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Why CEOs and Company Executives Are Focused on Employee Experience

Greg de la Cruz works at NCR Corp's R&D center in the Philippines. He is interested in economic history and current world financial affairs.

Apple CEO Tim Cook called workers back to the office in a March 2022 email to leverage the "opportunity to combine the best of what (they) have learned about working remotely with the irreplaceable benefits of in-person collaboration."

Apple CEO Tim Cook called workers back to the office in a March 2022 email to leverage the "opportunity to combine the best of what (they) have learned about working remotely with the irreplaceable benefits of in-person collaboration."

A Renewed Focus on Employee Experience

The days of perceiving your job as just a transactional relationship with your employer are over. People are no longer showing up to work to simply collect a paycheck and some perks on the side. Employee experience matters, and CEOs are taking notice.

Jacob Morgan, author of the book The Employee Experience Advantage, has a simple equation on what constitutes employee experience. In his book, he provides the following framework:

Employee Experience = Culture + Technology + Physical Space

Morgan simply argues that all employee experiences are comprised of the employer’s cultural environment, technological environment, and physical environment.

Cultural environment has something to do with the “feeling” employees get working for the organization, while technological environment is composed of the tools that employees use to get their jobs done. And physical environment means the actual spaces in which employees work.

The pandemic forced workers to rethink work, especially because of the reality that many had to be physically separated from their work environment and colleagues for a considerable amount of time. At the same time, the Great Resignation (some would argue it’s more of a Great Realignment) put employers in a corner when they realized that it was going to take more than just throwing more money on the table to keep employees happy.

The Great Resignation resulted in a renewed focus on employee experience, turning it into an area of focus for CEOs and company executives in trying to gain an advantage over competitors.

The Chief Employee Experience Officer

In a 2019 Harvard Business Review article, Denise Lee Yohn says that “the customer is only one half of the experience equation.” She argues that “the employee experience is similarly important, and it can often go overlooked.”

Customer Experience (CX) and Employee Experience (EX) are two extremely important driving forces of business. Customer experience is something a company can easily address through account managers, client success managers, providing customer-facing staff proper training, etc.

Simply put, CX doesn’t lack much attention in many organizations. It’s often the one thing that executives and managers harp on “customer first,” “service-oriented,” “happy clients buy more,” among many favorite phrases.

But what about the employee experience? How do organizations fulfill this other important part of the business equation?

That’s where a so-called “Chief Employee Experience Officer” comes in, the C-E-(E)-O. Or C-Ex-O (CXO). Other variants of the CXO may include the following:

  • Chief Happiness Officer
  • Chief Culture Officer
  • Chief Engagement Officer
  • Chief Retention Officer

Whatever your organization chooses to call the person responsible for ensuring that workers have the experience that they desire, this person’s role in the company is now more important than ever before.

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Company culture, the first component of Jacob Morgan’s equation on employee experience, is the focal point of a chief culture officer’s job. An article by Elm Learning defines a chief culture officer as someone who is “responsible for maintaining an organization’s culture. And that means ensuring all departments align with the organization’s mission, vision, and values.”

Paying close attention to the latter definition, it doesn’t sound much like “culture” has much to do with improving the worker’s actual experience in his job. And this is why we have to ask ourselves the following four questions as to why CEOs and company executives suddenly find themselves focusing on trying to improve the employee experience:

  1. Do executives simply want more people back in office?
  2. Can companies control employee experience within a remote workforce?
  3. Is employee experience a better selling point than compensation?
  4. Is the focus on employee experience here to stay?

Do Executives Simply Want More People Back in Office?

A software engineer in a Fortune 500 company shared in one of his company’s “culture sessions” how he used to belong to the remote-work-only crowd at his previous company—but all of that changed once he was able to find a company that fostered a work environment he actually wanted to be in. Thus, he has since turned over to the side of hybrid work, a compromise between the two extremes of work-from-home vs. work-from-office.

To no one’s surprise, the vast majority of proponents of the work-from-office model are high-ranking leaders and executives, who more likely than not, had a difficult time managing teams in a remote setup. “There’s no definitive way for companies to build a culture in the remote work world,” says Chris Collins, an associate professor and director of graduate studies at Cornell University’s ILR school. “Without personal connections,” Collins says, “it’s just a job, it’s just a list of tasks, there’s no loyalty to the company.”

Most executives and senior managers may have learned over the course of the pandemic that they can trust their workers to get their jobs done, that they can ultimately deliver results. However, desired outcomes and accomplished business goals aren’t the only concerns these business leaders want—they also want control. They need to feel that the hierarchy that’s supposed to exist within the organization does indeed exist.

And what’s the easiest way to establish hierarchy? Through physical, in-person interactions. Messaging and email can only go so far in terms of communicating one’s authority over people. How do workers feel the “presence” of their leader, their boss? My guess is when the boss is hovering around and keeping an eye on his subordinates.

Can Companies Control Employee Experience Within a Remote Workforce?

When workers have a lot of flexibility in when, where, and how they work, it becomes a bit tricky to curate an employee experience. Some organizations are said to have figured out the “secret sauce” in creating great experiences for their predominantly remote workforce, such as companies like Shopify and GitHub, which are e-commerce and developing platform businesses, respectively.

The mistake that CEOs and company executives don’t want to make is to fall into a one-size-fits-all model, where they ultimately compromise productivity and worker motivation just to appease workers, when reality dictates that the workstyle just doesn’t support the job description. You wouldn’t want employees who work in an assembly line to have the option to work from when it suits them—or would you?

Going back to Jacob Morgan’s equation EX = Culture + Tech + Physical, the employee experience is obviously incomplete without the physical aspect. And without the physical space wherein a collective body of minds come together, there’s also a big question mark in the Culture part of the equation. All you’re left with, really, when culture is incredibly difficult to build in a remote workforce, is the technology. Morgan’s employee experience equation becomes Employee Experience = Technology.

Note that companies that leverage their tech, such as GitHub and Shopify are also the same companies that thrive at a remote-only workstyle. Also note that company executives aren’t usually the hands-on, tech-savvy, “coder” types (but that’s just me and my biases).

Is Employee Experience a Better Selling Point Than Compensation?

Handing out massive paychecks and overinvesting in employee benefits still works in this day and age. Significant pay hikes and more perks are surefire ways to keep an employee happy, but it still begs the question—are they enough to make an employee stay?

In a 2017 Harvard Business Review article entitled “What Matters More to Your Workforce than Money,” Andrew Chamberlain, who was director of research at Glassdoor Economic Research, had this to say:

“One of the most striking results we’ve found is that, across all income levels, the top predictor of workplace satisfaction is not pay: It is the culture and values of the organization, followed by the quality of senior leadership and the career opportunities at the company. Among the six workplace factors we examined, compensation and benefits were consistently rated among the least important factors of workplace happiness.”

Company culture and values are part of the employee experience equation—and Glassdoor’s research supports the idea that it might just matter more to workers than pay does.

Is the Focus on Employee Experience Here to Stay?

The last, and certainly the most important question to ask—is the focus on employee experience here to stay? Or is this just a passing trend that business leaders will eventually forget along the way as attrition rates lower due to high inflation and fears of layoffs?

What workers are worried about is that CEOs and company executives may indeed just be trying to “infatuate” workers into either coming aboard or staying where they are. It’s costlier and less convenient for leaders to manage an overly empowered workforce.

More than half a century ago, workers wanted to work just 8 hours a day and thought that any hours worked on top of that should be paid a premium. Workers eventually got what they wanted, but that hasn’t really stopped companies from paying the price, as paying for overtime costs less than hiring more people.

Will CEOs and company executives eventually stop paying attention to employee experience? Perhaps not. Maybe the Chief Employee Experience Officer becomes an indispensable job, one that governments would mandate, just to keep turnover rates in check. Maybe execs will eventually outsource the work and systems that keep employees happy to a third party? Who knows.

CEOs and company executives are mindful of the philosophy that happy employees are motivated employees, and motivated employees are more productive—and productive employees usually make customers happy. And of course, happy customers means more money, so end-to-end, it’s happy employees = more money.

The "Boiling the Frog" Approach

As discussed, most business leaders are wary of keeping on a remote-only workforce, as such is not ideal to being able to curate a desirable employee experience. The middle-ground compromise, the hybrid workstyle, is more favorable to high-ranking leaders as it retains their ability to “control” and lord over their subordinates.

But what if I told you that the hybrid workstyle is just a seat warmer? What if CEOs and company executives simply want to bring back the dated full five days a week in-office workstyle eventually?

In a post by LinkedIn News Editor Cate Chapman entitled Will bosses ‘boil the frog’ on RTO? Cate mentions Laszlo Bock, a former human resources chief for Google and now CEO of Humu, who says that “after three to five years of flexible work models and hybrid plans, the normal in-office schedule will prevail at Google—and beyond.”

“The purpose of the boil the frog method,” says Bock to Fortune, “is to do it subtly and thereby avoid difficult questions and conflict.”

This whole focus on employee experience could just be in the same context as hybrid work is, as business leaders apply the boil-the-frog approach. Hopefully, this isn’t the case. And hopefully, CEOs and company executives actually care about their workers.

Workers Standing Firm

There’s a multitude of external factors affecting a worker’s ability to make wiser decisions—record-breaking inflation, geopolitical conflict, a pandemic, and much more. But all of these shouldn’t stop workers from being able to stand firm. When companies were forced to drastically their organization’s workstyle—blurring the lines between work life and home life for many—employees were affected.

While those who were able to work remotely from then on were fortunate that they got to keep their jobs (and weren’t part of the millions who lost theirs), they still performed their duties, albeit being physically separated from their employer. This is the “technology” part of Morgan’s equation, and this was a very underrated part in the whole work adjustment period that happened during the pandemic.

Employee experience needs culture, technology, and physical space to exist—but CEOs and company executives should never lose focus of the “employee” aspect of this equation. Ultimately, employees decide whether or not an experience works for them.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Greg de la Cruz

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