We work with hundreds of companies every week, covering questions about learning and development, skills architecture, hybrid work, talent management and organization design. The most sought-after topic of discussion, though, is how to create an irresistible experience. And every HR tech vendor—from HCM giants to learning providers, from payroll vendors to recruiting systems and from listening platforms to communication tools—tells us they are focused on improving the employee experience.
Yet, the most recent Gallup study paints a sobering picture. The decline in engagement that started in 2021 has continued in 2022, with the number of engaged employees now back at 2015 levels, hovering around an alarming 32%. To understand why this is going on, let’s look back on the changing needs in employee experience.
The Industrial Era: Physical safety concerns
The concept of employee experience is not new. It has been around for centuries, since the early days of the Industrial Revolution. During this period, workers were treated as disposable commodities, with long working hours, poor (sometimes, even unsafe) working conditions and very low pay. Trade unions in the 19th century formed to address these issues and to provide more job security for workers.
The Human Relations Movement: Satisfaction matters
The human relations movement emerged in the early 20th century in response to the mechanistic view of work in the Industrial Revolution. It emphasized the importance of social and psychological factors in the workplace and the need for better communication and collaboration among employers and employees, with a central focus on treating workers as humans.
The Rise of Employee Engagement: Having a friend at work
It wasn’t until the 1990s that employee engagement—the emotional and intellectual commitment to the organization—became a formal part of the conversation. Studies showed that engaged employees are more productive, have higher job satisfaction and are more likely to stay with the organization. In light of these benefits, companies worked to create support systems where people felt they had a “friend at work” and belonged to the team.
The Digital Revolution: The overwhelmed employee
The digital revolution has brought about significant changes in the workplace, connecting us constantly to a stream of updates, emails, texts and pings and the (perceived) demand to be “always on.” Back in 2014, we wrote about “the overwhelmed employee” — referring to the never-ending influx of information and the barrage of new technologies that commanded people’s attention.
The Pandemic: Health as a business priority
Exactly three years ago, in March 2020, the pandemic hit, and the physical health and safety of employees became the ultimate business goal. Engagement worldwide peaked as people came together to fight a common enemy, leaders listened empathetically and organizations aligned to provide a sense of community while employees worked remotely. The laser-focus on communication and transparency helped generate engagement.
Today: AI, flexibility, 4-day work week and pay equity
Now, we have all the issues over the years together, and it’s more than people can handle. Today, 81% of employees are at risk of burnout. CEOs are looking for productivity and efficiency and for workers to “do more with less.” Layoffs and inflation add to the stress; managers are overworked; employees get less and less ambitious and have begun “acting their wage.”
In times of quiet quitting and general disengagement, companies can focus on key strategies to increase productivity, reduce stress and improve the experience:
- Better jobs with AI and automation: Using AI and automation to free up time and create more value makes for more human, fulfilling work. For example, General Motors used conversational AI provided by Paradox to fully automate interview scheduling for tech talent, freeing up 55 recruiting coordinators to work on more strategic work like candidate sourcing, communication and teaming up with recruiters to foster great candidate relationships.
- Remote and hybrid work: Offering flexible, employee- and team-driven approaches to remote and hybrid work is not just the right thing to do; it helps attract the right talent and keep the talent you already have. Dutch bank Rabobank, for example, approaches hybrid work as an ongoing design challenge: Leaders listen to employees, observe their behaviors and address evolving needs with agility.
- Schedule flexibility: For the 70% of workers who are “deskless” (meaning they can’t work remotely because they serve customers in retail, care for patients in a hospital or drive a truck, for example), having flexibility in their schedule can make or break the experience. Theater-chain Cinemark uses workforce management technology Legion to empower employees to request schedule changes on an easy-to-use app, and to swap schedules and locations on short notice.
- The 4-day work week: Results of a large-scale four-day work week trial in the U.K., in which the work week was changed to 32 hours at full pay, have been overwhelmingly positive. The trial showed no reduction in productivity and big improvements in worker wellbeing and engagement. A new bill is now being proposed in the U.S. to make this a federal law for hourly workers. Meanwhile, many smaller companies saw amazing success with the 4-day work week. And it works for large companies, too: Panasonic, following a highly successful pilot program in Japan, now offers an optional 4-day work week to their employees.From 2019: Can America make the 4-day week work?
- Pay equity: Today, with rising inflation and a slowing economy, a new issue has emerged: Pay is now the No. 1 concern for workers around the world, according to Mercer research. Furthermore, according to our research, making pay fair and equitable has a 13 times higher impact on employee experience compared to offering outsized pay and benefits. Without a doubt, the research shows that pay equity is a critical business issue. Microsoft, Schneider Electric and Accenture provide real-world examples of prioritizing pay equity as a business issue, not just a compensation project.
As our research on employee experience shows, trust is the most important element in making your company irresistible. When employees have autonomy over their location and schedule and feel they are paid fairly and equitably, they will trust the company and leadership to put them first. In return, they will do their best work. In our book Irresistible, you can learn in detail how to build an enduring, employee-focused organization.
For more, check out our webinar from March 30 when Josh Bersin and I covered hybrid and remote work innovations, flexible scheduling options, the four-day work week and pay equity. Watch the replay here.