The Difference Between Employee Engagement and Employee Experience

Anthony Pannozzo is a managing principal at Continuum, a global design and innovation consultancy that has worked with everyone one from Herman Miller to Rollerblade on developing growth strategies, discovering customer insights, and designing new businesses. We interviewed him via email to find out more about what he sees as an important distinction between engagement and experience, how one feeds off the other, and how customer service can be turned inward toward on your business to better engage employees.
Through your eyes, describe the current state of employee experience and engagement in offices.

Employee engagement has been a hot topic in HR for over a decade. Every leading organization seeks to find ways to engage employees. The research linking to engagement to positive outcomes is clear.

However, only recently have organizations begun to think deliberately about employee experience. As organizations strive to become the employer of choice in their industries, they are taking steps to attract and retain top talent by fostering an environment and culture that inspires people to join them.

It’s not about ping-pong tables and cool furniture, or even CSR policies; it is about developing strategies that lead to job experiences that employers can tout along with more traditional benefits like health insurance and 401(k) plans. Right now, only a handful of organizations are thinking deliberately about designing employee experiences.

What are your ideas for achieving better employee engagement?

First, we believe successful employee engagement will be achieved by treating your employees like your customers. Of course, there are differences. For one, you pay employees and customers pay you. But that distinction has always been a mental barrier for achieving deep employee engagement.

We need to recognize that in a hyper-competitive job market, employees are as powerful as customers. They can decide with their feet if their job feels empty, unchallenging, or meaningless.

To achieve better employee engagement, we believe you need understand what they value, what they really care about. It used to be you took a job for the money or a job that you loved. Today’s employees demand a balance.

To achieve better employee engagement, we believe you need understand what they value, what they really care about. It used to be you took a job for the money or a job that you loved. There was an implicit contract with employers that you got one or the other, with only a tiny percentage achieving both. Today’s employees demand a balance. They want enough money to earn a living as well as work that is meaningful, challenging, and important.

When we work with clients to improve customer experiences or create innovative products and services, we now focus equal attention on our client’s employees. We ask them, why do you work here? What are you passionate about? In short, we learn what will motivate them intrinsically to engage in the work at hand.

With these insights, combined with what we understand our client’s customers value and need, we can create new products and services that delight customers and provide meaning, and therefore engagement, for employees.

The second piece is empowerment. At every level, there is some degree of decision-making, and giving employees greater authority to affect decisions will make them more engaged. A classic example of that is how Four Seasons allows the housekeeping team to comp rooms in the moment. The old way to handle a displeased customer was to say, “Let me give the manager a call.” That was a problem, because the response time was more important than the level from which the response originated. Four Seasons learned their customers were frustrated by long response times, and empowered lower level employees to make judgment calls, which in turn, improved employee engagement. Finding ways to enhance decision-making on each level is empowering.

When employees know what their customers care about, they are fired up to meet their needs. It is amazing how often our clients think they know what is important to their customers, only to discover things are not what they seem.

Finally, when employees know what their customers care about, they are fired up to meet their needs. It is amazing how often our clients think they know what is important to their customers, only to discover things are not what they seem. It’s a call to action when employees learn they are not delivering what their customers need. It’s key that organizations spend that time getting to know their customers and then communicate those needs to employees at all levels of the organization.

In what ways have you worked to understand people’s needs to better foster engagement?

At Continuum, we have a director of talent and development, an HR function who manages our resourcing on project work and matches project team members up with work assignments that correlate to their specific interests. Historically, we’ve asked employees to share their interests and skill sets, which may live outside of their day-to-day job responsibilities or the reason we hired them, and now we’re also integrating this into our annual feedback and talent review processes. Based on employee goals for growth and their development plans, our HR team will work to place employees on projects that will best align to their skills, interests, and growth areas. We’re lucky that we have new projects every 3, 6, or 12 months, which offers employees the opportunity to “change jobs” in a way, but any organization can take the time to ask employees to share what is important to them and find ways to make their daily work more meaningful.

Would you describe a recent project that you’ve worked on that you feel really achieves this?

A recent example would be some work we did with a healthcare organization to redesign their call center experience, where this idea of treating employees like customers resulted in an impactful outcome. When we designed our offering for the customer, we were keenly aware that how we would deliver value to the end customer was intimately connected to the needs and aspirations of their frontline employees. These call center employees were used to getting berated by policy holders, who demanded explanations of benefits statements and aired frustrations about billing, and we reframed the experience from a reactive one to a proactive model, where call center employees were assigned policyholders based upon a health event, like breast cancer. The call center employee would reach out to the policy holder, who is now a patient rather than a number, to offer their support and walk them through what they should expect. They assured them about what to be concerned with and what not to worry about.

The results were impressive. First, customers were thrilled to know that in a difficult time, a faceless insurance company had their back. Second, call center employees, accustomed to hostile calls, were now getting thank you notes from their customers, praising them for their support and guidance.

And this was not a loss making program. Calls per event decreased by 40 percent. So not only was it smart business, it delighted customers and gave employees a sense of purpose.

Are you seeing interesting ways to collect data on employee experience?

One of the more interesting developments is the emergence of sites like GlassDoor.com, where current and former employees can voice their opinions about the company’s culture, strategy, CEO, etc. Employers now have windows into their private operations like never before.

One of the more interesting developments is the emergence of sites like GlassDoor.com, where current and former employees can voice their opinions about the company’s culture, strategy, CEO, etc. Employers now have windows into their private operations like never before.

And not all the comments are negative. People are now as likely to offer praise online as they are to voice their complaints. There is a new social contract inspired by our connected world. You benefit from honest feedback on sites like Yelp and OpenTable, so you must contribute to pay it forward.

Employers can measure positive feedback on sites like GlassDoor to measure how well they are delivering employee experiences that matter. By establishing goals around social media, you know you are getting more honest feedback than any employee survey could provide.

Thumbnail image of BBVA courtesy of Continuum. See more photos of that project here.

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