Improving the employee experience in a post-Covid world

Some call it an employee’s journey in their current workplace; others describe it as uncovering the tools and culture employees need to do their work successfully. But whatever you call the employee experience, it is driving employers even harder to better understand how they can offer a much more positive work environment – no easy task, especially in the wake of the past 16 or so months as COVID changed the workplace.

“I believe the entire dynamic and what employee experience looked like shifted since the pandemic,” says Sugi Venkatesh, division vice president — HR, for Global Product and Technology on ADP’s Human Resources team. Venkatesh adds that during the pandemic, ensuring a positive employee experience not only meant the workforce was engaged and taking care of customers, but it also became the only way to stay in business.

“Many organizations went from employee experience being a focus area to it being the top priority, with real dollar investments,” he says, adding that the paradigm shift also brought with it a need to accelerate the employee experience through technology.

“When the world went remote, we became a 100% reliant on technology – technology as a medium of interaction and engagement; technology as a tool to perform one’s job effectively in this new environment, and technology as a vehicle to make the job better and more digital,” Venkatesh says.

With that, he believes today there is building pressure on HR leaders and their organizations to expect that tech tools enhancing employee experience are integral within their HCM systems.

“With a distributed workforce, there have been huge changes,” Venkatesh says,

mentioning issues such as how the work happens; how employees engage; how leaders lead and manage teams and, finally, the at the core of it all is HR’s practices, processes, tools, programs and policies.

The employee experience: Technology

According to Steve Boese, president and co-founder of H3 HR, a full-service HCM advisory firm and HRE contributor, prior to the pandemic the HR industry had already begun to talk about and focus on EX. In some respects, he says, it was an outgrowth or perhaps an evolution of the concept of employee engagement, which “has been discussed and debated forever.”

For Boese, the main theme was that despite years of attention and focus, for the most part measures of employee engagement have hardly improved.

“Employee experience emerged when HR leaders and HCM technology providers began to assess HR and workplace technologies compared to the best consumer and personal technologies,” he says.

“Mostly, HR technologies were oriented towards completing transactions, delivering information, enforcing rules and standards, and optimizing processes.”

Boese explains that while all valuable and important goals, these at the surface are not terribly interesting, compelling and relevant to most employees.

“Employees look to HR and workplace technology optimistically to help them achieve their goals, improve their skills, and enhance their career development,” he says, adding that, pessimistically, employees will settle for HR and workplace technology that is relatively easy to use and does not waste their time or cause frustration.

“When HR leaders and HCM technology providers turned their attention to meeting the true, higher value employee wants, the employee experience movement began to take hold and gain momentum,” he says.

Boese says that many of the recent HCM technology developments that place improved EX at the forefront of their design were probably already under development prior to the start of the pandemic – the events of 2020 and now continuing into 2021 have certainly accelerated these efforts.

“There is a combination of drivers at play that led to this increased focus and attention to employee experience and more employee-centered design in HCM technology,” he says, noting that the massive and sudden disruption of work, the closing of many workplaces, and the stress placed on workers or almost all organizations gave rise to demonstrable increases in employee stress, uncertainty, and even fear – fear of their jobs going away, fear of the growing health crisis, and concern for their families.

With that, Boese says, employers and their HR leaders had to quickly respond to these challenges, and in an environment where almost all workers who could pivot to remote work did, and those who could not were facing unprecedented conditions and even potential health risk, HR leaders turned, largely, to technology to help navigate these challenging times. And what organizations needed, and what HCM technology providers had to deliver, were tools that placed the employee and their needs first and not the transaction or data update.

“Employees needed tools to help them manage all the disruptions in their work lives and their personal lives, and they looked to their HR leaders to deliver. So yes, the pandemic has increased the focus on employee experience in a meaningful way,” Boese says.

Today, what observers like Boese are seeing is HCM technology providers designing and architecting solutions that are meant to provide support, resources, and improved experiences for employees.

So rather than focus on the completion of a transaction, or an update to a data field in the HR system, as was the primary purpose of employee self-service, the new technologies are built to help employees with what really matters to them — making a better-informed decision about a benefits enrollment, surfacing a learning and development module as and when it’s needed, or even simply reminding them to take care of their own physical and mental well-being.

Boese offers a simple example to understand the how employee experience impacts HCM tech. Take traditional self-service events, like an employee promotion or a relocation to a new office. Traditional self-service only processes the transaction. On the other hand, new, employee-centered HCM solutions provide employees with the resources and information they need to make these changes easily and successfully.

These tools, Boese says, will suggest and enroll the employee in training courses needed to succeed in their new role, surface resources to help them more easily adapt to their new work location, like suggesting people they can contact for support and networking – and even model their new net pay based on changes in salary and taxes in their new location.

“Think self-service, but self-service designed for the employee, not the HR department,” Boese says.

EX and HR tech: The ‘humanity’ factor

Boese hits on an important aspect of the evolution of HCM technology. Jason Averbook, the industry analyst and co-founder and CEO of Leapgen (and also an HRE contributor), spends much of his time pondering about and consulting on how the humanity of technology can play a critical role in the increasingly critical EX trend within HCM and other HR-related tech solutions.

“Of course, technology is important. But ensuring that any technology deployed in the HR realm has a strong focus on the human side of the equation is indispensable,” Averbook explains.

“In the past, tools designed within HR were for HR people, but fell short for the rest of the workforce,” he adds. “When one thinks about design, the focus should be about designing HR tools for all humans.”

The employer’s responsibility, then, is to ensure that employees are allowed to be human when they need to utilize HR-related technology, Averbook says.

“The responsibility as an employer is that we actually engage people in a human conversational-type way, not a transactional-type system way,” he says. “When you break it down, it has to be designed for them in a way that’s natural, that’s frictionless, that meets them where they are and allows them to be what they are, and that is human.”

Jess Von Bank, Averbook’s colleague at Leapgen, where she serves as Head of Marketing/Digital Transformation/Now of Work, compares the current evolution of EX to making a film.

“For the next year or two,” she says, “we’re making a movie and we’re all actors in that movie. And we’re going to watch the movie in five years and look back and say, “What did we do between 2020 and 2023 to really change work?”

Von Bank says some employers actually will embrace massive change; others, unfortunately, will do nothing.

“Those that do nothing are really going to lose out. I think they’re going to be non-post 2020 compliant, and people aren’t going to want to work for them,” she says.

Adds Averbook, “It’s been happening outside of work for quite a while. I’ve often said it’s 2021 outside of work, but what year is it inside of work? In too many organizations, it feels like 2000 inside of work because we have really ignored and have done a disservice to employees in providing them the tools they need to bring their best selves to the office.”

“We’re hopeful for change. I hope we all learned enough and the pandemic has lasted long enough that we truly won’t remember and don’t go back to normal,” Averbook says. “We need to say, ‘Let’s design something new. Let’s make this better than what it was.’ We have more options available to us when it comes to HCM and the employee experience. So we need to use them to bring the humanity to our solutions.”

Talent development & culture: Scratching the surface

When it comes to the employee experience, a third critical component must happen within talent management while, at the same time, building a culture that embraces and improves EX, according to Ben Brooks, founder and CEO of Pilot Inc., a career management technology platform designed to support and enable both business leaders and employees to make work more satisfying and fulfilling.

Brooks says, unfortunately, a majority of employers have not delivered what’s needed when it comes to the employee experience within managing talent and creating a culture people want to be part of – one where they are more likely to stick around to explore and enjoy long-term.

“Employee expectations began to change when their consumer lives all of a sudden flipped, and they had way better tech outside the office than inside the office,” Brooks says.

At the same time, employers convinced themselves that the employee experience meant things like holding a volunteer day, designating D&I themed months, or offering workplace perks.

“This was often driven by headquarters, this notion of creating a standardized employee experience,” he says. “So the employee experience was very seldom personified, differentiated or configurable. It has been one size fits none, you might say.”

As times changed and remote work began heating up, while talent attraction and retention transformed into an even more serious challenge, employers started to talk about employment marketing, recruitment marketing and the employee value proposition – the idea that they could offer more than just new tech or a high-end workstation.

“It started to get more into culture and perks,” Brooks says. “But it still was designed around a fairly top-down, here’s what you get model and mindset.” For example, if you worked at a large tech company and you have a baby, everyone might get a swag baby kit.

Then, 2020 dawned and COVID accelerated remote work for many industries and truly changed the EX dynamic. In fact, Brooks says, the EX that most companies were starting to design around was an office-based experience, what he calls a “3D experience.” It could mean creative cafeteria menus, guest speakers, or an employee getting their dry cleaning done or oil changed while in the office.

“COVID comes along and suddenly the employee experience goes from 3D to 2D,” Brooks says. “It’s only what’s on our screen. There are no snacks, no cool speakers. There’s no retreat in the mountains or massage room. Many companies that had invested heavily in employee experience had invested in a 3D experience, but COVID has changed the game.”

With that, the importance of tools and software on boosting the employee experience has gone up significantly in the last year, mainly because the density of tools as a percentage of the employee experience is much greater than it has ever been.

Brooks notes there still is a strong association with place as a proxy for employee experience, adding that companies don’t typically have effective digital town squares as part of the experience upon which to build a culture in this 2D workspace.

How do employers distinguish your employee experience, maintain a strong company culture and talent management strategy under these circumstances?

“It’s not going to be just the tools,” he says. “Employers will need good digital community management, high adoption rates and a tech configuration to make those tools usable while having effective oversight of them.”

“If you haven’t automated and digitized, that’s shame on you at this point,” Brooks says. “It’s going to be hard to differentiate. So when you think about talent and culture, if you think about the belonging and the culture side of it, you must create more connectivity.”

One crucial factor, Brooks says, lies with managers. Employee development is about making someone better but, he says, by and large managers have shied away and are largely unequipped with having employee development conversations virtually. They used to happen over lunch or a beer, or in the office or a conference room.

“Employees join organizations and leave managers,” he says, noting a top three finding of every engagement survey he’s ever seen is either manager feedback, career development, or growth and learning. “Those are always a top key driver of engagement and a low scoring category, for almost every company I’ve ever seen.”

Therefore, Brooks says, the employee experience – with career development and with talent development top of mind – is going to require different managerial behaviors.

“If a manager is a not doing his or her job, it won’t matter if they have a new iPhone, a great chair and a volunteer day,” he says.

It’s time, Brooks says, to see employees as a customer of the company.

“That will be the breakthrough for companies,” he says. “Sometimes an employer will say their culture is customer-centric, but it’s really not. It’s just more of the paternalistic model.”

The true employee experience evolution will be to take all of the great work HR figured out in tech and create an actual customer-centric employment model as the foundation of talent development and culture.

“We’re just scratching the surface,” Brooks says. “Anyone who says that they’ve completely cracked the employee experience is not being honest, because there are very few employees who will say, ‘I would never quit under any circumstances.’ That will never change, but with effective talent and culture development, it can be greatly minimized.”

“Organizations and HR leaders have had to rethink their approach and meet the employees where they are,” says ADP’s Venkatesh, adding that it means tech enhancements that can help HR and employers manage engagement, development, and turnover with dynamic teams, where the work happens.

“It requires tools that can make checking in and assessing associates’ needs easier, tech that has AI capability that can anticipate employee needs,” he says. “No doubt HCM systems can be the catalyst to this change, but only if the truly effective tools in meeting those goals and needs are baked into it.”

Produces by Human Resource Executive and Sponsored by ADP, to learn more visit