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Andrew Heath

WeThrive LTD


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Employee engagement or employee experience? It’s all about asking the right questions

HR has been so busy crunching data, we’ve forgotten how to ask the right questions at the right time.

After a tough year where many of us have been working from home and managing teams remotely, wouldn’t it be great to wave a magic wand that would solve the employee engagement slump? To instantly know what makes employees tick and, if they’re not feeling 100% motivated, to intervene and make them feel better?

By empowering managers to get answers to the right questions directly from individual employees, actions are suggested immediately and the issue can be addressed.

Google ‘employee experience’ and you’ll get pages of solutions that claim to do just that. It’s not about engagement anymore – these tools will help you transform how your workforce feels about your organisation by changing their whole experience. The idea is nothing new, borrowed from an increasing focus in recent years on customer experience and user-focused design. The premise is that if you start with the person on the end of that experience (which could be an employee performing a task or a consumer calling their bank) and work back from there to make every touchpoint as seamless as possible, they will feel better and more positive.

These employee experience platforms often gather everything in one place that an employee might need, such as messaging platforms, access to the company wellbeing portal and information about company policies. Many also measure employee engagement through regular surveys or by asking employees to indicate satisfaction levels via a portal. While the experience may be more like one we expect from our bank or online retailer, is it really effecting change? The components of these platforms don’t behave differently – the platform is essentially an intranet and the surveys ask the same questions we’ve been sending to employees for decades.

Driving real change

The shortcomings of these tools have been brought to the fore during the pandemic with most managers operating remotely. So, while you can use the platform to ask staff more regularly about their levels of wellbeing or if they feel supported, it still doesn’t reveal what you can do about it and they may just be telling you what you want to hear. Those physical cues that something is wrong that we might see in the office can be missed over Zoom calls and, while you can offer access to an employee assistance programme or an anonymous route for employees to report stress or conflict, this relies on them making the first move.

So, how do we shift the dial on engagement? It starts from the bottom up with the individual. Whatever you choose to call them and however you choose to deploy them, too often engagement platforms focus on generic questions at an anonymous level. So, we might know that 80% of employees report satisfactory mental health compared to 85% in the last quarter, but this only tells us that there has been an overall improvement rather than why it has dropped. We tend to ask people how they feel about processes (are you satisfied with X?) rather than how work makes them feel on a much deeper level.

I believe that we need to start with those top-level questions but then empower managers to ask the important questions at an individual level that will highlight any causes for concern. Are there small changes that would make that employee feel more comfortable in their role? What learning would help them overcome a barrier they’re having with an everyday task? We can then produce a series of actions for the manager including, perhaps, pointers to specific e-learning or TED talks to build the employee’s confidence. The employee feels better about the experience they have at work, feels valued by their manager and is more engaged. Multiply that across a whole workforce and you create real power to drive change.

Timely interventions

The next step is to empower employees to self-diagnose where any barriers are. Using a proven psychological model, ask employees questions around what is going well in their role, what is not going so well and what would make the difference between the two. Their issues could be practical (‘I’m struggling with the slides for this presentation but don’t want to say’), wellbeing-related (‘I’m not sleeping very well because I’m worried about a deadline’) or to do with colleagues or managers (‘my manager barely checks in with me’). When we’re working with clients we help them to identify those issues and offer relevant solutions and learnings, prompt constructive conversation with managers or suggest tips on managing stress.

One of the advantages of this approach is that it is timely. Too often, organisations get caught up in crunching the numbers on employee engagement surveys or are distracted by dashboards that don’t really say anything. Weeks later, they might launch an initiative that benefits a few people but has probably come too late for some. By empowering managers to get answers to the right questions directly from individual employees, actions are suggested immediately and the issue can be addressed. It’s like having an everyday coach: constructive suggestions mean managers can say ‘this is what we can do today’ and learning content is curated so they can begin working on gaps in their knowledge straight away.

There is no magic wand that will make lasting changes to employee experience, but ask the right questions and you might find a magnifying glass approach works better. Discover what motivates or blocks people on an individual level and build from there.

Interested in this topic? Read How to apply design thinking to employee experience.

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