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10 people you should be listening to about what makes a great workplace experience

To say that the employee experience is important would be a massive understatement. If anything, it's downright essential. So, if you want to know how to build a great place to work, here are ten people and organisations you should be listening to!

Workplace experience is, by definition, all-encompassing. It's not just about the work that you do. It's everything, from your daily commute to that old office chair that needs fixing, and everything in-between. Experience is one of the key influencers of employees engagement, as well as productivity and turnover. So, as you can imagine, a lot of folks have a lot to say.

1: Behavioural economist, Dan Ariely

As a behavioural economist and prolific author, Dan's insights aren't just confined to the workplace. In particular, he's done a lot of work examining motivation. According to Dan, employers have too simple a view of what motivates their people.

'When we think about how people work, the naive intuition we have is that people are like rats in a maze. That all people care about is money, and the moment we give them money, we can direct them to work one way, we can direct them to work another way.'

If motivation only stems from direct gain, that fails to explain a variety of behaviours. Ariely uses the example of mountain climbers. They do it for the challenge rather than any personal benefit.

Ariely performed a variety of studies exploring motivation. In one, participants had to assemble Lego models for diminishing amounts of money. He found that people whose models were disassembled right in front of them wouldn't build as many as those whose models were saved. He then went and spoke to a group of software engineers whose long-running, innovative project had just been cancelled by the CEO.

'And I stood there in front of 200 of the most depressed people I've ever talked to. And I described to them some of these Lego experiments, and they said they felt like they had just been through that experiment.'

There are a lot more experiments and insights we don't have time to cover, but the gist is that employees want you to value their work. And to put it in Dan's own words:

'The good news is that adding motivation doesn't seem to be so difficult. The bad news is that eliminating motivations seems to be incredibly easy, and if we don't think about it carefully, we might overdo it. So this is all in terms of negative motivation, or eliminating negative motivation.'

2: Gallup's Director of Research and Strategy, Ben Wigert

Gallup is one of the leading workplace research bodies, and one of our go-to sources for insight. So, as you can imagine, Ben has plenty to say about how to build a great place to work. In a piece he co-wrote with colleague Ellyn Maese, Ben talks about why managers play an essential role in shaping employee experience.

Gallup breaks the employee journey into seven stages:

  • Attract: Recruit top talent. "Quality of manager" is a top factor for Millennials applying for roles.
  • Hire: Pick the stars.
  • Onboard: Affirm the decision. Employees are 2.5 times more likely to rate their onboarding experience as exceptional if their manager played a role in it.
  • Engage: Build strengths and purpose. Managers account for 70% of employee engagement variance.
  • Perform: Drive expectations. On average, only 2 in 10 employees agree they're managed in a way that drives them to do outstanding work.
  • Develop: Coach career growth.
  • Depart: Positive exit experience. 52% of departing employees say their manager could have done something to prevent it.

'Managers are the bridge between leadership's vision and the hard realities of the front line. They are often your most committed employees and they can also be your best critics -- providing valuable feedback that moves the organization forward while avoiding roadblocks and blind alleys. Great managers help their leaders make better decisions while helping employees understand organizational dynamics and making them feel like valuable contributors to an important mission.'

3: SAP SuccessFactors' Chief Expert of Technology and Work, Dr Steve Hunt

As a psychologist first and foremost, Dr Hunt brings that perspective to his work. In 2020, he gave an interview at the North American HR Executive Summit where he laid out his insight into different aspects of the employee experience. It's a fundamentally useful point of view on how to build a great place to work.

Employee experience has gotten more emphasis in recent years. And Dr Hunt attributes this to the advancement of technology.

'Digitalisation has accelerated the change of pace in the world, and we are basically really stressed out. Employees are expected to do more, the world's changing faster, it's constant learning and adaptability. And, as a result, the experience has a really big impact on how we deal with all the things that are being thrown at us.'

From the employee perspective, Hunt breaks experience down into three areas:

  • Task experience.
  • Social experience.
  • Fulfilling experience.

'The analogy that I use to describe these is a little bit like saying "Is a hike enjoyable?" You go on a hike, task experience is, do your shoes fit? If your shoes don't fit, it's frustrating, the hike is lousy. But, if they do fit, it's not like it's gonna be a great hike.'

'Collaborative experience is who you're hiking with. If you get along with each other, you're hiking at the same pace, you're having a good conversation. And then the fulfillment and sort of meaningful experience is, are you hiking to a place you've always wanted to go, like a mountain peak or a lake you've always wanted to visit?

An interesting metaphor, but how does it all fit together?

'Any of these experiences don't have to be super-fantastic to have an enjoyable time. But if any of them get below a certain level, things become miserable.'

4: Coach, consultant and Forbes contributor, Heather V. MacArthur

Heather has over twenty years of experience as an executive coach and consultant. So she's seen firsthand how essential it is to deliver a solid employee experience. And she's written a guide on how to build a better place to work through strong employee experience.

'In the same way that companies expect employees to take a more holistic approach to their work, companies have to take a more holistic approach to how they partner with employees.'

According to Heather, the employee experience would benefit from less top-down management. This makes her an interesting counterpoint to Ben Wigert's emphasis on management's role. Her process for updating the employee experience looks like this:

  • Move towards a partnership culture.
  • Develop employees as business "owners."
  • Engage holistically.
  • Make alignment the focus for performance management.
  • Reward "fair trades" vs rewarding people.

That last point is particularly interesting. Essentially, she's suggesting employers do away with the typical hierarchy of promotions. Instead, they would reward organic collaboration.

'This may sound counter-intuitive, but it’s important to move away from the idea that promotions and raises are rewards for good performance. If you don’t banish this traditional view, you’ll never get people to see themselves as business owners vs. employees waiting for that next pat on the back.'

5: Inclusivity consultant and behavioural scientist, Dr Pragya Agarwal

'Culture is the environment that surrounds us all the time. A workplace culture is the shared values, belief systems, attitudes and the set of assumptions that people in a workplace share. [...] A positive workplace culture improves teamwork, raises the morale, increases productivity and efficiency, and enhances retention of the workforce. Job satisfaction, collaboration, and work performance are all enhanced. And, most importantly, a positive workplace environment reduces stress in employees.'

If that quote didn't make it obvious, workplace culture is a huge part of the employee experience. Not to mention the business's ability to thrive in general. Dr Agarwal recommends these steps for how to build a great place to work:

  • Establish clear ethos and values.
  • Foster collaboration and communication.
  • Create an inclusive work environment.
  • Create clear goals and rewards for employees.

As should be expected from someone in her role, she emphasised the need to tackle discrimination in work cultures:

'Continued learning opportunities enabling team members to assess their inherent unconscious and implicit biases that can impact their interactions with other employees are crucial. Also, strict no tolerance open door policies and complaint procedure for workplace bullying is crucial for creating a positive collaborative environment.'

6: President at Total Solutions and founder of Lead(h)er, Melissa Pepper

Melissa's approach to improving employee experience through corporate culture is one we can get behind. It pretty much comes down to regular feedback, flexibility, and the ability to have a laugh.

A solid employee experience needs regular feedback. Annual performance reviews alone just don't cut it. According to Melissa, it's worth pushing through the growing pains if it's not your regular M.O.

'If this isn't your current mode of operating, you might find frank and frequent feedback a bit disarming. However, this is the best way to connect with employees, set expectations and see real change. It's also the best way to express appreciation for a job well done.'

Ultimately, her approach is one that places a great deal of emphasis on trust and employee autonomy:

'It's our job as leaders to help paint the goal and how it relates to the overall goals of the organization. How the work gets done isn't entirely up to us.'

7: University of Michigan's Positive Organization lead, Chris White

Chris is an expert in all things workplace. Through ground-breaking research, educational programs and organisational partnerships, Chris and his team help leaders build high-performing organisations that bring out the best in people.

In his excellent TED talk Chris discusses the huge role a great working environment has on people:

"Employee walkouts happen every day in most workplaces, they're just not normally done with our feet. Instead, they are checkouts - invisible walkouts that happen with our hearts, hands and voices. Pretty much all of us have checked out at some point.

Checkouts happen when we feel we are being listened to or actively ignored in the workplace. When we feel like we are unimportant or undervalued, our reaction is to stop caring - some of us persist longer than others but ultimately we all shut down.

That's why I always say the best tool for counteracting an employee checkout is unblocking and opening up communication."

Now, for the final three entries, we're going to do something a bit different. Instead of looking at people, we're going to look at three companies known for their quality employee experience.

8: Google prioritises employee happiness

Google is well-known for employee satisfaction, and with good reason. Their approach to how to build a great place to work uses a combination of perks and other benefits. The sheer number of cafés on the Google campus is the stuff of legend. Then there are things like massages and sustainable commuting. Employees are even allowed to use 20% of their time on personal projects.

As you'd probably expect for one of the world's most affluent tech companies, they invest a lot of money into employee satisfaction. Not to mention wellbeing. At one point, researchers from Warwick University analysed Google's employee strategy.

They found that, as a result of Google's practices, employee satisfaction increased by 37%. On top of that, they found that higher levels of employee happiness led to a 12% increase in productivity.

9: Adobe has an award-winning workplace culture

Adobe has been a mainstay of the Great Place to Work rankings for years now. Back in 2020, their Diversity and Inclusion Program's Lead EMEA gave an interview about Adobe's workplace culture.

'We’ve invested greatly in the overall wellbeing of our employees over the last few years. For us, wellbeing is about how employees feel physically and emotionally, which helps them bring their best self to any situation.'

There are resources to help employees with mental and physical wellbeing. There's even a Learning Fund to support personal development. And beyond that, there's a strong focus on improving diversity.

'For us, employee differences drive stronger creativity, innovation and business success – all central to our ‘Adobe for All’ vision. We enhance our employees’ experiences through employee networks that build community for employees from underrepresented groups; through our industry leading benefits that support work / life integration; and through Adobe For All In action by fostering champions among our employees.'

10: Hilton kept its employees' trust despite COVID layoffs

A lot of businesses had to make tough choices during COVID, especially those in the hospitality sector. Hilton was no exception. And yet, although they had to make major layoffs, they somehow kept the faith of their employees. In 2021, they won the number one spot on Great Place to Work's UK list.

So, how'd they pull it off?

For starters, they took great care of their furloughed staff. By partnering with other leading businesses, they were able to find placement opportunities for a lot of people. On top of that, their leadership undoubtedly won some people over with their activism during the pandemic.

Their One Million Rooms initiative housed first-responders during the intial lockdown. They also haven't shied away from difficult conversations around things like racial discrimination in the wake of the George Floyd protests. That includes re-vamping their anti-bias training. Hilton's President and CEO, Chris Nassetta, had this to say:

'We were dealing with a lot, but that’s no excuse. If you have a really good, strong value system, you can’t let it be an excuse. Just because you’re in a crisis, you can’t set aside something that you believe is critically important.'

These sorts of things can really benefit employee experience and work culture. Being an ethical employer helps your people to take pride in their work and be more engaged. So, if you really want to know how to build a great place to work, engage with social issues in a meaningful way.