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Jan Hills

Head Heart + Brain


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Future of HR: Employee experience – HR’s new mandate


In this series I take a look at the future of HR, not through predicting the next structure HR will adopt or giving you demographic trends but through applying a greater understanding of how our brain works and what that application may mean for how HR help organisations achieve greater performance through their people.

In the previous article in this series we talked about the need for HR to simplify complexity. This time we look at HR’s role in creating the right employee experience.

As suggested in the other article in this series, considering these questions as you read on will increase insight.

  • What employee experience are you aiming for in your organisation?
  • Does the employee’s experience of HR processes match what you set out to achieve?
  • How skilled are managers at executing HR processes?

What makes up the employee experience?

HR practices and processes largely determine the employee experience and with it engagement, energy and commitment to the organisation.

HR practices touch more employees than any others in the organisation, so the employee experience is a direct result of HR practice and process and the way they are actioned.

One element which impacts this is that HR are reliant on line managers to execute their practices and processes. HR rarely have direct control over them. This can create unintended experiences for employees.

You designed your performance management process to minimise threat and maximise positive feedback and reward but many line managers approach feedback in a threatening way only ever giving the negative feedback. Your expenses policy is based on trust but a group of line managers can’t let go of controlling every penny and insisting on multiple sign offs.

Brain-savvy alignment

Designing practice and process to be brain-savvy is one way of controlling the employee experience.

Brain-savvy design works with how the brain works rather than against it. When practices and processes are not brain-savvy they result in the need to exert additional energy and potentially generate threat with a resulting impact on trust and social connection.

Creating a small number of brain-savvy principles and then ‘auditing’ your processes against them is one way of ensuring a better employee experience. Many of your practices may already work with how the brain works.

For example you may have focused on creating high levels of trust and in the process eliminated much of the threat response and maximised opportunities for social connection. Educating managers about brain-savvy practices means the experience of employees is more likely to be aligned and the outcomes closer to what was intended when the process was designed.

HR functions that start from a few brain-savvy principles that have to be present in all practices and processes and which are used to design the roll out of new initiatives are automatically closer to building alignment as well as equipping managers with skills that connect people.

Some principles we see adopted include:

  • Minimising threat and maximising reward
  • Creating a growth mind-set
  • Maximising social connection
  • Managing for energy

Auditing practice

It is possible to ‘audit’ your HR processes and practices along a number of dimensions which impact the employee experience. These are vertical, horizontal, action and of course as mentioned above brain-savvy alignment.

When we think about this through the lens of your brain, having processes and practices that align increases levels of certainty, tells us where we have options to act and increases a sense of equity. It also reduces cognitive load.

Employees have less to think about and to work out leaving more capacity for actioning the practice well.

Vertical alignment

This is about how well HR practices clearly link to the strategy and how obvious it is that they add to strategy achievement. Some recent research amongst members of the Future of Work (FoW) consortium run by Lynda Gratton of the London Business School found that difficulty here resulted from HR’s less-than-productive relationship with the CEO.

Reasons stated were that the CEO either didn’t talk to them about strategy or HR were waiting for direction from the CEO. A contributing issue was weak relationships with stakeholders and HR spending insufficient time getting them on board.

Horizontal alignment

This is about whether HR practices build on each other, creating more than the sum of their parts. So for example:

  • Does recruitment data feed into induction?
  • Are development activities aligned with strategy?
  • Are performance goals linked to business unit measures?

FoW research suggests this is an area where HR struggle to explain alignment to business managers. Horizontal alignment is achieved when HR think systemically and map processes and the connections between them. It also helps if there are fewer processes, just a small number of ‘signature’ processes to keep the business running.

Horizontal alignment is achieved when HR think systemically and map processes and the connections between them.

Using a few principles, as mentioned above, can be useful here as they provide guidance without the need for processes to cover every eventuality. Here again clear stakeholder management, branding and an articulation of the HR ‘story’ on how initiatives both serve strategy execution and link together is important.

Action alignment

The third dimension is action alignment. As mentioned one of the difficulties for HR is that most of their practice and process is carried out by managers, HR rarely have direct control of how the process is actioned and therefore how an employee experiences it.

Getting managers to action HR practice as was intended has two components: firstly, the will of line managers to carry out the practice. This includes whether they agree with it and understand the finer details that will impact the employee experience.

We see much less resistance and a greater willingness to adopt brain-savvy behaviours when the science is explained as part of the skill building.

Second is the skill of managers to carry out the practice in a manner that gives employees the experience which was intended. Skills can be quickly increased when managers understand the brain.

We see much less resistance and a greater willingness to adopt brain-savvy behaviours when the science is explained as part of the skill building.

Auditing employee experience

Auditing practice and process against these elements is the way to improve employee experience and as a by-product simplify what you are asking managers to do;

  1. Identify the brain-savvy principles which match your company strategy and culture
  2. Create just enough signature processes to drive performance in the organisation (see the article on simplifying HR)
  3. Analyse the relationship between what was the intended employee experience and what the actual experience is. Asking this question alone provokes an interesting response from managers and employees and a wealth of information for HR
  4. Ensure understanding and buy-in for HR processes and equip line managers with the skill to action them effectively

Of course what HR find when they do this analysis is that some practices have fostered behaviours which they had not intended. The most frequent example is expenses policy which implicitly says to employees they are not trusted.

The consultancy TSC changed their expenses policy to one that gave automatic reimbursement, eliminating the need for multiple manger sign offs, or actually, within expenditure guidelines, any sign off at all. The policy signals trust as well as saving many man hours and employees feel empowered and that they are being treated fairly.

How do you think your process and practice align with the employee experience you intended?

A lack of alignment can be interfering with engagement, trust, dissipating energy and causing line managers more work than they can manage.

Checking your employees are experiencing what you intended going to be one of the functions HR pride themselves on in the future.

It can also be a quick win now.

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Jan Hills


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