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Employee Experience: Why the Future of Work Starts Today

This is a guest post by Dr Richard Claydon reflecting on his attendance and participation in Australia's first employee experience conference, which Ben co-designed and partnered with PwC to deliver. Represented in the room were around 100 senior business leaders who collectively represented 500,000 employees and $88 billion in revenues. Thanks for the excellent summary, Richard!


This Monday, I was privileged to be able to present at Australia's first ever Employee Experience Conference, hosted by PwC in their wonderful new premises in Barangaroo, Sydney.

The below is what I took away from the event.

From the C-Suite of a Big Four Firm

To have an idea book-ended by arguments from a Chief Economics Officer and a Chief Creative Officer was fascinating. Different perspectives. Similar conclusions.

The Chief Economics Officer: The economics were in-your-face brutal. Traditional powerhouse economies (the G7 / G20) are being caught up and overtaken by emerging economies. All signs are that the key indicators of economic health in many of the G20 countries are beginning to flatline. He predicted that talented people will start draining out of these countries and go to where the emerging money and interesting new work is.

The data is obviously worrying leaders. There was a great degree of pessimism about the chances of serious growth in all major English-speaking economies. Likewise, there was evidence that people didn’t believe their leaders were capable of comprehending and delivering the technologies necessary for becoming more competitive in such a world.

Except for Australia! Australian leaders are confident they can deliver growth - despite being seen by their employees as the least capable of comprehending and delivering new technologies of all leaders in the English-speaking world.

That’s some disconnect!

Either way, the solution is problematic.

  1. On one hand, leaders are so worried about how they might grow, fear, anxiety and action-paralysis might set in. When that happens, you stick with what you know, which is, ironically, the exact opposite of what you should be doing.

  2. On the other hand, if you aren’t even willing to face the problem, you’re risking it hitting you like a double-decker bus, leading to pain and suffering beyond your imagination.

It is clear that something beyond the status quo and associated fear and anxiety is necessary. But what is it?

The Chief Creative Officer: For the CCO, the issue was equally clear. In a world of increasingly complex work, in which innovation and disruption are the competitive currencies, we need to be sure we can hire and retain creative and critical thinkers. That means redesigning work around how they want to work.

Creativity can happen anywhere at any time. It is not something you can plan for and measure on a chronological scale. It is a burst of inspiration and enthusiasm that can erupt unexpectedly.

  • In the shower.

  • While listening to music.

  • During a walk.

Usually when the person is in a calm and reflective state, able to make novel sense out of the chaotic noise that loudly buzzes around the workplace.

Critical thought is an absolute necessity. The reputation risk of doing something that hasn’t been properly critiqued is enormous.

Look at Pepsi’s recent Kendal Jenner ad. The stuff about Uber taking female executives to strip clubs. Or the Wells Fargo scandal, in which patently ridiculous targets (because eight rhymes with great!) were not properly scrutinized.

In a world of uncertainty and risk, companies have to enable critical thought across the workforce. This means radical honesty and an acceptance that rebellion and cynicism are not necessarily mindless resistance, but evidence that something, somewhere, is wrong. And that not fixing it might be hugely risky.

Enter the Employee Experience Movement

In very basic terms, the answer is designing a great employee experience. This means treating your employees as consumers of your organisation rather than, well, employees. They are already beginning to critique you like consumers review products. Thanks to websites such as Glassdoor, your organisation already gets ranked. It’s important that you don’t get yanked.

What do I mean by that?

Simply, if you are getting really bad ratings from current employees, the next generation aren’t going to want to work for you. Forget about the value of your brand name and all the work your marketing team puts in selling it - if the environment is bad, people will rate it as toxic, and the best people of tomorrow won’t want to work for you. That's an existential threat.

So what do you do? There were a couple of initial solutions to examine.

1: From day one, make sure the employee experience is great. Have their workspace set up, give them a goody-bag of great tech and cool things, and make them feel like it was a good decision to work for you. They’ll be nervous. It’s their first day. Make them feel welcome.

That first impression counts. As Malcolm Gladwell points out in Blink, we make a pretty accurate assessment of a person based on knowing them for only a few seconds. That’s the same for your company. So work on it. Otherwise, the possibly great employee has already made his mind up to quit sooner rather than later.

2: Secondly, make sure the environment is conducive to doing good work. There are two standard solutions to this.

a: The design solution: we’ve seen a massive shift in workplace design in recent years. Gone are the rows of cubicles, cheap desks and magenta painted walls. We see natural light, greenery, comfortable chairs, different shapes and colours, cool tech, coffee bars, beer taps, games and toys - all kinds of things to make the workplace somewhere you’d like to be rather than somewhere you are longing to escape from.

Yes, it can be expensive - but you will get rated for it.

b: The culture solution: we’ve seen a rebirth in the interest in organisational culture in the last couple of years. Most “excellent” cultures are arranged around values and concepts such as Trust - Innovation - Engagement - Rewards - Empathy - Citizenship - Open Communication - Cohesion - Togetherness - Excellence - Well-being. These are objectively good values and it makes sense to design a culture around them.

Yes, it can be difficult and challenging to traditionalist management - but you will get rated for it.

Ben Whitter, a world-leader in the employee experience movement, illustrates how a number of companies are doing all the above, with three distinct outcomes.

  1. They were growing fast and improving the bottom line

  2. They were getting good press = free publicity

  3. They were getting great social media buzz / Glassdoor ratings = even more free publicity.

You can see how all this holds together pretty easily. That’s the great news. By doing all the above, you can start positioning yourself to be in a great place when the employees of tomorrow start knocking on your door. But, as with many organisational ideas, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Towards a Co-Designed Experience

Nearly every participant at the conference was a senior executive at a large, complex organisation. This is important. There’s a stream of research that illustrates how the high commitment cultures seen as being vital to employee experience in startups are actually harmful to complex organisations.

This research is underpinned by Gideon Kunda’s seminal investigation for MIT into the original high commitment cultures of the 1980s-2000s in Silicon Valley, which illustrated how hoped-for faith, commitment and loyalty shifted into ambivalence, irony and games-playing as the company became larger and more complex.

More recent work from Stanford further advances this insight, illustrating that while there’s lots of evidence that high commitment cultures are necessary for good startup performance, they prevent growth once the organisation gets above a certain size.

In a world with very many mega-corporations, that kind of knowledge needs to be front and foremost.

Given the above, the answer for larger, complex companies is, not surprisingly, a little more complex. It involves co-designing experiences with employees who have fundamentally different interpretations of the organisation than those held by corporate or HR.

We generally call these different interpretations sub-cultures. It's important to know that, despite all attempts to design single, strong cultures, sub-cultures always emerge. This is a clear theme in organisational research on culture. If you are serious about employee experience, it’s time to stop being scared of sub-cultures and embrace them.

To make this seem a little more obvious, and perhaps more palatable, let’s use personality (specifically extraversion and introversion) to ground the idea.

  • We know that extroverts get their energy from social interaction, being around lots of people, high-paced and frenetic work, and quite a loud, buzzy environment.

  • In contrast, introverts need quiet, secluded spaces, with no interruptions, so they can focus and concentrate on the task at hand.

  • If extroverts work in a library, they are going to give it a bad rating. Introverts, a great one. And vice versa for working in event planning.

It’s going to be impossible to design a single experience that gives both groups what they want. So don't try. Instead co-design flexible, fluid experiences that talk to the work they do when and how they are doing it.

Mapping your sub-cultures are key to this. Knowing how people in these sub-cultures are experiencing the organisation facilitates to co-design a better experience.

This is important. Why?

Firstly, because their involvement in the design experience is likely to help them do their work more effectively and productively. This is not that new an idea. W. Edwards Deming’s work in Japan in the 1960s-70s and Ricardo Semler’s work at Semco in the 1990-2000s are perhaps the most established examples of how this co-designing ethos leads to increased revenues and profitability. There are many more examples popping up today.

Secondly, because enabling these different interpretive voices means we solve a lot of problems of creative and critical thought. As Google says, innovation comes from anywhere. Research is increasingly illustrating how cognitive diversity is the key to 21st Century competitive advantage, making us all smarter and harder working. But we have to know how to listen to it before we can activate its possibilities.

Assuming we can learn to listen, the question becomes - what do we do with what we've heard and learned? How do we turn all this diverse data and creative interpretations into something that drives growth and an imporved bottom line.

The Tools of Employee Experience

It’s becoming clear that the world is awash with wonderful ideas about how we can deliver great employee experience. The conference ended with discussions around how they might work.

  • Storytelling can unleash meaning and powerful emotional reactions that induce more loyalty than value statements and principles

  • The places and spaces in which we work are being reimagined as enablers of all types of different ways of doing great work

  • Critical voices can be delivered through a trust-based and transparent approach to the possibilities of digital

  • Design thinking can help deliver creative ideas and possibilities quickly, efficiently and with little risk

  • Hiring is better seen as a romancing of soon-to-be-great employees rather than a war for hopefully-OK talent

  • Understanding how people think differently so we can tap into those thoughts is more useful than measuring and testing for cultural fit

There are specialists in these practices and more, all aching to make a difference to the way we work.

There are two key challenges.

1: Turning the above into something boards and senior executives can see the value of. This means shifting away from short-term obsessions and measurements, and towards preparing for a future that underpins the long-term health of the company.

2: A huge reimagining of the role of HR away from hiring, compliance and cultural ownership and towards being a catalyst and facilitator for wide-ranging, high-quality employee experiences.

If we can get the above two things right, then employee experience becomes a thing of today and the world of tomorrow a less scary place.


The original article first appeared on LinkedIn.

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