Beyond 2020: The Future of Employee Experience

Words by Lucy Gavan

New world, new workplace. And a rare opportunity to collaborate on a better experience for your entire organisation.

The current time is a period of metamorphosis: a change of state from the comfortable caterpillars we once were to the cocoon stint of March-through-September to… hopefully, that final, flitting, colourful transformation.

The employees that soon return to offices around Australia won’t be the same ones who left some months ago. Coronavirus has upended our perception of reality and sense of identity.

For all organisations, how the next phase is managed with employees will determine not just the next few months, but the years after that. It’s a delicate time, but if navigated well, your employee experience will emerge on the other side possibly even stronger than before the pandemic.

What’s changed?

We’ve had our routines uprooted

No more commuting. Tapping someone on the shoulder for a quick chat is fraught with peril. And our current wardrobe choices would give Anna Wintour an aneurysm.

We’re operating in completely new and uncomfortable ways, and at times it feels like control is slipping through our fingers. It’s exhausting… but we’re not alone: “The process of metamorphosis from a caterpillar to a butterfly consumes an amazing amount of energy.” This has been a time of rapid transitions. Of course it’s exhausting.

We’re feeling less stable

The wave of redundancies were as abrupt as they were shocking. Those left behind are mourning colleagues and adjusting to changes in the group dynamic. They’re also feeling insecure and coming to terms with what it all means for them. It’s a sense of instability, perpetuated by both the active and residual effects of the pandemic.

We’ve gone from work-life balance to work-life blur

We’ve seen Anika from finance’s unfortunate taste in artwork and Oliver from client services’ hyperactive kids. As a captive Zoom audience, we’ve gotten a peek into people’s cocoons and, for better or worse, gotten to know their routines, habits, and ways of coping.

The digital-heavy nature of WFH has been tense and stressful on occasion, and likely changed our relationships with co-workers. As Dr Yvette Blount, an Associate Professor at the Macquarie Business School, explains, “The only way you develop relationships and solve complex problems is if you’re in a face-to-face situation — and I think that technology just can’t recreate that.”

We know ourselves better

Some good news. Dr Kimberly Norris, an expert in confinement, says, “Following experiences in isolated environments… men become less insular and women become more confident.” Introspection has led to personal discovery and development. The forced time to reflect, process, and determine what’s important to us (and what’s not) — and to act on these newfound insights — is a clear shift into positive territory.

What’s next?

In the midst of all those significant changes, how best to reach out to and engage employees (old and new) right now, since most of us resemble a newborn giraffe struggling to find its feet?

Now is the time to co-author the workplace of the future

Can we go back to the way things were? Do we want to? How much will isolation have changed us?

We’re moving into a malleable state. While we have enough distance to stand back, reassess, and mend things that weren’t working, our identity and learnings from BC (Before COVID) haven’t been erased. Through what has been deemed “the great psychological experiment“, it’s refreshing to look at the opportunities ahead. The past few months  have taught us a lot about ourselves and the organisations we work for. By using what we already knew, and what we’ve since discovered, we have a shot at co-authoring the workplace of the future.

Take this opportunity to upgrade the employee experience

The community we form in the workplace is important — and trusted. For instance, when it comes to coronavirus-related information and updates, the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer showed “my employer” was the most trusted institution: rated 18 points higher than business in general and NGOs, and 27 points over government and media. Organisations must display stability, reassurance, and familiarity during this recovery phase to retain and build on that trust.

It’s the perfect time to define, fix, crystallise, or shape your employee experience. We can look at employee experience through two lenses — the emotional and the rational.

The emotional will lean into the sense of purpose your employees have: the values held, and their attitude, behaviours, and feelings towards and exhibited by the business.

Ask yourself:

  • Do they know why they do what they do? Is this belief shared across the organisation?
  • Do they expect to bring their ‘whole’ selves to work? If not, will they, post-isolation?
  • How do people’s personal values fit with the current purpose? Does it need revisiting?
  • Do they see a future at the business or organisation? Are they actively a part of it?
  • Are they empowered by leaders?
  • Does everyone get an equal voice?
  • Do we rely heavily on our physical environment to attract talent?

As an example, one thing I’ve found that’s central to how we work at Interbrand is trust. We’ve all managed to remain focused and pull through this difficult time with resilience because we trust and back one another to get the job done (humblebrag). This is also something we can use as a barometer when hiring in the future.

Your systems may need a rethink too

The rational — not to be separated from the emotional, but an output of such — will be the systems and processes the workplace adheres to.

You may find yourself asking:

  • Have we been able to pivot in tough times?
  • Are we truly ‘agile’?
  • Can we move processes, such as recruitment, online?
  • How is the current induction process?
  • Do we have consistent performance reviews?
  • Do we reward beyond monetary means? What does that look like?
  • How much of your brand informs your KPIs?

At Interbrand, we’ve successfully formalised introductions to new recruits (via customised presentations), and it’s a process we’ll continue.

Once you get the answers to the above — plus more specific questions about your own people and business — then you can start to shape the employee experience through the lens of brand. That’s when the essence of your company is distilled down to a purpose, which informs values, behaviours, systems, processes, human resources, and employee engagement.

Time to take flight

Workplaces will change (in Twitter’s case, for example, employees may not need to physically return at all). But it’s more gift than curse. As mentioned in WARC: “A dramatic change in workplace conditions required by this crisis may also create an opportunity to change workplace behaviour.” Do just that. Ask the questions, get the answers, and use your brand purpose to enrich the organisation.

It’s a weird time, but also a transformative one. Employees will have a renewed hunger to be back in the office. An appreciation of work. They won’t take coming into the office every day for granted. Instead, they’ll cherish it, tend to it.

When your team returns, encourage them to get the most out of their roles and empower them to help author the future employee experience. It’s exciting to look at the opportunities that lie ahead: the time when we can all finally leave our cocoons and fly.

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