Why employee experience is the future of work

The growth of AI and virtual tools makes the human factor more important than ever.

Future of Work

"There are decades where nothing happens," says a maxim misattributed to Lenin, "and weeks where decades happen." Or, to correctly quote another eminent philosopher, Ferris Bueller: "Life comes at you fast."

So it has gone in the world of work since 2020. Under the pressure of the COVID epidemic, trends erupted that had been rumbling under the workplace since the dawn of the digital age.

The status quo model of work organization, carried over whole from the factory floor to the office and rarely questioned since, was suddenly upended. The future of work now looks very different from anything Bob Cratchit, or even Don Draper, would recognize.

80% of workers say employee experience matters more now

For those of us who have lived and worked through it, the transformation of work has been breathtaking. The story the statistics tell is, if anything, even more eye-popping.

A few numbers suffice to make the point. 77% of workers told Benefex that they expect more from employers than before the pandemic. In the same study, 80% said employee experience had become important over the past year.

McKinsey reports that 47% of employees hope for more focus on employee well-being. Another survey found that over half of workers will give more priority to time with their loved ones. We could go on. The studies are myriad, and they all point in the same direction: employee expectations are much higher when it comes to their own well-being.

Is what's good for employees always good for business?

Some high-profile executives have expressed their impression that workers have had it a little too good the last couple of years. Hybrid work and mental health support were regrettable emergency measures, they say. Now it's time to get back to the workplace and back to normal.

But the truth is that what employees value has changed, probably permanently. And the old "normal" isn't it. Top talent is increasingly willing to take a smaller paycheck in return for the flexibility to work remotely. According to Prudential, 68% of employees prefer a permanent hybrid workplace model, and 42% of remote workers would actually leave their jobs rather than return to in-person work full-time.

So that leaves senior leaders today with two choices. You can strap your blinders on, insist that nothing has changed, and fight an increasingly desperate rearguard action to squeeze your workforce into the same office model that dominated in 2016 and 1996 and 1956. (Better hope the rest of your industry feels the same way, or you're going to be up against some tough competition.)

Or you can see the opportunities in the new reality and set your company up to take advantage of them. That means pivoting to make employee experience a company priority.

Where the employee experience begins and ends

You might be wondering what exactly we're talking about when we say "employee experience". In short, it covers every aspect of an employee's interaction with the company and the job.

It starts when job candidates get their first glimpse of a job listing. It continues through onboarding for new hires, through every commute, every email, every Zoom call while they're employees. And it doesn't even end with their last day on the job, if benefits like 401k and COBRA are involved.

Sounds like a lot, right? Indeed, employee experience is so expansive and important that an entire field is springing up just to optimize it: employee experience design, or EX design for short.

EX design: thinking of employees as customers

Remember the Internet of the 1990s and early 2000s? For all the exciting things that were happening online, it often wasn't very easy for non-engineers to use. The customer experience (CX) revolution changed all that. Applying customer-centered design thinking to technology experiences created the user-friendly online experience, literally changing the world.

EX designers look at the workplace and wonder why we can't bring that same thoughtfulness there, too. If we start by thinking of a job as the "product" and the worker who holds it as the "customer", we ask totally different questions than the traditional industrial/office model is built to answer.

To be sure, the analogy between customer experience and employee experience isn't always 100%. But EX design a powerful way to think about using what today's employees expect as the foundation for a positive employee experience. Let's look at just a few examples.

Living personal and professional lives at the same time

More than any other factor, workers who prefer remote cite the greater flexibility to tend to their personal lives. For some, that means breaking up the workday to run the kids to and from school. For others, it might be an hour of yoga in the morning instead of a commute, or a healthy home-cooked lunch instead of fast food.

Anyone looking through an EX lens would intuit that happier, healthier, less stressed employees are more productive. And that intuition is borne out by the data. A Slack Future Forum survey of 10,000 global workers found that workers with full schedule flexibility are 29% more productive than those with no flexibility. They also report a 53% greater ability to focus and 3x better work-life balance.

Any employee experience designed for the future of work would start with this insight. It's essentially about trusting workers to know where, where, and how they work best, and putting the tools in place for them to do it effectively. That's a big shift from the old days when everyone was in the same room and managers used the "eye test" to determine everyone's career advancement. But the company that can make that shift will have its pick of the best people.


Is the company's purpose effective at engaging employees?

Speaking of careers, employees post-COVID are looking much more for a higher purpose than the highest possible salary. One study found that 58% of all employees consider how socially and environmentally responsible a company is when considering taking a job there.

OK, so not every business can save the world. Fortunately, purpose is also about an employee's own feeling that at the end of the day, their work makes a difference, and that they're growing as a worker and as a person. And those are things that are well within the grasp of managers and HR leaders to influence.

A recent Qualtrics study looked at employees considering leaving their jobs. 29% of managers and 19% of individual contributors cited wanting more growth opportunities as their main motivation. A whopping 64% said their companies offered no mentoring or networking.

If your company is one of them, building ample development opportunities into your employee experience is essential. A company culture of mentorship can go a long way toward building that crucial sense of purpose.

Purpose-driven employees are effective employees

But wait, you might ask, what does this "purpose" mumbo-jumbo have to do with business performance? We pay people to get work done. Do we also have to guide them on their personal journey?

Well, McKinsey studies show that employees who say they're living their purpose at work are 150% more likely to go above and beyond to make their company successful, and 600% more likely to want to stay at the company.

If you can afford to shrug off that kind of rocket fuel for employee engagement, go right ahead. But again, if your competitors care enough about business outcomes to listen to what EX design is telling them, don't be surprised when your best people start drifting in their direction.

Artificial intelligence will change what managers do

In the 20th century office, a manager's job was mostly making sure work happened. Scheduling, assigning tasks, finding information, approving requests: a manager's work was never done.

But it will be soon. Virtual workflow tools have already started to automate some of those routine tasks. AI is poised to take the rest. And it will happen sooner than you think. The Harvard Business Review says 65% of what managers do now could be AI-driven as soon as 2025.

But managers aren't going anywhere. Their jobs will pivot from managing work to managing people. And that means managing the employee experience to make sure those people are optimally rested, fulfilled, and engaged.

AI can help there, too. By integrating various data sources, from project management software to employee pulse surveys, AI can predict which teams are at risk of burnout, which employees are stalled in their career development, which parts of the work process are introducing needless stress. Then it's up to senior leaders to use those insights to design a better employee experience.

Put employee experience at the heart of your company culture

This just a sampling of the many dimensions of the future of work that will be shaped by employee experience. Whether you're ready to embrace that future or you still have questions, WNDYR is ready to help. We've lived at the intersection of humanity and technology since long before COVID. And the biggest thing we teach is how to change, so your company will be ready for the next big upheaval, no matter what it is. Drop us a line. It's exciting stuff and we'd love to tell you more.

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