggests the same. So why then does this thinking not really underpin how most organisations work and develop? Neuroscience offers a deeper insight into what could be going on within our organisations, and integrated within employee experience, can offer the chance to build something really quite special. It doesn’t replace some of the excellent research that has been done through other disciplines previously. Nor does it disprove what thoughtful thinkers have come up with before. In this case, it simply offers an additional perspective.

What else does an Employee Experience approach ask for? Results need to be articulated. This is normally clear from senior leadership. The behaviours that generate those results next need to be clarified. The level of specificity that is useful here is quite rare. Finally, the environment, both internal (the brain) and external environment that people exist in need to be considered fully. It is still the exception to the rule that organisations invest time in exploring research or consulting progressive experts to understand how best to create environments that drive behaviours and will deliver the key business results.

This is a huge opportunity for HR professionals, now and in the future. We’re seeing HR people being equipped with more relevant skills such as digital, analytical, research, and it is not far-fetched to suggest that organisations in the future will be asking for a ‘strong understanding of the neuroscience behind great workplaces’. It must be our mission to see people equipped in this way. This is a greater service that could be offered through HR or employee experience functions.

Here’s a clear example of employee experience meeting neuroscience. The Jarring Awakening utilized through employee experience could literally revolutionize people management. This is the assertion that, from one perspective, our brains are incredibly easy to influence. This means that for many of us, we have a lot more opportunity than perhaps was previously thought to shape our own minds. We know that our brains can and do change. If our brains are easy to influence think about the ways in which people can utilize this when creating objectives that naturally align to the strategy, mission, and purpose of an organisation. It’s no surprise that the voluntary sector is consistently one of the most engaged sectors, and aligning purpose is a key aspect of that, and it doesn’t take as much effort within the employee experience to attract people in that sense to an organisation’s cause.

Hold on a minute though. For those organisations that have to work that little bit harder on their reason for being other than generating shareholder value or profit, why do people need to be jarred awake anyway? Well, the year-on-year global data out there suggests that we have more people not actively engaging within the workplace than ever before. In an engagement crisis, we need to think very differently. This is two-sided by the way. Organisations are failing to create the right experiences for their staff, and according to some people, like our colleague, Dr Marshall Goldsmith, employees are not accepting their responsibility to proactively engage in their work fully, which is a very intriguing proposition.

Most people do not intentionally invest in the shaping of their brains and we are still in an economy where organisations develop almost by accident and through implementing established practices. The opportunity here is to understand some of the ways we know neuroscience can help to wire the psychology of the organisation more effectively, and you can see how this fuses nicely with employee experience thinking.

Another foundational insight is The Reassuring Truth. This is the understanding that we are wired for interpersonal attachments. This is a fundamental human motivation. It is incredibly powerful. It is that power that is reassuring. We need frequent interactions with people with whom we have an ongoing bond. Feeling that you belong somewhere, with some people, has multiple strong effects on emotional patterns and cognitive processes. A lack of attachment causes pain, increases our perception of stress, impairs cognitive functioning, and can interfere with the immune response. Yes, literally, employee experience thinking could boost your immune system.

Is this all just about making people happy? Absolutely not. This is razor-sharp, leading edge HR. Sure, happy people are great and mostly make better employees but this is about better business. If we rely on humans in your workplace then we rely on brains. It makes sense to turn to insights from neuroscience to support us in reaching our objectives. Humans aren’t just human resources. When we look through the lens of neuroscience we can be better at creating the kind of employee experience that enables people to work at their very best within a meaningful organisation and what is now becoming a much more meaningful and connected economy.

Ben Whitter, Director of Organisational Development at The University of Nottingham Ningbo China

Amy Brann, Author of ‘Engaged’ and ‘Neuroscience for Coaches’


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