Back to Basics: What Is EX & Why Is It Important?
Award-winning Sr Communications Strategist
12 Jan 2024
Simon Rutter breaks the question 'what is EX?' down into three core areas that are critical to delivering it.
As with employee engagement and internal communications, the meaning of employee experience (EX) will vary according to who you ask. Some will argue it’s about making your people feel better connected to your company’s purpose, others may say it’s about how easy it is to get your work done. Both, and many more interpretations, are true, as employee experience is the widest of umbrella terms.
As I wrote in this blog, Gallup’s definition of EX is, “The journey an employee takes with your organization. It includes all the interactions an employee has with your organization before, during and after their tenure.” For me, if you get this journey right, you will deliver a consistent, positive, and sustainable workplace.
Regardless of what definition you lead with, we’re going to break EX down into three core areas that are critical to delivering it:
Under each of these headings, I’ll explore why they’re important in delivering EX, and share a quick tip for getting going on them.
What separates EX from employee engagement and more traditional forms of people management is that it is based on the idea of putting the employee at the centre of the workplace. As such, every activity within the organization is designed around the needs of its people, and in doing so creates higher levels of engagement, productivity, and loyalty.
Taking an employee-centric approach starts by listening to your people. It means gathering feedback from many channels, including:
- Employee and candidate surveys
- Focus groups
- One-to-one interviews with key stakeholders
- Exit interviews
- Data on Glassdoor
The list goes on. But it’s not just about crunching the numbers. EX is about your people co-creating your EX strategy with you. It is not about a strategy being done ‘to’ them, as so many are, but about listening to what really matters to them, and addressing that. Listening is vital, because that way your EX will reflect the genuine concerns of your people and set you up for success, rather than making assumptions or going with what leadership may believe needs ‘fixing’.
This is easier said than done, which is why 70% of organizations have gathering EX-related data and insights as an organizational priority, and 65% say enabling employee voice is a key focus.
Gather a group of EX influencers/champions and ask them:
- Their biggest pain points and why
- What priorities they want addressed in the EX strategy
- How you can work together to create a plan, deliver quick wins, and track progress
Senior leaders cast a big shadow on organizations. They set the tone, role model the behaviours, and ultimately determine the culture. As such, they play a pivotal role in delivering EX within your company.
But while 90% of companies worldwide are prioritizing EX, many senior leaders still either don’t understand it, or are sceptical about it. In the inaugural EX Report, an annual survey of the EX profession launched this year, only 34% believe senior leaders understand their role in delivering EX, and even fewer (30%) think they have the necessary skills and capability to facilitate experiences.
EX is a new term, and even newer profession, so these results are not surprising. However, EX teams cannot be successful if they do not win the hearts and minds of senior leaders, so that they:
- Understand their role in delivering EX
- Commit their time and attention to EX
- Allocate resources (budget etc.) to EX
Get senior leaders on board early. To help with this, use your data to make a clear connection between EX and your business strategy, so senior leaders can see how it supports, and the ROI.
3. Line managers
According to a Gartner survey, employees reporting to effective managers are 15.4 times more likely to be high performers and 3.2 times more likely to stay with their employer; they also have 12.5% higher physical and mental wellbeing.
Line managers are critical to how employees experience their job, team, and company. They help to translate strategy into day-to-day goals, are responsible for hiring, developing, and retaining talent, and reward and recognition – among many other tasks. Small wonder, then, that building line manager capability is seen as the biggest challenge facing EX practitioners.
Yet here the picture is concerning. In the same EX Report, only 18% of respondents believe line managers understand their role in delivering EX, and just 12% think they have the required skills and capabilities. The overriding feeling is that line managers don’t understand EX, haven’t bought into it, and can’t deliver it.
However, there is a growing awareness of the criticality of line managers. A survey of HR Directors by The Adecco Group found that 67% of organizations are investing in line manager training to support employee development. Companies who are serious about EX are beginning to realise that any strategies or plans they formulate won’t reap any benefits if they don’t have line managers properly trained and supported to deliver them.
In short, crack line managers (without breaking them) = crack EX.
Make it as easy as possible for line managers to engage in EX. Look at how you can weave it into their existing day-to-day activities, so it doesn’t feel like another add-on. For example, can you include a module on EX and the line managers’ role in delivering it, in mandatory training? If you integrate EX into the flow of managers’ daily work, it’s more likely to be engaged with, and more importantly, acted on.
While people are at the centre of EX, it is processes that enable it to scale, which is essential in any organization. Unless you have systems in place that can deliver your EX in a consistent, repeatable format, it won’t be sustainable.
The key is to focus on the moments that matter most to your employees. Here, you need to be led by your people (see earlier section on ‘Listening’) and fix the processes that are broken, or in need of repair. Redesigning specific experiences is the number one EX priority for organizations, and can help to deliver real benefits quickly, which will help with leadership buy-in (see above section on ‘Leadership’).
For example, onboarding is a common complaint among employees. They often talk of feeling frustrated, unprepared, and ill-equipped. Yet great onboarding can improve retention by 82%, and increase engagement, productivity, and business performance. Making it a central pillar of your EX strategy, and investing in it, should be a no-brainer.
Other processes that will have a big impact on EX include:
Performance management – how it’s conducted and what people are judged on will send a message to your employees about what is valued
Reward – your criteria for rewarding employees will affect their experience of your workplace
Recognition – this is a key driver of engagement, and your process for recognition reveals a lot about your organization
Leadership development – who you invest in and promote will also have a big impact on your EX
Longer-term, EX needs to move away from a break-fix approach to take a more holistic and integrated view of the employee journey. This way, it can be baked into business strategy, rather than being seen as an adjunct to it.
Some processes will be easier to fix than others, and can deliver quick, visible wins. For example, recognition. You can make recognition a regular part of team meetings by including it in line manager briefing packs, so they are regularly prompted to acknowledge the great work of a team member/s.
As we’re constantly told, the pace of change in the corporate world is only increasing. The speed of technological change in particular has been incredible. Fuelled by the pandemic and the explosion of flexible working, organizations have made what McKinsey call a ‘quantum leap’ in digitization. However, far from making people’s lives easier, employees cannot keep up with all the new software, with a report by Cornell University finding that 43% are spending too much time switching between tools.
And despite this proliferation of apps, platforms, and programmes, according to Capgemini Research Institute, only 28% of employees say they have the necessary tools to do their jobs well. According to the report by Cornell, workers are spending an hour a day searching across different tools for the information they need. This endless context switching is impacting employees’ productivity, creativity, and wellbeing.
The good news, in part, is that many budgets for EX sit with Chief Information Technology officers (CIOs), such is the importance of technology to employees’ performance and satisfaction. Before making decisions on tools, IT teams should work with their EX counterparts to assess:
- What are employees’ biggest tech frustrations?
- What is the source of the friction?
How can we fix it?
It could be that your tech stack needs to be streamlined, employees better trained (for example, do you consider the wide variation in tech literacy there may be in your organization?), or support resources more extensive.
The fact is, technology is only growing as a force in our workplaces. And in an increasingly flexible model, delivering EX via traditional methods is become harder, and costlier, to do. Companies must mould their technology around the needs of their employees in the new world of work to deliver a differentiated EX.
Before introducing any new tool, do A/B testing with employees to get their feedback. Incorporate employee voice at the heart of your technology decision-making process, and in the creation of training materials on how to use new tools.
All roads lead back to EX
The importance of EX cannot be overstated. On almost every business metric it has a direct impact – engagement, productivity, performance, retention, wellbeing – you name it, and all roads lead back to EX. So, it’s no surprise organizations are rightly becoming more focused on it. But the next step is for EX to move from being a dispersed set of centrally-driven activities to being truly employee-centric, and sitting at the heart of your company’s business strategy.