The Most Important Thing Missing with Employee Experience (Hint: It's not butts in seats)
Updated: May 19
If this didn't suck, employee experience would be irrelevant.
I know, I know. That's a little harsh. Don't take it personally. I'm just trying to get your attention. The truth is, the idea of employee experience wasn't even a thing before the pandemic. It was a thing, but not one anyone was paying any attention to. 🤦🏼♀️ Regardless, we can give ourselves some grace. We all do the best we can until we know better. Then we have to do better. And that's what this post is about—doing this thing called employees experience better. Yet a lot of today's hype about employee experience misses the point. On one level, it's like throwing spaghetti at a wall to see what will stick. On another level, it's manipulating the dials (think salary, perks, etc.) to get enough people to take the bait. But as CEO Gal Rimon of Centrical said in a recent episode of the Cultivating Potential podcast.
When organizations don't get to the root cause of an issue, it's like putting lipstick on a pig. -Gal Rimon
So what is it that sucks so badly that your organization has to hire someone to design an employee experience that will attract and retain great people - your culture. Yep. I know. We've been talking about culture since the '70s now. And like most organizations, you've probably had your team read the books, hired the latest guru to speak at your leadership meetings, and held your own internal culture evangelizing tour. You went through the values list and picked the priority for your organization. Heck, you may have even listened to your employees' complaints. Bravo. 👏🏻 Likely, trust, innovation, and commitment showed up on your list of core company values. But you missed the most important thing. Culture is never about the organization - it's about the people and their needs.
Lessons from the tourism industry
Culture is about people and their needs. We need only look to one of the oldest industries specializing in creating an experience to see this fact. The tourism industry, around since the 17th century, is what comes to my mind. You can experience the finest cuisine (from pasta to gelato), amazing architecture, and rich art history when you go to Italy. You are likely to find their people courteous, considerate, and friendly. When you travel to India, you can expect to experience their finest cuisine (from Dal soup to the festive treat Laddu), fabulous festivals, and rich spiritual experiences. You'll find the people of India generally optimistic, philosophical, and resilient.
The country's leaders didn't declare, "we must create this specific culture" that attracts people from around the globe. Not at all. The citizens of the country created the culture by focusing on the resources at hand to make their livelihoods, understanding the needs of their fellow citizens, and then expressing their gifts and talents to meet their own needs and the needs of their fellow citizens. This human-centered approach to living created a culture that created an experience that people will travel to the world to experience. Your organization's culture should be no different.
Great cultures evolve, and leadership can empower the process.
While these countries' cultures evolved over thousands of years, businesses do not have that kind of time. The great resignation, innovative disruptions, and government regulations, to name a few, are continually applying pressure to today's business. Today's executives in charge of employee experience and culture must understand what creates an environment where employees feel cared for, where employees feel like they belong. So the imperative for today's experience professionals is to listen. They need to know the five levels of listening, and they also need to know what to listen for. And just as it begins in any ethnic culture, it starts in business culture with an understanding of the employees' needs. And just like with customer innovations, employee experience innovation holds the same challenge - often, the individuals you're innovating for can't put their finger on what they need. They know they need something different from what they are experiencing.
Luckily, the fields of psychology and behavioral science provide tremendous knowledge. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, created in 1943, is a great place to start. These five levels of human needs offer an excellent lens for experience professionals to view their employees and the experience they wish to create.
According to Brian Kropp, VP at Gartner, in a Harvard Business Review article, "Knowledge workers now expect their managers to be part of their support system to help them improve their life experience, rather than just their employee experience." So the challenge for today's experience professionals extends well beyond what happens in the typical workday. To focus primarily on work will lead to utter failure. However, this isn't an impossible task. My goal is to highlight some ideas that get you headed in the right direction. A culture where humans not only have an environment that meets their basic needs but allows them to reach their full potential. A culture that will attract people from around the globe to want to work for your organization.
The experience factors today's successful organizations must address.
1. Physiological needs & Safety needs :
Food, water, warmth, and rest. Security and safety. Likely, areas that don't cross leaders' minds as a concern when they work on hitting this month's KPIs. However, there is nothing more critical to employees' productivity, stress levels, and happiness than these. How on earth do we expect our employees to focus when they have been up all night worried about how they will meet their basic needs. In a recent partnership between Arriana Huffington, CEO of Thrive Global, and Discover, they created Thrive Wallet to battle the alarming statistics of financial stress:
90% of individuals say that money has an impact on their stress level
About 65% report feeling that their financial difficulties are piling up so much that they can't overcome them
But there is more work to do. And employers who have the most significant impact on finances can play a transformative role. And I'm not just talking about salary raises as we all know that expenses generally rise to meet the level of income. Individual habits create peace, income stability, and savings that will take them to the next level and consequently fulfilling safety needs. We want our employees to experience growth but are we giving them the tools to grow in this crucial area? Do you host financial classes and help them break bad habits (like perhaps money-draining addictions) that ruin their budget? Are your policies - for example, a return to the office - creating financial pressures that are too much to bear? What are you doing, and what are you not doing, exasperating this basic human need for your employees?
As a woman, I would be remiss not to emphasize how this issue intensifies for women. They bear the financial stress, but they also still bear (according to Gallup) much of the physical stress of keeping it all together. No wonder in a single year, Forbes reported a mass exodus of over 2.2 million women from work. This departure is tremendously detrimental to business at every level. According to CEO Insights, "Companies with female CEOs and CFOs produce superior stock price performance than the market average. In the 24 months post-appointment. Female CEOs saw a 20% increase in stock price momentum. Female CFOs saw a 6% increase in profitability and 8% higher stock returns." Yet there will be no Female CEOs if the pipeline disappears. Has anyone considered the benefit of paid housekeeping services as a perk? What about offering technology that helps them automate all the balls they have to keep up in the air? Classes on boundaries, priorities, and organization. Perhaps an offering that allows them to do more of what matters with less stress.
2. Belongingness and love needs:
Intimate relationships, friends. So much to get into here. But since I recently wrote a post on five human longings we all share and how Leaders Can Design a Culture Where Employees are Productive & Happy to be at work, you can check that out next. So instead, I will prompt you with a few questions to ask employees:
What are the interests that attracted your employees to their current friend groups? It's likely things they love - yoga, mountain biking, consulting, and writing are a few common themes in my relationship groups. Any chance the potential of similar friend groups exists in your organization today? Can you help them find those connections at work? Perhaps they don't exist. However, leaders can help transfer employees' love of hobbies to love of jobs. I share insights on doing that in a Youtube video (6 minutes).
Creating an environment of belongingness and love extends beyond people. As an introvert, I love doing focused work alone in silence. I love having my office full of plants and my beloved Golden Retriever beside me on the floor. If I had to return to an office where none of these could be present, at least part of the time, I would most definitely look for a different workplace. What is it your employees' love, and how can you allow them to bring more of what they love to work?
Sometimes we would love our work more if there weren't so many things that we loathe about it. Find out what your employees hate about their work and work environment. It could be less than exceptional meetings, requirements, or policies that aren't relevant or contradictory to the work they are responsible for. Where can you reduce or eliminate employee loathing?
3. Esteem needs:
Prestige and feelings of accomplishment. According to Paul Slater, CEO of Billion Minds, workers today rank their accomplishments on any given day as "I don't know ."Due to our project focus, technology-driven, always-on societies, employees spend 10+ hours a day working but finish the day not sure if they have accomplished anything. How self-defeating this feels. And these feelings translate in numerous ways into mental states that are not good for our health, work, and lives. Be sure to check out the work of Billion Minds but also consider the impact you can have through the employee experience. Things like
What mindset and habit knowledge do my employees need to feel great about their work?
How do my systems, tracking, and goals contribute to these feelings of self-defeat?
How can we recognize employees and help them realize smaller chunks of accomplishments beyond hitting the larger project or KPI-driven outcomes?
4. Self-actualization needs:
Achieving one's full potential, including creative activities. This human need is where my passion comes fully alive. Organizations can use design thinking to develop an innovative product or service and succeed for a short time. They can even use it to design a great employee experience to create internal success that complements their external success. But when leaders tap into design thinking as a leadership principle - what I call leading by design - which I believe is the future of leadership. Then, leaders use the power of design thinking to engage the heart, minds, and hands of employees and have the potential to exceed all expectations of success. (confirmed recently by research in McKinsey & Co.) Organizations can help their employees realize their full potential - benefiting themselves and the team, the organization, and the world it serves.
In this post, we took a human-centered approach to culture. Understanding that when we equip humans to meet their own needs, they can then begin to serve the needs of others. And through the service of others, they can realize their full potential. This building of a human-centered culture creates an experience that will attract others from around the globe to want to be a part of your organization.
Your turn. What ideas do you have for improving employee experience based on Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs? Please share your thoughts below.