As with anything in the business world, things evolve and change. The evolution that we are seeing today continues to shift organizational priorities more and more toward focusing on people and bringing humanity and experiences into our organizations. This is an immensely exciting thing to see! Years ago with the advent of what many would consider modern business, focusing on utility made sense. At the time, it was just common practice, and pretty much every organization took the same approach. Then, this shifted toward productivity, getting the most out of people. Next, we saw the emergence of engagement, which is all about making employees happy and engaged at work. Now, we are shifting to what I believe is the next and most important area of organizational design, employee experience. I explored this in depth in my recent book on employee experience. Let's look at this evolution and how we got to where we are.
Decades ago the relationship we had with our employers was pretty straightforward. Employers had jobs they needed to fill; we had bills to pay, things we wanted to buy, and certain skills we could offer, so we tried to get that open job. This basic relationship also meant that work was always about utility--that is, the bare-bones, essential tools and resources that an employer can provide employees to get their jobs done. Today that is typically a computer, desk, cubicle, and phone. In the past this may have been a desk, pen, notepad, and phone, or perhaps just a hammer and nails. Can you imagine if someone were to bring up health and wellness programs, catered meals, bringing dogs to the office, or flexible work efforts in the past? They would have been laughed at and the employee most likely fired on the spot! These things are all relatively new phenomena that are now only starting to gain global attention and investment. Granted, there are still plenty of organizations out there that are still stuck in the utility world.
After the utility era came the productivity era, when approaches were created to optimize how employees worked. Just like swimmers and sprinters try to shave seconds off their times, managers literally used stopwatches to time how long it would take employees to complete a task to shave off a few seconds here and there. All of this was designed to improve productivity and output while emphasizing repeatable processes, such as the famous factory assembly line. Unfortunately at the time, we didn't have robots and automation to do these jobs (which they would have been perfect for), so instead we used humans. Today, we finally have the technology capable to do the jobs they were designed for, and the humans who were simply acting as placeholders are now in trouble. Robots aren't taking jobs away from humans; it's the humans who took the jobs away from robots. As with the utility era, there also wasn't much focus on creating an organization where the employee truly wanted to be. Productivity was simply utility on steroids!
Next came engagement, a radically new concept where we saw the collective business world say, "Hey, maybe we should pay more attention to employees and what they care about and value instead of just trying to extract more from them." And thus, the era of engagement was born. This was quite a revolutionary approach that shifted some of the focus away from how the organization can benefit and extract more value from employees to focusing on what the organization can do to benefit the employees and understand how and why they work. This is where we have been for the past two or three decades. Some people think employee engagement has to be replaced by employee experience, but they actually work together--engagement as the short-term perks and initiatives and experience as the long-term cultural changes and organizational redesign.
Today's focus is employee experience. For the people who are a part of your organization, their experience is simply the reality of what it's like to work there. From the perspective of the organization, employee experience is what is designed and created for employees or what the organization believes the employee reality should be like. Put another way, employee experience is creating an organization where people want to show up. This typically falls into three categories: cultural, technological, and physical environments.
One crucial thing to keep in mind is that employee experiences can't be created unless the organization knows its employees. If you've ever booked a trip through a travel agent, you know that he spends an extensive amount of time getting to know who you are so he can plan a trip that is sure to give you a memorable experience. Similarly, the organization must truly know who its workforce is, which means not only leveraging people analytics but also having a team of leaders who have the capacity and the desire to connect with people on a truly individual and human level.
We've come a long way since the days of focusing on utility and productivity, and employee experience allows us the chance to refocus on employees and drive our organizations towards the future.