What are the digital tools of the employee experience?

Several months ago, during a conversation, someone said to me “I still need to think about our Employee Experience offering and above all the tools”.

To tell you the truth, this didn’t make me feel very good. I really like people who take the time to think before they act and who think about all the implications and overlaps of what they are going to implement before they start and have a vision that goes beyond their own perimeter, but to still be wondering in the fall of 2021 what their approach to the employee experience is might be a bit late. But more importantly, starting to think about digital tools when you don’t even have a clear vision of what you want to accomplish has never been the best way to start anything.

Anyway, I see in my network and my circle of friends this questioning about employee experience technologies, so I might as well share with you my thoughts on the subject, even if I remain convinced that this should in no way be the starting point of your reflection.

Why you should never start with technology

A disclaimer and a bit of pedagogy to start. I know that for many bad reasons it is convenient to start with technology and only then enrich your vision and the content of your program.

Starting with technology gives a concrete and tangible dimension to a vision. We see something that is materialized by a tool, that can be seen on a computer screen and that reassures the stakeholders.

Technology will also impose operating modes, ways of doing things, ask questions. In a way, it will become the leader of your program, guiding your actions, your thinking and directing your reflection. This is very useful when you don’t have any firm ideas on the issue or when you have trouble convincing people internally: once the technology has been accepted, the rest is just a consequence. Even if you didn’t choose them.

But starting with technology is also signing a pact with the devil. It means believing, for example, that a simple application will boost employee engagement without any prior effort on culture and management.

It is to induce in people’s minds the idea that we solve with technology problems whose causes are always human.

It is then to see all the problems with an obvious bias: since we have invested in a tool, its ROI must be maximum. From then on, it will have to be the answer to all problems, or almost all problems, even if it means twisting the problem and lying about its nature and causes so that it fits into the use cases of the tool in question and, in the end, sometimes administering a remedy that is worse than the disease it was supposed to treat.

That said, at some point you’re going to need to tool up your approach and, hopefully, only after you’ve thought about what you’re trying to achieve, will you start looking for the right tools.

I will not present here an exhaustive review of the applications on the market, but rather a thematic review that I hope will feed your reflection on the different areas to be covered, as well as things that no one else includes in the employee experience and that have more than their place in my opinion.

Employee Experience Platforms

The notion of Employee Experience Platform came out of nowhere in 2019 in the general indifference and was pushed under the spotlight at the beginning of the pandemic when all of a sudden we were concerned about the well-being and working conditions of the employee confined in remote work.

Well, not exactly out of nowhere. It came out of the brain of Josh Bersin, whose aura allows him to transform into a market trend what is not. Self-fulfilling prophecy: either he identifies a real trend or he is wrong but his voice carries so much that his idea becomes a trend. The art of being (almost) always right even in hindsight.

The idea behind the Employee Experience Platform is that the work environment is becoming more and more complicated, information is becoming harder to find, employees are overwhelmed by messages of all kinds and that until now the impact of technology on the workplace has been to add even more complication and information overload. Every new piece of technology that is made available to the user only makes things worse.

The goal of the Employee Experience Plaform is therefore to make the user experience and work simpler, information easier to find and consume, and to provide answers to the various needs of employees both as employees and as people.

The Employee Experience Platform is most often not a tool in itself but a middleware that makes existing services and applications easier to use and consume. A bit like a new generation portal that would serve as an interface between the individual and the tools.

Source : Bersin

In my opinion, this integration logic between service bricks that often operate in silos is key to the employee experience, particularly because the software industry thinks in vertical silos, whereas the employee experiences cross-functional journeys.

We have a very good example with Microsoft Viva: a solution that brings very few new features (and some of which were so questionable that they disappeared) but which allowed Microsoft to enhance the information existing in its already installed tools. Nobody can find their way around Sharepoint, Yammer and others anymore? Viva was a remedy for both the company and Microsoft, which no longer wanted to be synonymous with complexity. In my opinion, Viva was more of a marketing stunt than a technological innovation, but it did meet a need.

But the problem with Employee Experience Platforms is that they allow existing players to consolidate their positions and avoid seeing a new player who doesn’t have to take on the legacy offer a simpler and more attractive experience.

It is therefore such a heterogeneous market that it is not a market because most of the solutions found there are not competing but complementary… for those who can afford them all. That is to say, no one.

For Microsoft, the Employee Experience Platform is an opportunity to consolidate its leadership in “systems of engagement” and information and content management. For Oracle, the Employee Experience Platform is necessarily HR oriented. And so on.

Last minute note: the recent announcement of Oracle ME shows perfectly what an HR-oriented Employee Experience Platform looks like, to be compared with the office-oriented vision of Microsoft Viva.SAP

Last minute note: the recent announcement of Oracle ME shows perfectly what an HR-oriented Employee Experience Platform looks like, to be compared with the office-oriented vision of Microsoft Viva.

So if you ask me “what is the best Employee Experience Platform”, I will be hard pressed to answer. Your communication director may tell you Microsoft, your CHRO may tell you Oracle, your IT department will make a choice between the two for lack of having the means to have both. And they will all be right.

In short, without denying their qualities, I think that the Employee Experience Platform is a too heterogeneous concept that brings together so many solutions that are not comparable and do not do the same thing that they are not the unique answer they claim to be. It’s more of a value proposition, a message, a positioning than a single answer to all your needs.

Feedback applications

They are most often the foundation of the employee experience in that the “voice of the employee” is central to this type of approach. There are a plethora of them on the market and if in 2018 I was wondering if the market was saturated, what should I say today?

To be honest, they are far from all having met with my approval.

First of all, because listening to the employee does not change anything. It is a means, not an end. And to reach the goal, you need to be organized to act on the basis of feedback and have the necessary corporate culture. Once again, installing a tool is not everything and does not exempt you from a certain amount of self-reflection. But it’s true that the app is not responsible for this.

Secondly, because this feedback has to be of good quality. There is a lot to say about the notion of quality and bias in feedbacks and I will come back to the subject in a future article.

Let’s just say that depending on the way it is requested, the time, the form, the target audience… it will not have the same quality. I will mention here only four biases and limitations:

1°) If it is asked in a too routine way (like a ” weekly mood “) the participation ends up losing its breath.

2°) If it is optional, and it is the case except in rare and very specific cases, at the end only the activists speak who do not always reflect the general feeling (even if it is interesting to know what they say).

3°) Feedback is often about HR/Managerial/Well being issues and rarely about operational issues. It is as if we could ask employees about the real irritants in their daily work, to hear their opinion on the organization of work, processes, tools. This is often the opposite of what is done in terms of customer experience, where we try to collect feedback from the customer almost in real time at key moments in their journey. If we only want feedback on how employees feel and not on how we can improve things in their work, we miss their real problems. From employee experience to operational excellence, there is only one step that needs to be taken.

4°) The feedback is out of context. What do we know about the professional context, about what the employee was experiencing at the time of the feedback? Nothing that allows us to go beyond the feedback and understand the cause.

Beyond the quality of the data, there is also the question of its usability. Collecting feedback is good, making it actionable is better.

How do you draw large-scale trends when you have hundreds or thousands of feedbacks in text form? How do you find links or causality between responses to feedback requests on different topics? How do you identify patterns that allow you to determine what improves or deteriorates the employee experience?

The feedback application should not only be a listening tool but a decision making and action tool.

Last but not least, we must avoid turning feedback into a labyrinth. Historically, these applications have been built around two use cases: asking for the mood of employees and getting feedback from a person, colleague or manager, on their work. Too little to justify the costs to the user, which are often substantial in the long run, so they have sometimes become so rich that they have become real gas factories, a real complication for those who manage them and ultimately complicating the lives of employees and managers who, if the company decided to use the full potential of the application, would spend their lives producing and analyzing feedbacks

Which brings me to my last point: feedback is only declarative and there is a lot to be gained by observing the employee rather than asking for their opinion. A very good way to know what is really going on in the company is “Management By Walking Around”: it is by walking around the offices, in the factories, that we see, feel and perceive things.

This is difficult for fragmented teams, especially in the age of hybrid work, and that’s precisely why we ask for feedback. But there are other ways to understand what is going on or what is going wrong in certain areas: by monitoring the use of tools. How long does it take to enter an expense report or a leave request, do users get stuck at certain stages of a process in a given process. Again, these are things that are tracked, measured and analyzed in the customer experience, so why is this not done, or done so little, for the employee experience?

One last point: these applications are often called engagement applications and this is a real misnomer. Engagement is not created by listening to people but by acting on their feedback.

The overall digital work environment

My previous thoughts on experience lead me to an obvious point that is often overlooked: all the tools at the workstation contribute to the employee experience. Once again, over the last ten years or so, we have entered into a logic of consumerization of tools, of the workstation and of the company in general: employees can no longer understand that their experience at work is worse than what they experience as customers outside of work.

So you’ll tell me that business tools have made great leaps forward in terms of usability and user experience in the last ten years and you’re right. But that doesn’t solve the core problem in terms of employee experience.

What is optimized is the user experience within a tool, but the user’s workflow is cross-tools and what most often ruins the employee experience is juggling between multiple tools and often having to enter the same information in multiple places or copy it from one tool to another.

Sometimes we have a certain fluidity when we navigate between applications of the same vendor but it rarely goes further, the worst being the eternal wall that separates the “systems of records” from the “systems of engagement”.

This subject is all the more complex because beyond the tools, the complication comes from the processes and workflows they support and if we always believe that a change of tool will magically solve all the problems, we are much less inclined to touch what really structures the work.

You may say that it is the role of an Employee Experience Platform to solve this kind of problem, but since they are specific to a vendor, they can optimize the experience between the tools of this vendor but rarely beyond that.

Moreover, in terms of employee experience, I find that the SAP X Microsoft announcement makes a more significant contribution than Viva.

Automation tools

One of the remedies to the situation I just described is to automate certain tasks to avoid using employees as if they were administrative middleware.

In 2020, an Oracle study told us that employees trusted robots more than humans when it came to preserving their mental health. But if we go further than the title, which is a bit racy, this study did not tell us that they expected robots to take care of them but that they would take care of repetitive, laborious and non-value added tasks.

Servicing tools

If the notion of customer service/support has been obvious for years, its equivalent for the employee is just emerging.

What does a customer do when he has a question? A problem. He “opens a ticket”. What does an employee do in a similar situation? He tries to find out who to contact and has no way to track the processing of his request.

It seems obvious to me today that an employee helpdesk is essential to an employee experience approach. And the good news is that in addition to being able to recycle tools that were not necessarily designed for this purpose but that do it very well, such as JIRA, we can see very effective dedicated solutions coming from ServiceNow, Zendesk or Medallia, to name a few.

CRM tools

To take care of people, you have to know them. Most of the time, a company only has a siloed and administrative knowledge of its employees.

While leading HRIS solutions are gradually evolving towards Employee Relationship Management, they are not yet, logically, at the level of pure players in the field (but who have no legacy to manage) and they often only concern the largest of them.

The problem with ERM solutions is that they are either specialized on a part of the customer journey or cover it in its entirety but then duplicate existing things on certain dimensions.

I think that today one of the least covered topics by companies is the relationship with the candidate before he/she joins the company and that this is the part that should be treated as a priority because they already know how to talk (even if in a very perfectible way) to their employees once they have joined the company.

For example, I had identified the very promising Candidate.ID to do nurturing on an existing candidate base.

And to maintain the relationship between the company and a candidate who has accepted to join it during the sometimes long period between the acceptance of the offer and his arrival. For this there are of course dedicated solutions but you can also do it at a lower cost: I had built a whole program of personalized emailings according to the job of the future employee by using …. the marketing automation software that the marketing department had.

Well-Being tools

Coaching, mental load management, yoga classes, relaxation… these applications, which were initially present in our private sphere, have gradually entered the company through the door of the employee experience and have found a gigantic playground with the COVID crisis.

My opinion is that these applications are the best way to say that we do something when we do nothing. Of course an application to meditate or do yoga doesn’t hurt anyone and therefore it can only do good.

But employees are not fooled: they expect us to tackle what really makes work hard, harms their mental health, their balance, makes them suffer instead of giving them hugs to compensate.

Design tools

While design thinking seems like the perfect approach to crafting initiatives as part of an employee experience program, sometimes a little technology can help.

I’m thinking in particular of what makes it possible to use the feedback and the data collected to trigger a concrete action. Most feedback solutions collect the data and present it in a form that allows you to make sense of it and analyze it. The next step would be to use this analysis to start designing something new.

Of course, there is nothing to prevent you from starting a design thinking phase or investing in a service design solution, but there are now solutions that allow you to go from listening to designing while remaining in the same application world, in the same workflow. This is the case, for example, with Qualtrics.

Employee advocacy tools

An employee who is given the means to be an ambassador for his or her company, to carry his or her voice, is a more committed and happy employee. At least that’s what we’ re told.

From there, there are a number of solutions that allow companies to promote speaking on social networks by allowing them to disseminate messages that have been developed to facilitate their work with less effort.

I might as well tell you that the artificial and remote-controlled nature of this type of approach leaves me more than skeptical.

And I also invite you to ask yourself if an employee who is allowed to carry the company’s message is more engaged or if he wants to carry it because he is engaged …. For me such an approach takes the problem from the wrong end.

Conclusion

Employee experience is a very broad field and there are a number of tools that can help give it materiality.

From the most cosmetic to the most structural and depending on the areas you want to address in priority, the list is long and this post, without pretending to be exhaustive, shows you different directions in which to look.

But if you avoid starting with the tools it would be a great thing.

Image : applications by ra2 studio via shutterstock

Bertrand DUPERRINhttps://www.duperrin.com/english
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
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