The Human Age of Employee Experience

Lessons from Progressive Organizations

It seems the Human Age has finally arrived in the Western world of business. Hello to “employee experience,” the trending mantra of today’s progressive thought leaders. Mismatched supply and demand in the talent market seems to be the catalyst for this trend. Well, that and the fact that early adopters of employee engagement (the subjects of business cases linking employee engagement and performance) recognize the value of their human capital and are asking, but what about employees? What do they get out of all of this?

Recent research is showing that there is a strong link between employee engagement and individual health and wellness:

A study from University College London looked at levels of employee engagement and the relationship between an individual and their direct boss. Three groups were formed for this inquiry. One group received positive feedback on the work they did. A second group received feedback too, although it was negative critical commentary. The third group didn’t receive any feedback whatsoever, in fact they were pretty much ignored. By measuring stress through the level of cortisol in the bloodstream, this study found those employees who received no feedback had incredibly elevated levels of stress. There was nominal difference between those who received positive or negative feedback. Recognition of the individual, validation of efforts whether good or bad, proved better than going unnoticed.

Is employee engagement contagious in a positive or negative way? Another fascinating study, done out of Boston College, investigated whether or not a child’s sense of well-being is affected by the employee experience of their parents. Researchers looked at both engaged and disenchanted employees who were parents, and then tracked the behavior of their children in school over a period of three to four weeks. The children of highly engaged parents went about their days without unusual levels of acting out. Conversely, the children of parents with disengaging work experiences tended to act out significantly more in school (i.e. classroom reprimands, visits to the Principal’s office, detentions). The study’s initial premise: that employees bring feelings of engagement or disengagement home with them and in turn, affect others was born out. In this case, children appeared to have picked up emotional signals from their parents.

Insights from these studies and others like them confirm our basic human needs are indeed influenced by our engagement in the workplace, our overall employee experience. Different organizations are trying different approaches to create more human-focused work environments.

Transformative measures for transformative times

A tactic many companies are using to drive a better employee experience is the linear career path. Deloitte is a prime example. At one time, when an employee joined Deloitte they’d start off as a junior consultant or junior auditor. Then they’d become an auditor…a senior manager…a director…and ultimately a partner if they climbed all the way up the ladder. But to take time off to travel for a year, to raise a young family, care for an elder, pursue higher education? That would derail individuals on the fast track, fast. Those kinds of personal pursuits were the death knoll of careers.

Deloitte’s taken deliberate steps to change that mindset. The company’s environment these days is much more fluid. They call it the career lattice. Employees are supported, encouraged even, to move into more accountable roles and responsibilities, then to maybe take a lateral position (to satisfy learning and professional development) or to temporarily step down to a lesser position if it makes a period in their life easier to manage.

Over in Finland an organization determined that sitting down actually affects employee engagement. More specifically, it causes disengagement. So, they designed a workspace where there are no seats; no places to sit down. Employees can lean, they can kneel or stand. Interesting perspective. More interesting still is that the people working in this environment show higher levels of happiness, higher levels of engagement and well-being.

Alternatively, the restaurant and hospitality industry is being touted a shockingly novel device designed to keep their employees engaged. The “Jolt” as it’s called, is worn on the wrist like a Fitbit. This gizmo gives an electric shock if it senses the wearer is disengaged (not hustling enough, perhaps). It’s curious, really, some of the measures organizations are taking to drive engagement.

Another intriguing development comes out of MIT: the sociometric badge. It’s a small key card that employees voluntarily chose to hang around their neck. It has a microphone. It has an infrared sensor. It has an accelerometer, like your smartphone. It also has Bluetooth. This gadget tracks an employee’s activity throughout the day. It knows what people the individual talks to, what buildings they’ve been in. It measures the intensity of voice. When the wearer leans forward it recognizes that posture as being more engaged than if the individual leans back. By measuring different responses and aggregating all that data MIT hopes to find better ways to drive productivity and improve employee engagement.

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A noteworthy development worth mentioning is an initiative of the UK government where employee engagement has been recognized as something that isn’t just good for the individual organization, it’s good for the whole country. Britain has partnered with academics and private sector companies with the goal of creating a much more engaged workplace. The underlying belief is that prominent levels of engagement will drive greater gross domestic product and productivity for the country, leading to greater wealth and prosperity for the entire nation.

These handful of examples illustrate the complexities of today’s workplace and a hyper-focus on the employees behind them. The Information Age (where robots and AI, automation and computerization are predicted to take over our jobs) has inadvertently brought about the dawn of the Human Age. As jobs change from routinely dealing with tasks – to interacting with people in complex situations (something machines can’t do, at least not yet), engagement and the overall employee experience will become ever more important. Just look at the growth in human related services like health and social care, if you need convincing.

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