Creating a customized employee experience: If you build it, they will come

It is truly the Field of Dreams for today’s workforce. A place where people have the flexibility to do what they do best while producing excellent results for their organization. It shouldn’t take a miracle to create an extraordinary employee experience given the data, experience and history we have at our disposal.

Back in the early 2000's, the media agency where I was employed was plagued by a staggering annual turnover rate of over 75% for entry-level employees with less than 2 years of company service. While many companies are somewhat accustomed to high turnover at the entry levels and use this methodology as an informal way of weeding out talent that might not be an ideal fit, such high churn rates inevitably create high costs (including recruitment fees, internal staff compensation dollars and time spent) for which the return is net negative. Inevitably, we lost valuable employees to our competitors who would have had a bright future with us and many on the leadership team refused to acknowledge that there was an opportunity we needed to address and capitalize on.

Despite the company’s external successes in terms exceeding revenue and profit targets multiple years and acquiring global industry accolades, our employees were quite vocal that the company was, essentially, a terrible place for one’s career – there was little concern for true work- life balance, people were viewed as expendable (yes, the term hiring a “body” was often used), managers didn't focus on being great managers & leadership abilities were inconsistent across teams. People therefore felt they needed to leave to further develop their careers. Although not having the business-specific burning platform for change, we were certainly given a clear mandate from employees around the world. In mid 2005, after reviewing feedback from our organizational health surveys, employee roundtables and exit interview data, I facilitated a very frank and open dialogue with the senior team, not unlike what other HR leaders have done.

How should we tackle this? We focused on the tools that we directly controlled as a company that impact the overall employee experience. Not surprisingly, the list of what we did control around the employee experience was far longer that what we did not control. For instance: 

  • Base Pay
  • Incentives/Spot/Retention Bonuses
  • Short and Long Term Incentives
  • Perquisites
  • Corporate Social Responsibility Programs
  • Time Off for Holidays, Vacation, Illness, Family Care, Sabbaticals
  • Project Assignments / International Posts / Rotational Programs
  • Training and Development / Coaching
  • Feedback from Managers, Peers and Direct Reports
  • Manager Effectiveness
  • Performance Management Process
  • Talent / Succession Planning
  • Internal Communications
  • Career Management
  • Officer Status & Job Titles
  • Culture Survey /Employee Roundtable Feedback
  • Employment Contracts / Terms of Employment 

Were we effectively managing all of these resources, processes and tools in a way which ultimately resulted in happy and productive employees at all levels? We were not. In retrospect, one of most interesting ideas I proposed didn't generate the level of discussion I would have anticipated and it was a fairly novel idea for senior leaders to contemplate – the exact slide shared with the leadership team was as follows:

The big idea was that we should have as many career options as we have employees, given people are unique by nature. It was clear that employees were each looking for something personal and relevant to them, and this overwhelming need for “unique” options could provide us with a new framework for thinking about the employee experience. If we could provide compelling career opportunities and more personally relevant paths for our employees, it would improve retention of top talent and therefore be reflected in our financial results; it would serve as a ripple effect into the industry thereby enabling us to attract top talent from our competitors. The costs ideally should be net-neutral since if we were working with complete information regarding employee preferences, we would be able to make trade-offs between different employees based upon their career desires while of course ensuring the needs and demands of the business were being met.

Offline, a few members of my team and I talked about how we could pilot such an approach and measure outcomes in terms of employee happiness (via our organizational health surveys and reduction of unwanted turnover), client delight (with improved work product and annual client reviews) and financial results (higher profit and revenue). We discussed a fairly simple model and suggested piloting a small group to test the theory – in brief, employees would be given 100 points to allocate across a number of areas so we could determine what was most important to them with regard to their own employee experience through their unique and personal lens. It would enable the company to make more informed people decisions and allow employees to make their own trade-offs that in a more structured environment would otherwise not be possible. For instance, employees who highly valued an international experience above all other factors might opt to take a one-year assignment in London with the client in exchange for a 20% salary reduction that year which would defray most of the costs of additional housing.

Though the organization was not quite ready to test what seemed to some as such a radical idea at the time, this notion of employers better matching their organizational needs with employee preferences seemed to be simple to implement in certain workplaces. 

Fast-forward to the current environment – What are people really looking for? Simply put, it is more of the same, but even more so.

  • There is tremendous proliferation of the independent contractor model which includes a variety of professionals and levels of expertise from lawyers to designers and from entry level to experienced executives
  • Employees are demanding flexible work arrangements in terms of hours and location
  • Those with young children or who are responsible for elder care are putting family needs front and center
  • Many men are taking on primary family care responsibilities and a significant percentage of households have 2 parents who work outside the home
  • Work – life balance has been replaced by life-work balance or in many instances, simply “life”

What does this mean to employers? Frankly, it’s less about meeting the expectations of Millennials as each new generation looks for and values something quite different than the generations preceding it. These patterns noted above reinforce the trends we have all been experiencing and reading about – employees want work to work for them. Their desire is to “Work to Live” not “Live to Work.” Ironically, “face time” (when it was more important to be visible in the workplace until late in the evening after your boss left vs. actually producing results) is being replaced by FaceTime, which enables employees to be productive outside the physical work location. Employees of all ages will go to much greater lengths than in prior generations to ensure they can have it all, which is defined in their own unique way. Of course, a business must be able to meet the demands of its customers and shareholders.

In the last several years, we have seen a few larger employers, as well as those in the technology space, adopt more customized approaches to their workforces, but surprisingly, the smaller and mid-sized companies who are likely less-constrained by organizational inertia have not really begun to move the needle in a significant way. These organizations represent a significant part of the U.S. workforce. In 2011, there were 28.2 million small businesses with fewer than 500 employees representing 48.5% of total private sector employment.

The more employers can do to customize the employee experience, the better prepared they will be to attract and retain the best talent available in the market. Depending on the size of the company, complexity & nature of the work and organizational flexibility, there are many new options that should and must be considered.

Doesn’t this sound like a place where you would like to work?

Karyn Detje