LagomWorks Research Series: August 2020
Time for reset? A different approach to employee experience for distributed organizations
Keywords: distributed organizations, employee experience, systems thinking, assemblages, representations, actual practices, resilience, COVID19
It was the year 2016, when I first came across the concept of employee experience. It was a busy period of transformation across the industry where all key HR functions and processes, including performance management, training, staffing, had started witnessing a shift. Much of these trends were inspired by interdisciplinary perspectives from the fields of consumer experience, design, analytics amongst others. Employee engagement, then, had to transform too! A conversation with a team specializing in customer experience journey design sparked my interest.
Employee Experience was first outlined by Abhari and others in their 2008 paper, Enhancing Service Experience through Understanding Employee Experience Management, that proposed the concept of Employee Experience as essential to 'shaping customer experience, delivering brand promises, enhancing core service quality, and driving continuous innovation' (Abhari et al 2008). They stressed upon a 'distinction between HR management and EEM' and viewed Employee Experience as 'a customer-centric approach to edify and encourage employees to actively contribute to improving customer experience' (2008).
A further search on the internet led me to then prevalent employee experience frameworks such as Jacob Morgan's trifecta of culture, digital and physical spaces (2016) as well as Deloitte's pillars of meaningful work, supportive management, growth opportunity, positive work environment and trust in leadership (2017). The world was rapidly evolving, and so were the demands placed by emergent experiences of shared platforms, on-demand consumption and AI driven decisions. 'Work' and 'life' was ceasing to be spatially and temporally distinct, with people consuming experiences as a whole. It was now impossible to design employee experiences based on data from periodic employee engagement surveys.
Cut to 2020. While I have been following employee experience as a trend and as a hashtag over the years, the research for this paper led me to the notions in motion at the moment. I went through articles, social media posts as well as interviews of business leaders. While perhaps there are as many employee experience definitions as there are posts on the topic, I culled out a few key themes based on the more popular circulations in media.
1) Employee Experience seems to be, well, only about the employee. With a centering of the focus on 'employee' as a unit, it also deprioritizes relations and connections that an employee is entrenched in. In other words, we start focusing on the tree in a forest, and in that act, the tree's relations with the soil, the birds and the sun blur out of our consideration. The tree or the employee is seen as a static and decontextualized entity. This decontextualization holds good irrespective of the organization working with one homogeneous employee persona or a set of different homogenized employee personas, for they do not evolve with changing relations and contexts.
2) The employee is often placed as a subject at the heart of the design, receiving the experiences. Consider the verbs oft used - shape their journey, strengthen individual performance, fit with people. There are a few definitions however, which do try incorporate the agency of the employee, as actively participating in the creation of experiences.
3) Employee Experience is seemingly viewed as a singularized journey of an employee's interactions with the company, which starts when s/he decided to apply for a job and ends (suddenly!) at exit. Thus, employee experience is confined within the imagined boundaries of the organization and its employment.
4) Importantly, employee experience operates in two domains. The first domain focuses on representation and materializes as Employee Value Proposition, Employer Branding et al. The second domain focuses on the dimensions of culture, processes, journeys, platforms. This domain can be termed as on ground practices and is often hard to distinguish from the typical leadership or HRM roles and functions. For example, can meaningful work as an experience element be considered demarcated from the day to day responsibilities of the supervisor, manager, leaders and the employees themselves?
It is this last theme or element that I will now analyse further from an anthropological perspective.
To outline my endeavour, I intend to examine how employees as humans make meaning out the construct of employee experience. I do so by situating this investigation of corporate organizations in context of the nation-states. In their Introduction to the book, The Anthropology of the State, Sharma and Gupta (2006) place emphasis on looking at the everyday practices to understand how the state and its' institutions are 'both recognized and reproduced' (2006: 13). To examine how states are culturally constituted, one needs to analyse representations such as symbols, org charts, official seals as well as the everyday bureaucratic practices (2006: 19). The representations and everyday practices are constantly influencing and constituting each other. At the same time, any dissonance between the two opens up the possibilities for a rearticulation of the relationship between the people and the state (2006: 19). Taking these two analytical units of representation and reproduction forward, we see that organizations operate in a similar fashion. The representation manifests as websites, intranets, documents and collaterals. The reproduction of the organization happens each day through the everyday interactions of the employees with other humans (team members, supervisors, managers, leaders, support functions, family members) as well as non-humans (laptop, internet, workspace, bots, the coffee machine et al).
Employee experience then can be viewed as an imaginary shaped by the dialectic between representation (the first domain encompassing Employee Value Proposition, Employer Branding) and actual everyday practices (shaped by policies, processes, conversations, politics, technologies et al).
This analysis is also an exercise in reinforcing that Employee Experience has to be conceptualized, articulated and realized keeping in mind both the dimensions of representation and actual practices. The representation of an idealistic employee experience (if borrowed or picked up from concurrent circulations in conferences and social media) will eventually ring hollow if misaligned with actual practices in the everyday of the organization. This, in fact, might have adverse implications for the organization. With greater dissonance, the frustrations and disconnect faced by employees will deepen.
Similarly, a focus on the everyday practices without adequate representations or materializations impact possibilities of scalability, be it in terms of technology enablers or facilitation of organizational priorities and processes.
With the twin agenda of Employee Experience now established, I turn back to the key themes of Employee Experience (as represented in popular culture and business literature) and suggest an alternative prism to design and realize experience journeys. In doing so, I especially take cognizance of the realities of the ongoing pandemic which has accelerated the emergence of distributed organizations and blended workplaces (for more on distributed organizations, read this, this, this and this).
#1 SHIFT IN THINKING
From Human Centered Thinking to Systems Thinking
The current crisis has made us question the relevance and sustainability of human centred focus. Systems Thinking or forest thinking is an alternate epistemology that emphasizes a 'view from 10,000 m rather than focusing on local trees' and considers 'how the system influences systems on the other side of the line and how these latter systems influence the former system' (Richmond 2000). Humans are closely intertwined in assemblages with other human and nonhuman actors. These assemblages affect them and in turn, humans impact these assemblages. In this manner, a double becoming (Deleuze and Guattari 1987) is inherent.
This shift in thinking will be crucial as organization start designing new experiences for a distributed workforce. The assemblages earlier spatially and temporally confined to a physical workplace have now expanded to include homes, increased household chores, and even the threat of an invisible virus.
#2 SHIFT IN VIEW
From employees-as-entities to employees-within-assemblages
Deleuze and Guattari (1987) debated that the self is 'merely the collection point of infinite and random impulses and flows'. An employee experience paradigm that views employees as passive or recipients of 'moments' does injustice to the company efforts and resources that need to support the perpetuity of an experience ideal that is never achieved. At the same time, employees contribute to their own subjectivities and forget to exercise their own thoughts and agencies is navigating through complexities and challenges. This lack of resilience is more evident today than ever before.
Humans are always 'blowin in the wind' (Dylan 1963), their desires as lines of flight that continuously reterritorialize the assemblages (Deleuze and Guattari 1987). In addition, the other elements are shifting too. And so, a view of experience needs to focus on relations among these elements as changes in one impact the others. In other words, the best of employee experience platforms or AI curated wow moments will be of no avail if the work environment is toxic. It is imperative to understand these relations while designing new employee experiences. At the same time, we need to enable employees by providing them with the information and guidance to anticipate, prepare for, respond and adapt to incremental change and sudden disruptions [in these assemblages]. Employees own their experiences too!
#3 SHIFT IN FOCUS
From Representation to Actual Practices ↔ Representation
We need to accept that a perfect employee experience can never be realized, it is and will always be a potentiality. Any representation of employee experience by an organization can only be a partial reflection of the multiplicities that exist. However, it is important that an organization focuses on actual practices in equal measure (if not more), and keeps the representation resonant and at pace with day to day practices. For this to happen, actual on ground practices have to be first understood to identify areas of prioritisation, for the organizations to make more impactful investments of time and money, as well as to enable employees to navigate through (and resolve) shifting situations and complexities. This understanding should then inform the representation of employee experiences, be it design of EVP collaterals or EX platforms. To reiterate, everyday practices and representations constantly influence and constitute each other. Let us focus on resonance between the two, instead of chasing an idealistic representation.
LagomWorks strongly advocates a deep understanding of the socio-cultural realities and contexts. Through an inquiry into the particulars (of actual practices), the universals (of employee experience) are understood. This ethnographic research, along with a concomitant review of leadership priorities, internal processes and practices, and industry trends is an essential and non-negotiable part of our solutioning.
Research leads to better design and innovation, and no design and innovation is sustainable without research.
Abhari, K, Mat S., Norizan & Haron, Md. (2008). Enhancing Service Experience through Understanding Employee Experience Management.
Deloitte Insights, 2017. The Employee Experience: Culture, Engagement, And Beyond. [online] Available at: <https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/focus/human-capital-trends/2017/improving-the-employee-experience-culture-engagement.html> [Accessed 6 August 2020].
Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F., 1987. A thousand plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia.Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.
Dylan, B., 1963. Blowin' In The Wind. [7" single] New York City, New York: Columbia.
Mansfield, N., 2000. Subjectivity: theories of the self from Freud to Haraway. New York, New York University Press.
Morgan, J., 2016. The Employee Experience Equation | Jacob Morgan. [online] Jacob Morgan. Available at: <https://thefutureorganization.com/the-employee-experience-equation/> [Accessed 6 August 2020].
Richmond, B, 2000. The “Thinking” in Systems Thinking: Seven Essential Skills. Pegasus Communications: Waltham, MA, USA, 2000.
Sharma, A. and Gupta, A., 2006. The Anthropology Of The State. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.