Should Employee Experience Replace Employee Engagement?

I was recently lucky enough to attend the ExChange Conference hosted by the fabulous Employee Engagement Alliance. The conference focused on employee experience and was, I have to say, one of the best conferences I’ve attended in a long time. As you’d expect there was a lot of conversation on the day about engagement versus experience, so I thought it might be useful to share my thoughts….

As you may well know, Airbnb no longer have an HR department, instead choosing to focus on employee experience, with a team headed up by a Chief Employee Experience Officer, rather than the traditional HRD.  When the company made this move it sparked a great deal of interest from the HR community and beyond. Airbnb’s mission is to create a world where you can belong anywhere, and they believe that central to achieving this mission is creating

memorable workplace experiences across the entire employee life-cycle, which is why they made the move to set up an employee experience function. They argue that this different to the more traditional HR set up, in that the focus is much broader. This wider scope includes the office environment, facilities, food, and CSR. In addition it includes a group of employees that they call “ground control”, who are tasked to help bring their culture to life via a range of activities such as internal communications, events, celebrations, and recognition.

Whilst this certainly sounds like a fantastic approach to creating a great place to work, the more cynical might argue that this is simply a name change. Certainly in my first engagement role back in the late 1990s I worked as part of an organisational development team and the various departments that were part of the team included all of the above. We even had an equivalent to the “ground control” concept, who were called the “smile” team.

There’s no doubt that employee experience as a concept is gaining interest and attention, and some commentators are asking if it should replace employee engagement? Unsurprisingly, my answer to this question is no! Quite simply if we get the employee experience right, employees are more likely to be engaged. And if the employee experience is poor, then guess what, less likelihood of engagement. In his book The Employee Experience Advantage, Jacob Morgan argues that we need to purposefully design a work experience to create a truly engaged workforce, which will unlock business performance. This is something we at People Lab have been talking about for a long time.  To get you thinking about how you do this, download our system integrity tool here which is an activity to help you review your employee life-cycle and overall employee experience to design an employee experience which will support employee engagement rather than sabotage it.

Many commentators argue the case for a move away from employee engagement to employee experience by citing the lack of improvements seen in employee engagement despite the continued focus – I call this the “employee engagement gap”.  At People Lab we conducted our ‘Spotlight On’ research to understand this gap. And what we found was a host of fairly obvious reasons as to why we have not seen improvements in employee engagement, to name a few:

  • Many companies do not have a definition, engagement strategy or a plan
  • They focus on the survey rather than what they actually do in response to the data
  • There is little investment in practitioners development
  • Or in improving line managers skills.
  • And there is little requirement for anyone to demonstrate any ROI on the engagement activity they are undertaking

Is it any wonder we are not seeing the improvement sin engagement despite the continued focus? Some commentators argue that engagement is organisation centric, whereas a shift to focus on employee experience is employee centric. I would argue that any decent engagement practitioner knows that we need to understand how employees experience the organisation, and we need to involve them in any the solutions to create great places to work. I’m really clear that we absolutely cannot make assumptions about what engages our people and teams.

Technological advances have also contributed to the rising interest in employee experience. As companies begin to move away from the annual employee survey, there are an increasing number of opportunities to gather data and insight on, and from, employees. Swedish start-up Epicenter even offers implants to employees via microchips that are basically like a swipe card: enabling access to offices, operating printers or buying their lattes at the coffee bar, all with a swipe of a hand. It is easy to see how these technologies and other wearable’s are enabling companies to gather a range of data to help them understand employee experience and behaviours in real time. It is still early days for these technologies, and our subsequent understanding of how they might be used to help improve the employee experience and positively impact engagement.

In summary, we need to consider both employee experience and engagement if we are to develop workplaces that people want to join and contribute their best to. If we develop and improve our employee experience we’ll contribute towards an engaged workforce, which ultimately benefits not only your employees, but your customers and partners too.





By Julia Claxton on June 1, 2018

really interesting – I think is also depends on whether we are seeing employee engagement and/or experience as a top down approach ie what the organisation wants or an employee up approach ie what the individual defines as experience and/or engagement. I did some work with HR managers and it was interesting to see what they felt engagement meant eg involvement, participation, being trusted, being involved in decision making and then when we contra-opposed each concept with engagement we found you could in fact be involved but not engaged, participating but not engaged, trusted but not engaged etc. It also depends what we are engaged with – those that feel less engaged with their organisation’s leadership may become more engaged with their professional community. Thereby disengagement in one area can lead to increased engagement in another. There are, of course, different types of engagement, behavioural (in which there is most focus), emotional (which I find very powerful), cognitive, conational etc and every individual is different is terms of what motivates them to be engaged. Kahn’s original definition relating to meaningfulness is still really important in my view.

By Sharon Green on June 1, 2018

Really enjoyed the conference that provided the inspiration for this and the blog post itself. Sensible, pragmatic advice. In some ways, I like the focus on emplyee experience as I think it is a helpful guide to where we should concentrate efforts and that engagement is really an output or an indicator. That said, I am mindful of emperor’s new clothes and that there is a tendency to upgrade the words rather than take a look at the practice and work out whether we need to change that, rather than the words we use to describe it.

I see there’s an extensive back catalogue of blogs and articles Emma for me to catch up on. I could be here some time ;-).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *