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It’s Time to Bring JOY (Back) to the Employee Experience

Do you remember starting at your first job?  I’m sure many of us (me included) had summer jobs, part-time roles or family businesses to pitch in on, but do you remember your first official, “real” company or first-time place of employment?  And just before you started your first day on that job, did you feel excitement?  Nerves?  Maybe you traversed a full spectrum of emotions, as you might have also felt just before starting your first day at a new school, or college. 

The prospect of starting our workplace journey is unique to any other “firsts” in our lifetimes.  For many of us, our official entry into the workforce is also predicated by years of school prior to that day, so when you also consider that the average person will spend 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime (that’s a third of our life), it should be entirely reasonable, if not fully expected, that each of us enter the workforce with lofty expectations for our individual, employee journey. 

So why is the employee experience failing at so many companies?  Why are labor attrition statistics higher than ever been before?  And why are companies having such a difficult time engaging the evolving workforce – from remote employees to Gen Z’ers?

When you think about the “Employee Experience” (EX), it’s not just about how great your company benefits are, or how many perks they have, how much you enjoy working with your colleagues or achieving a successful work-life balance.  The whole of the employee experience is vastly greater than the sum of its parts, because our expectations carry with it all the emotional fortitude that began piling up (like baggage) from just before your first day at your first job. 

For many of us that are older or approaching retirement age, our disillusionment of the employee experience has likely been shaped and/or influenced by multiple companies and workplaces.  We’ve heard from less-than-outstanding leaders, been slammed by firings, layoffs or the turbulence of company changes, or just seen and heard too many accounts from friends or family that have experienced their own workplace woes. 

You could make the argument that we become more disillusioned with the employee experience as we get older, and that the eventual culmination of negative experiences at work are what manifest disengagement issues.  But data from Gallup on Gen Z and Millennials show the inverse – even with less time and limited experience, their attrition numbers are higher.  Smartly so and rightly deserved, the new and emerging workforce expect more from their employers.

A few years ago, I was interviewed by a HR publication around communication strategies to help improve the employee experience within the quick service restaurant (QSR), aka fast-food restaurant, industry.  While every industry experiences attrition, QSRs are unique in that they average over 100% attrition on an annual basisAndmore recently, I was speaking with the CEO of a SaaS company with over 15,000 globalized tech and services employees, and their attrition had increased almost 20% in the past 5 years alone.  My point is that the failing employee experience is a pervasive problem across industries and age groups.

So how does a company “right” their employee experience?  It starts with understanding that as generous or lucrative as your benefits or people programs are, they will not succeed without a strong, supporting center of excellence built around your employee engagement.  And employee engagement – the key word being “engage”, which Merriam-Webster defines for our purposes as “to hold the attention of, or to induce to participate” – requires an emotional connection to be established with the employee.

It’s time to bring joy (back) to the employee experience.  Or – “Hi Joy, meet Employee Experience”. 

And since my 9-year old daughter just asked me “who is Joy?”, feel free to substitute “joy” with fun, or happiness, optimism, or even gratitude.  Whatever your chosen word is, it should be positive and emotional, for two important reasons:

1. Our first steps on our employee journeys begin in a purely emotional state.  Even before we know whether the compensation or benefits are deserving of the work and labor involved (or vice-versa), and well before our brains have preset expectations for how much compensation we “should” make or whether the benefits will sufficiently cover everything we want/need, our employee journeys begin with raw emotions – excitement or nerves.  If you want to engage (or re-engage) your employee base, you need to strategize a communications and content framework that pairs emotional resonance with the (often) dense explanation of compensation, programs and benefits.  This is also extremely important for non-rewards programs as well, such as Culture, Workforce Alignment or DEI. 

2. Every employee journey is unique, but mental tradeoffs will occur and as a result, an employee’s emotional “baggage” will increase over time.  This inevitably leads to new job prospecting and the majority of those will segue to attrition.  Even for companies that are planning for RIFs or performance managing their underachievers, maintaining your overachievers is a matter of establishing a strong emotional connection that harmonizes with positive employee engagement.  This is why EVPs that blend high emotional resonance with their value proposition tend to be more successful, and also why they should not be just seen as a strategic writing exercise, but also a creative (emotional) activation.

This article is not to dig deeper into why companies or leadership aren’t investing in their employee experience.  As the enterprise continues its slow but methodical evolution – from the brand-centric proposition of 30 years past (where our parents would spend the majority of their careers at a single company), to the product/GTM/customer-centric ideologies of today – the next and only logical step is for the enterprise to encompass and elevate a employee-centric proposition.  In fact, there is a TIME magazine cover awaiting the first enterprise to step forth and declare that they are a people-centric company first, and then brand, product, sales, marketing, customer or otherwise. 

Many companies aren’t ready for this step in their evolution, but for the companies that are (and I applaud you!), be prepared to communicate with emotion.  Be willing to create HR content that is both honest and joyful.  Take chances and risks in your delivery – whether that be impersonating John Cena for your Open Enrollment or improvising a hip-hop ballad at your next company All Hands.  Consider your company’s “character arc”, and how you want that to be expressed in the eyes of your employees.  Then you’ll understand that missteps aren’t weaknesses that need covering up to employees, but opportunities to demonstrate wisdom and growth.  Achieving both soul and scale are not mutually exclusive, and there are many ways to have fun while generating revenue along the way.

All of this goes to say that from a purely pragmatic perspective, your communication center of excellence should not just be about I/O for strategic planning and decision-making.  Execution is the key third pillar, and this is where you can harmonize your company’s brand attributes with a distinct visual style for HR communications and content, or ensure your company’s “narrative voice” is imbued with its own unique personality.  There are many ways to ensure your employee experience is aligned with your company’s strategic priorities while achieving, improving and inspiring employee engagement at the same time.

Because while every employee journey is unique, each and every one of us, as employees, began our journeys in the same emotionally charged state.  So if you want to build up the employee experience, you’ll need to first bring joy (back) to your employee experience.

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