How do you define EX? It’s creating ‘the irresistible organization’

While the COVID-19 pandemic has shone an unprecedented spotlight on topics like workplace flexibility, culture and the need for empathetic leadership, there’s one area that has emerged as among the most talked-about HR priorities: employee experience.

Veteran HR industry analyst Josh Bersin says he found that the shocks of a global pandemic caused many top executives to see improving the employee experience as central to their new business plans—yet a lot of HR leaders still don’t fully grasp what the phrase really means.

“A large percentage still think employee experience is buying a new payroll system,” says Bersin, “or a whole bunch of other pieces of technology.” It’s not surprising, considering the array of vendors suddenly pushing software solutions for new workforce problems in a post-coronavirus world.

Josh Bersin

Instead, Bersin—founder and dean of the Josh Bersin Academy—wants HR executives to understand that employee experience, or EX, isn’t about offering new platforms but rather about reinventing company culture to put more decision-making in the hands of rank-and-file employees, with the goals of creating trust and centering workers’ wellbeing. Bersin has branded firms that embrace this definition of EX as “the irresistible organization”: They’re able to attract and retain the best talent in a new era when the future of work seems up for grabs.

See also: Why employee experience needs a ‘human’ approach reset

The analyst’s push to refine the very meaning of employee experience is laid out in the Josh Bersin Academy’s new 115-page report entitled simply, Employee Experience: The Definitive Guide. It highlights not only Bersin’s insights on EX but also best practices from 23 major companies including Microsoft—which commissioned the study—as well as IBM, Unilever, Adobe, Deutsche Telekom, Kraft Heinz and others. The research confirmed Bersin’s belief that the COVID-19 crisis proved the need for companies to focus on EX.

“In a time of crisis, if your employees are not well taken care of, you don’t have a company at all,” Bersin says. “Employees are the ones who actually take you out of the crisis. It isn’t just employee experience to make people feel good or to improve retention or maybe make people’s lives a little easier and get more work done. This is a business continuity strategy, in times of change.”

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But Bersin stressed that the rapid changes driven by the COVID-19 pandemic—with so many employees working from home, surviving furloughs in a locked-down economy or rethinking career and life choices—weren’t the only factors driving many employees’ quest for a more meaningful experience around work. For instance, the rise of the Black Lives Matter protests after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis showed how many young workers now demand a corporate mission and social responsibility. The sense of purpose that workers get from a responsive company will pay dividends, Bersin argued, and not just in employee happiness.

“No matter what the economic cycle—if there’s growth and no people to hire, or it’s shrinking and there’s a recession or a pandemic—the companies that outperform are the ones that employees feel committed to support,” Bersin says. “Employees are in many ways the most vested stakeholders companies have. Customers can change products or an investment, but when employees tie their careers to companies, they will help you grow and adapt.”

At Microsoft, the rapid changes wrought by the pandemic spurred the software giant to not only survey employees more frequently around company culture issues but to reinvent its entire system of its pulse surveys. Now, there’s a daily check of different batches of workers so leaders can respond more quickly to new issues that arise.

Dawn Klinghoffer, Microsoft

Dawn Klinghoffer, Microsoft’s vice president of HR business insights, says that, in addition to gaining broad workforce insights, the tech leader is also training its managers on how to better communicate with employees on an individual level, since every worker faces different stresses coming out of the pandemic. “There is no ‘one size fits all,’ ” Klinghoffer explains. “Every employee has unique needs [during the COVID-19 crisis].”

Related: Want positive employee experience? Start with wellbeing

Like most large employers that have seen a substantial share of the workforce logging in from home, Microsoft has paid particularly close attention to issues around hybrid work, such as the move to schedule online meetings with built-in five-minute gaps. Says Klinghoffer: “The research really supported the fact that people need breaks, so we’re building those breaks into your meeting day.”

In looking more broadly at EX best practices, the Bersin report emphasizes that companies should stay focused on their mission and offer a positive culture for employees regardless of business conditions. It stresses that employees are looking more closely at fairness and equity when it comes to issues around pay and benefits. Finding the right technology that helps drive the new corporate culture is critical, it found—fueling awareness that a flourishing employee experience will lead to better business outcomes.

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But nothing is more critical toward creating Bersin’s ideal of “the irresistible organization,” the report found, than fostering and maintaining a company-wide sense of trust. “When people don’t trust your company,” it notes, “you have to offer a lot of money and perks for them to even consider joining you—and, even if they do, you may not be able to hold on to them.”

One way employers can strengthen that trust, Bersin says, is to focus more closely on the mental health and psychological wellbeing of the workforce. He noted that while just 3% of employees were using employee-assistance programs for mental health issues before the pandemic, that has spiked to about 15%-17% during—probably an undercount. “We need human-centered leadership so that mental health is not a stigma,” Bersin said. “It’s a theme of leadership.”

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