Is Employee Experience the New Customer Experience?

Joo Serk Lee

The term “Customer Experience” (or CX) is ubiquitous in today’s technology circles. It’s a term that’s written and blogged about by solution providers, systems integrators, small agencies, and tech titans alike. Organizations now use the term to describe entire departments: customer experience teams, directors of customer experience, etc.

While CX can mean different things to different organizations, it’s definitely more than just a pretty user interface. Experience is contextual. We are all products of our uniquely individual interactions with each other and with technology, interactions that shape what we expect from each other and from the technology products that we use.

Many organizations today view themselves as big advocates of customer experience, but too few have turned their focus to the experience of their most important asset, which is their people—and the technologies they work with on a day to day basis.

Neurons in a Giant Brain

In the early days of the Internet, when we were filled with optimism at the promise of how this new interconnectedness was going to transform the world in positive ways, Stephen Hawking said, “We are all now connected by the Internet, like neurons in a giant brain.”

Decades later, we are connected in ways that nobody thought possible at the time. And we are also more isolated than ever. In her book Alone Together, MIT researcher Sherry Turkle wrote:

“From the early days, I saw that computers offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship… and then, as the programs got really good, the illusion of friendship without the demands of intimacy.”

Technology is increasingly a surrogate for real human connection, and I believe we need to challenge ourselves. Are we really elevating the quality of life in helpful ways, or are we causing more harm than good? The workplace is one area where we can put our best principles into action.

The Experience-Performance Connection

In a survey by IMB and Globalforce that rated employee experiences, 96% of employees in the top quartile of employee experience were performing highly. That’s almost all of them. Meanwhile, just 73% of those in the bottom quartile of employee experience were performing highly—quite a significant drop. It’s clear that the overall experience of engaging in our work culture greatly affects how well we perform.

I found the following statistic even more intriguing: 95% of employees who reported positive employee experiences said that they engaged in discretionary activities that were not necessarily part of their job but beneficial to the company. What about those who reported painful or negative employee experience? Just 55% of them engaged in these kinds of discretionary activities. People want to be a part of a larger cause that they believe in; they don’t want to be a mere cog in a machine, churning out a carefully circumscribed set of tasks in relative isolation.

Five Hallmarks of Employee Experience

One theme I’ve heard time and time again regarding employee experience—whether you’re leading operators in a quick-service restaurant or agents in an insurance company—is this: make their job to delight our customers as easy as possible.

And you are not making it as easy as possible if you are forcing your call center reps to look up customer information in seven different systems, or drowning your employees in paperwork, or putting them through root-canal like expense reporting, or forcing a new generation of workers to use systems straight out of the Commodore 64. (Which is, incidentally, still the best-selling home computer of all time, despite being released in 1982.)

But where do you start? A recent Forrest report outlined five hallmarks of employee experience:

1. Helping employees get the work done. This involves clearing roadblocks out of the way and putting systems into place (including work management solutions) that supercharge employee efforts, enabling team members to feel that sense of fulfillment and accomplishment when they collectively or individually achieve something great.

2. Helping employees connect to the larger vision of the firm. All political controversy aside, I’ve long been impressed that Chik-fil-A’s stated ambition is to be recognized as the “World’s Most Caring Company.” Who wouldn’t want to be associated with a mission like that? And isn’t it interesting that the company’s mission has nothing at all to do with chicken?

3. Empowering employees to choose the best ways to work. This sounds extreme in some quarters, but you’d be surprised at how it can empower your workforce when you implement technologies that allow employees to work from anywhere, on any device, and with any app. This approach is especially important to the rising generation, who quite literally grew up with smartphones in their hands.

4. Helping employees learn new skills and grow. Options here include on-site training, conferences, time set aside to learn and experiment at work, education reimbursement, job shadowing, and even opportunities to join cross-functional teams that span multiple departments within the organization.

5. A sense of community. It’s no secret that when you have a sense of connection to your peers and your managers, you enjoy your work a lot more. Imagine what would happen if companies put as much effort into improving culture and community as they put into increasing the bottom line. (And, in fact, the first quite predictably leads to the second.)

Vita Activa vs. Vita Contemplativa

One of my favorite philosophers I studied in college was Hannah Arendt, author of The Human Condition. In that book, she discussed the two types of lives ancient philosophers lived: the vita activa and vita contemplative. The former types of activities provide the necessities of day-to-day life, while the latter are ultimately more meaningful and more fulfilling. Here’s a brief breakdown of the differences:

Vita Activa

Reduce friction; eliminating steps is relief
Reduce cycle times, reduce cost
Less strategic, more tactical
The less time spent here, the more time will be available for vita contemplativa

Vita Contemplativa

Focus on the benefits to the human condition
Place the person at the heart of the thinking
Emphasize relationships and strength of emotion
By focusing on the person, my business will by definition outperform my competitors

How do we drive better employee experiences? I would maintain that the focus needs to be on reducing the time we all spend in Vita Activa, leaving us with more attention and energy for Vita Contemplativa. These are experiences that will, ironically, build stronger and more meaningful connections both interpersonally and through technology, truly making us more like neurons in Stephen Hawking’s giant brain metaphor—rather than the disconnected bots running around in virtual hamster wheels many of us feel like today.

Wrapping it All Up

If we truly want to focus as much on EX (employee experience) as we do on CX (customer experience), we have three simple tasks before us.

1. We need to stop focusing on trying to control every little aspect of the work from on high. Instead, we should be more like symphony conductors, who think of themselves as one small part of a broader team or a broader ecosystem—a living, breathing entity that consists of many real people.

2. We need to focus on the human component of employee experience. How can we make it easier for them to delight our customers, whether we’re a chicken restaurant or a b2b software solutions provider?

3. We need to stop under-investing in our employees in terms of the technology resources. Let’s make the investments in work management solutions like Workfront, which create winning, productive teams—the kinds of teams we’d all like to be a part of.