As a psychological strategy agency, new concepts and ideas that arrive onto the HR, marketing and branding scene interest us greatly. If a subject proposes to deal intricately with people, their feelings, emotions, attitudes, preferences and insights, we want to know more.
Over the last year or two, the concept of Employee Experience (EX) has become more and more prevalent in the HR world. It’s been likened to customer experience, but for employees. It is changing the way people view the HR function, and it’s replacing the well-used and researched psychological construct, Employee Engagement (EE), as the next big thing.
However, despite its popularity in business, I am yet to see any academic, formal research grounding this concept in psychological constructs. My concern then is, how can we claim to measure the impact of EX programs, initiatives and interventions if the construct is not well-defined?
Do we need psychological constructs?
Head of HR, Lara Plaxton believes EX should be a bespoke design for every organization:
“Employee experience… seeks to enhance the interactions between an individual and an organization to make a more positive connection throughout the various touch-points, from before someone even thinks to apply to an organization right through to the relationship post-employment. There is no prescribed best practice or off-the-shelf solution that will make this happen. Its design needs be fit for context, have a holistic approach and be iterative through user research and testing.”
Lara raises some excellent points in her article about the need to have emotional connections with employees when they have critical moments during their careers so we can make those moments better. However, although I agree with creating bespoke solutions that fit with your organization, I also believe that, as practitioners, we should ground such solutions in psychological research.
The confusion unfolding…
Lara’s points on the subject are just some of many. The more I read about the concept of EX the more confused I become. According to Gallup, the goal is to ensure employees have a positive experience at all touchpoints on their employee journey, but those touchpoints are wide and varied. They begin before an employee even works at an organization and end after the employee leaves. The factors we need to manipulate within each of those touch points are widespread.
Deloitte, on the other hand, discusses the five factors that enable a positive employee experience which, in my view, closely resemble (if not emulate exactly) factors that contribute to EE.
Jacob Morgan, the current influencer, suggests that there are three factors that contribute to EX; Cultural Environment, Technological Environment, and Physical Environment. This adds yet a further dimension to the concept. I must admit, I am yet to read Jacob Morgan’s book on EX, he may discuss and combine all these factors into a model that makes sense; we shall find out. I have my copy of his book on order.
Just to add another layer to the cake, there are still more people comparing EX to UX (user experience) and design thinking. To say the landscape is baffling is an understatement.
Is EX the easy way out?
I worry that the popularity of EX stems from it being easier to grasp than EE because it deals primarily with (if we refer to Jacob’s model), the extrinsic factors that motivate us – physical and technological environment. One popular study that springs to mind when I consider this topic is the Hawthorne Experiment. The study refers to the increase in productivity we see from employees when we observe and pay attention to their needs. This increase levels back out over time once the ‘new’ becomes ‘old’. This is a prime example of the effect of extrinsic motivation and not motivating people to act for their own sake.
I believe another part of the issue is the misrepresentation of how to apply EE constructs:
“For decades organizations have been investing in employee engagement with little results. Unfortunately, engagement has been very focused on trying to force employees to work in outdated workplace practices while giving them perks to distract them from their unfortunate situations.”
EE was never meant to be about ping pong table and Starbucks gift card perks; it is a psychological construct grounded in research and practice that, when properly applied, can deliver fantastic results.
What does the research say?
As I mention above, I’m yet to discover any empirical research on the topic. However, after expressing my concerns on the validity of the concept a colleague of mine suggested I re-read Macy and Schneider,2008. It’s a fairly long read, but even in the first four paragraphs, my concerns about EX come to light. The article goes on to describe comparisons with different facets of other factors affecting employees in the workplace to help them to determine if ‘engagement’ is, in fact, a new construct.
Even a Professor of Organizational Psychology suggests the concept delivers nothing new: “nothing wrong with thinking about how employees experience their job but it was ever thus.” Rob Briner. Also, the founder at the organizational change consultancy, 8connect, says that “Reversal Theory [that] links motivation and emotion – has been researched for over 40 years. We don’t need new constructs for this.” Rob Robson
I am fully aware that this is an emerging field so the research is scarce, but as HR practitioners, business psychologists and business leaders we need to be mindful that this could just be the next ‘fix all’ claim.
There may well be more research that I haven’t touched upon; I feel this is the tip of the tip of the iceberg when it comes to my research into this topic. However, my view is that we need something much like Macey and Schneider’s EE review for EX.
In the meantime, don’t put your head in the sand when it comes to EX. If you want to investigate how your employees experience your unique workplace, do your homework to find the right trained experts to help. Human behaviour falls into the remit of psychological science so a psychologist’s input could just make the difference between a good experience for your employees and a great one.