We talk a lot about employee experience and engagement, but what does that actually mean and can the two work together? Is it just free meals and on-site yoga, or does it go deeper? In doing research for my latest book on employee experience I found that the truth is that employee engagement and experience are vital keys that work together to improve culture.

Organizations used to view employees just as a way to make more products and earn more money. A few decades ago, the idea of engagement was born--a radically new concept where businesses started caring about and valuing employees. This shifted some of the focus away from how the organization can extract more value from employees to focusing on what it can do to benefit the employees. The more engaged an employee is, the better! There have been all sorts of studies that have shown engaged employees are more productive, stay at the company longer, and are generally healthier and happier.

We've been in the engagement era for the past two or three decades, but the new wave is employee experience. Some people think that engagement and employee experience are at odds with each other and that experience has to replace engagement. That isn't true; engagement and experience can actually work together--in fact, they need to. Still, our current definitions and understanding of employee engagement need to evolve. Many of the questions and frameworks used to explore engagement haven't changed since they were first introduced, which creates some challenges.

Many organizations use the terms employee engagement and employee experience interchangeably, but that is incorrect. Let's say you buy an old car at a junkyard and then spend thousands of dollars to make it look brand new. Even though the car will look beautiful, it will still drive like the same old junkyard car. To improve how the car performs, you need to replace the engine. Organizations are investing considerable resources into things like corporate culture programs, office redesigns, employee engagement initiatives, and well-being strategies. These things make the organization look better but have little impact on how it actually performs. Employee engagement has been all about short-term cosmetic changes that organizations have been trying to make to improve how they work. If this approach doesn't work for a car, then it certainly won't work for an organization. If employee engagement is the short-term adrenaline shot, then employee experience is the long-term redesign of the organization. It's the focus on the engine instead of on the paint and upholstery. Employee engagement has become this concept of forcing employees to work inside of outdated workplace practices but while giving them perks to distract them from their reality. Employee experience on the other hand is actually changing the core workplace practices of the organization.

So what 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.

You may have seen The Truman Show, a film about a man who is living in a world that was designed for him by an organization. His entire perceived world was constructed from a massive stage, and although he didn't realize it, every action and event that took place was planned. Regardless of how hard the organization tried to keep Truman from leaving the world that was created for him, he eventually did break free. In some ways this is how our organizations operate. They tell us when we can work, what tools we should use, what to wear, when we can get promoted or learn something new, whom we can talk to, and when we can eat or take breaks. As an employee you have virtually no say in what happens for around 8 to 10 hours of your day. Although our organizations aren't exactly Truman-izing our lives, there are parallels that can be drawn here. So where does that leave us? The ideal scenario is when the organization designs or does something and the employees perceive it in the intended way. This is possible because employees actually help shape their experiences instead of simply having them designed by the organization. Taking that viewpoint, one can define employee experience as "the intersection of employee expectations, needs, and wants and the organizational design of those expectations, needs, and wants." However, what resonates more with people is saying "designing an organization where people want to show up by focusing on the cultural, technological, and physical environments." Phrasing it this way encapsulates the entire relationship and journey that an employee experiences while interacting with an organization, but it also breaks it down a bit into three distinct environments.

Every organization in the world has employees who have their own experiences. Whether you help create them or not, they still exist. Employee experience is simply too important and too key of a business differentiator simply to be left up to chance. This employee experience design process isn't just done for employees; it's done with them. By combining employee engagement and experience to work together, organizations can build an environment where employees feel valued.