Your Work Experience Matters Today More than Ever. Here is Why.

In her speech and conversation with Christine Miles, Anna Tavis says companies that help people become better versions of themselves are going to be successful on the other side of COVID-19.

Now is the right time for us to think about what everything that is happening right now means to the people behind the firewall, which is the majority of people in the US facing the challenges created by the COVID-19 crisis. It is interesting to see what employee experience means at this time when we are literally six feet apart.

Employee experience is becoming the next big thing in people management

Employee experience is the cumulative impact of experiences employees have with an organization before, during, and after their employment journey that are designed to maximize organizational and individual outcomes. However, there is also a lot of overlap between customers and employees, and in that overlap is the human experience. We have heard a lot about the importance of customer experience, the lifetime value of customers, and so on, but one thing missing from such conversations is the role of employment in the customers’ life journey.

By the end of the 20th century, employee experience had begun to get measured, but at most, it was about satisfaction- whether people were happy in the job or not. We did not get to the level of sophistication that we are developing today around the importance of employees and how we design the journey bringing together all of the different moments that matter throughout employment history. More than just going through the motions of working for a company, today we use sophisticated tools to take the pulse of the organization by measuring what it means in terms of engagement, in terms of the psychological contract that employees have with the employers and what it means to productivity, innovation, future orientation, etc. 

The experience economy started out with companies wanting to achieve a certain experience with their customers and creating a lot of tools around enhancing their experience. When they found that how employees felt about it was also really critical the same types of tools and analytics were applied to measure the employee experience. Now, it is one of the largest market segments growing around employee experience and technologies, which are unleashed on the organizations to take them on. Evidently, this was made possible by some visionary leaders and companies who stepped forward and delineated the connection between the employees and clients. Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group was one of the first and is legendary in the employee experience field.

Parallel to this, Airbnb also started coming up in the discussions; they were the first to rename the job title of the Chief Job Officer to Chief Employee Experience Officer. They are credited with starting the trend in changing HR to the function that looks after employee experience. Innovative companies like Airbnb that started coming up clearly wanted to replicate the experiences of their customers in the experiences of their employees because they did not see the firewall, the gap between what is being done inside and the experiences of customers outside. An additional component to this change was that with the development of technology there was something more that was expected of the employees than just routine delivery to the goal set. 

Companies began to recognise the gap in productivity and technology adoption, and that gap had to do with employee engagement and with employees’ willingness. Companies saw that bringing in new technology and investing in the latest innovation would not make a change if employees are not on board. At the same time, the attitudes of the top of the companies started to change. In August 2019, the business roundtable came up with the new statement of the purpose of the corporations, which was all around stakeholders where communities, employees and customers came up way before the shareholders’ names.

Another interesting data point to look at is the annual trust and credibility survey by Edelman Trust Barometer, conducted on over 2000 clients of theirs mostly in the US, UK, and Europe. The latest survey results, which came out in January 2020 shows that none of the NGOs, media, business, and government make the cut on being both ethical and competent. Business was high on competence but lacking in ethics while for NGOs it was the opposite. Another important data point revealed in the survey was that customers and employees were more or less equally voted as the most important to long-term company success. Also, on the ratings between ethics and competence, ethics (76%) -comprising integrity, dependability and purpose – came up way above the technical competence (24%). This is from the perspective of employees in organizations, which clearly shows the growing sense of inequity and the diminishing trust of employees in organizations.

Interestingly, during the COVID-19 crisis, publications like The Economist thrust the Chief People Officers in the centre of this crisis solution. In one of their issues, The Economist says “In a pandemic, a Chief People Officer can make or break a company,” which is a really interesting point to reflect on. I would argue that the experience of the workers in the context of their organizations during this crisis is going to make or break the brands going forward. Whether the companies are going to live or die and how fast they are going to recover will depend on how they are treating their employees. 

The experience of the workers in the context of their organizations during this crisis is going to make or break the brands going forward.

Similar to the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, in the science of employee experience, we came up with 126 moments that matter in the lifecycle of a person in a company. It was seen that the fundamentals of security, safety and trust in their leadership and a lot of times the economics matter a lot. Right now, the agility with which the leadership can shift the focus and support their employees at this time really matters. In my many conversations with the heads of talent, heads of HR, and the heads of analytics functions in companies around the world regarding how we are helping organizations get through this difficult time, the number one concern is around the health and safety of employees, and that is where the latest technologies really help. 

The second concern that a lot of companies are paying attention to is workplace productivity. Surveys have shown that in the US, the productivity of the employees, most of whom are now working from home, has decreased by about 64%. The third most important concern is about frequent and fact-based communications around what is going on, and employees need to be informed whether the news is good or bad. Finally, there is also a concern about how authentic the leadership is.

Lessons we can learn from the six feet apart and social distancing experience

From the perspective of employee experience, there is a lot of conversation around the “new normal” and we should be ready for the “never normal”. One of the challenges we see is how to get the employees prepared for the “never normal”. The second challenge is clearly that the Coronavirus crisis has accelerated a lot of transformation. 

From a time we were not able to keep up with technology, we now see exponential growth of technological tools in a space of a couple of weeks, something that would have otherwise taken us a few years. It has clearly set a precedent for how fast behaviour can change under duress.

Another change that we can expect is hearing less and less about talent management and more about employee experience. Talent management came out of the Pareto principle that it is only about 10% of the organization that is of high potential, who are going to deliver great things for the organization and so the attention was paid only to the top 10%. Now, it is clear that in this economy where all of us are connected, 100% of the employees would have to have the experience and be invested in for the company to succeed. Additionally, it is very important to develop people and not create an imbalance between the tools and the importance of the trust in all of the intangible values that people bring to their organization because it’s the creativity, the innovation, and the ability to adapt in the challenging and ‘never normal’ environment that we need to trust people with.

Productivity was already not able to keep up with technology and now we see exponential growth of technological tools in a space of couple of weeks, something that would have otherwise taken us a few years. It has clearly set a precedent for how fast behaviour can change under duress.

From gig economy to quality brands

The best places to work are going to be more and more visible and important and they are going to be the ones to attract the most talent. This is because it is the people and the talent who are going to be innovative and thinking out of the box and will have the company succeed. Also, the proportion of CEOs coming out of HR is extremely small whereas majority of the CEOs of companies came out of finance, and that is also going to be challenged and questioned. We are already seeing the emergence of people leaders.

A quote by Minouche Shafik really contributes to the notion that employee experience is critical: “In the past, jobs were about muscle, now they are about brains, but in future, they’ll be about the heart.” Samuel Hulick famously said, “People don’t buy products, they buy better versions of themselves.” To conclude, people don’t join companies. They seek to become better versions of themselves, and if we help them do that, we are going to be successful on the other side of COVID-19.

Christine Miles in Conversation with Anna Tavis

Christine Miles: How do you balance and reconcile the investments in employees with simply staying solvent in this difficult time?

Anna Tavis: I want to give an example first, and then comment on how creative and compassionate leaders make difficult decisions around laying off. Union Square Hospitality Group just laid off 2000 employees. They had to do that because they had no other option. They operate on very thin margins in the restaurant business, and so their CEO Danny Meyer demonstrated amazing leadership by contributing all of his compensation to the employee assistance fund and supporting employees who have been particularly impacted. He started that fund way ahead of the pandemic, so that was already in place. His number one priority is to stay connected with his employees, so he personally communicates with all of the employees he laid off and with clear intention to bring them back as soon as the economy rebounds because his intention is not to have to go and rehire a whole new set of employees after the crisis is over. This is one of the ways to balance. He did take a very difficult decision as there was no way of retaining his employees. However, by demonstrating compassion, contributing personally to support his employees, and staying connected through different social media channels, he is definitely planning to rebuild this company after this is over.

Miles: In a more futuristic way, how do you see the old-school leadership moving to a more heart-based approach when it is not how we are taught?

Tavis: It’s very difficult to change people. However, people can change themselves. Going through this experience, if they are not going to change, not going to see the importance of building a very different organization and being the leaders of their own organization, this is going to be really challenging for them to continue and rebound because it is going to be the people who will have to come back and rebuild their businesses and they would be operating in a very different economy where it will be innovation, creativity, and engagement that will differentiate one business from another.

Miles: I think what you are saying here is that everybody is understanding that different things need to happen but how it is done and what is put behind to do this is really going to create the pull.

Tavis: Yes, absolutely. To those who are looking at measuring quantitative ways of explaining what is going on right now, we do have the tools ready. That’s why most organizations are developing this analytics and technology capability, and there is actually quantifiable value in the intangibles that were not on the radar before. Hence, I think we are going to see a significant shift as the new technologies get more integrated and more available to us. We are going to be able to measure those intangibles and understand what actually creates the success in business and what creates innovation. It is not just about intellectual conversation on how to beat your competitor in the market, but it really is about collaboration, compassion, empathy and a lot of those elements of human performance that have been off the radar for quite some time.

Miles: Companies are now really getting their arms around how to apply analytics to the human side of the business and the business impact, and that’s going to be important to pay attention to.

 Tavis: Absolutely. I think we are going to be amazed to see technologies like evolutionary AI, conversational AI, and all such tools that are becoming more and more humanised. It’s incredible what we can do now with this emotional side of humans. For example, on the recruitment side of HR, a lot of how you recruit people, how you bring the best talent is enabled through very sophisticated technologies that are coming in. The new coming out story of today is how soon you can identify that you are actually talking to a robot and not a human. We are significantly behind where marketing is. However, as we are introducing these tools and measurements and analytics into HR, it is becoming clear that it doesn’t directly translate and we have to be a lot more mindful of applying it to people at work. Privacy and ethics issues are coming up in a much more significant way than even in a consumer environment. We do not have the same facility with data, inside the organizations, as we do in the open market. There are challenges and lots of unresolved issues. However, that’s where I see a lot of investment being done. A lot of innovation and technology is coming in to really figure out the employee side of the business, what makes people productive, what makes them committed and how do they actually deliver to all those wonderful strategic ideas that we hear, and how does it translate into thousands of lives of people working for organizations.

Miles: Can you give some suggestions about how organizations can start shifting from customer-service to employee-focused orientation in the midst of this crisis?

Tavis: Right now, I definitely think it is empathy, compassion, communication, clarity, connecting with the employees, understanding where they are at, and helping them deal with the situation whether you are keeping them or letting them go. That moment of truth is going to be really critical for the impression and overall attitude the employees are going to have to the organization. It’s important because the number of lay-offs are staggering. In an environment where millions of people are going to get hurt, we have a number of examples of companies going out of their way to make that transition less painful and to support their employees, support their companies, and their customers. These moments really matter and our employees are our customers and our promoters in the market as well, so that’s where the brands are going to be really comparing going forward.

Miles: In this virtual environment where we are physically distanced, what ideas do you have around engagement that can help people connect in a more meaningful way?

Tavis: I think being smart around using social media and digital tools is really important. Saying “social distancing” is a misnomer as it really is about physical distancing, which has increased the immediacy of having to collaborate through the tools and technologies available to us, which are helping us to be more connected.

 Miles: New York University’s Marketing Professor Scott Galloway seemed to strongly suggest that companies should quickly lay-off employees to balance human capital needs with current business needs. You are suggesting the opposite, but how do you balance that? Can you speak to those two different points of view that we have- to do what’s needed but also to take care of our employees?

Tavis: We are in an unprecedented situation. Laying people off in all other times including 2008 was a different environment. There were jobs, the economy was moving forward and people being laid off could go on and start their own business or find other jobs in other organizations. This time, when you are laying people off, they are not going to be able to access the labour market in any way for a long period, until the companies pick up and start hiring. To the extent that you can retain some of the benefits, especially the health benefits of the employees, you have to be really factoring in that what we did before in the society is not applicable to the situation we are in. We should be following more of a European model, where the companies are receiving benefits to retain the employees on payroll rather than sending individual cheques, which is what we decided to do here in the United States. It is being called a logistical nightmare; most people will not be able to receive those benefits, some of them for about five months or so. 

It’s a very different situation, the focus should be on saving businesses, but at the same time, if the employees are going to be left out there, who is going to be working for the businesses later on? The social impact and the impact on the people who helped build the business in the first place should be a consideration. Even though businesses need to make tough decisions, they can be creative in the ways that they support their people.

Miles: Any final parting words or thoughts that might be helpful on how to create the employee experience, especially in this difficult time?

Tavis: We have to rethink as a society our value system. This crisis is raising the question of how much more pain are we going to inflict on society at large. If we don’t make significant changes in the way organizations are run, in the way we run societies as a whole, it raises a lot of questions. It’s not to say that the answers are there but I am saying that the right questions are being asked right now and it will be very important for us to work together and get to the right place.

Miles: How does it make you feel that those right questions are being asked in the midst of this? 

Tavis: It makes me feel very good. We need to have blended discussions rather than go to our siloed individual professional group like marketing people talking to fellow marketing people, HR talking to HR, strategists talking to strategists. We should blend the quantitative and the qualitative because the solutions are not purely coming out of data. The data are supporting the qualitative decisions that we need to make.

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