Agnes Misiurny (UST) on the need for bespoke employee experiences

22 May 2023 Consultancy.com.au 6 min. read
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With skilled workers increasingly hard to find and retain, employers need to move away from gimmicky office perks such as drinks fridges and gym memberships and instead find ways to provide the kinds of individualised employee experiences candidates expect, writes Agnes Misiurny, Consulting Director at UST.

The last few years have seen a major power shift in the relationship between employers and employees.

First, there’s the ongoing skills crisis. According to the National Skills Commission’s annual update, released in late 2022, 286 occupations are currently experiencing national shortages, compared to 153 in 2021. Meanwhile, the number of advertised jobs has risen 42 per cent in the last twelve months, to 309,900.

Agnes Misiurny, Consulting Director, UST

Second, employee expectations have changed dramatically with the rise of remote and hybrid work.

The shortage of talent has put more power in the hands of employees who know what they bring to an organisation – and if they don’t feel sufficiently valued in return are always prepared to quit for another organisation that will.

But employee experience (EX) isn’t about providing yoga classes, foosball tables and a well-stocked snack cupboard, even if some business leaders still mistake it for just that. Those are perks, while employee experience is all about what happens at work – from the interactions with fellow staffers through to the tech they use, as well as the overall environment and workplace culture.

Doubling down on EX makes good sense from both a people perspective and a financial one. An Oxford University study found happy workers are 13 per cent more productive, while a Gallup report discovered companies with a highly engaged workforce have 21 per cent higher profitability.

Yet, it seems a lot of employers still have a way to go when it comes to employee experience.

We’re all burned out

A recent study by the University of Melbourne looked into the wellbeing of Australian workers two years after the start of the pandemic. Some of the findings are particularly sobering, including the fact that approximately half of all prime-aged workers (defined as between 25 and 55) feel burned out.

While Australia didn’t experience a “great resignation” during the pandemic like the US, according to the report, Australian employees are resisting any mandated return-to-office initiatives. If that wasn’t enough, 33 per cent of workers are considering quitting their jobs. They might still be showing up for work, but as the report notes, they may have already mentally clocked off due to burnout.

So, what’s contributing to this burnout problem? For many businesses, it’s because the employee experience isn’t good enough.

The first step to addressing this great burnout is for organisations to evaluate their employees’ level of workload and stress, identify the causes and provide solutions. If that wasn’t complex enough, hybrid and remote work has become one of the most common demands from employees.

The same University of Melbourne report found 75% of Australian workers under 54 view a lack of workplace flexibility as a reason to look for another job. But while the greater flexibility of hybrid work provides obvious employee benefits, the isolation and impacts on work/home balance can also lead to poorer mental health.

Some employers have pointed to these mental health issues to support their case for an en masse return to the office. But this simplistic view of the problem conveniently overlooks that the traditional office workplace was already a hotbed of mental health issues and burnout before the pandemic changed everything.

While working from home certainly wasn’t a picnic for everyone during lockdowns – shout out to every person forced to join Zoom meetings from the kitchen table alongside a couple of home-schooled kids – many people not only enjoyed but greatly valued the flexibility. Remote work opened up opportunities for more people – women in particular – to achieve a better balance between work and family unfettered by the standard 9-5 working day.

The argument shouldn’t be whether all employees should return to the office or be allowed to work some days from home. Instead, the decision should be an individual one that seeks to find the ideal employee experience by balancing the pros and cons of both workplaces.

Creating bespoke employee experiences

Since the pandemic, people have become more sensitive to their personal priorities – and are less tolerant of anything that might interfere with those priorities or waste their time. People are standing up for their mental health and not letting themselves be overworked. And that means they won’t go the extra mile for an organisation that doesn’t acknowledge their wellbeing or seeks to undermine those personal priorities.

There are two characteristics of great employee experiences.

Firstly, each person needs a bespoke solution. Employee experience has to be empathy driven, and that means listening to staff and having conversations to understand each person’s pain points, while making them feel important.

Because of the nature of their role, one person might be more productive working uninterrupted at home, attending in-person workshops every fortnight. Someone else may need to travel to Bali for a week for family reasons, requiring them to work remotely for a limited time. And some people may benefit from getting out of the house to work from the office five days a week.

While it probably won’t be possible to make everyone happy all of the time, the organisation needs to be flexible enough to provide all of these options – and as many others as is practical. Providing these options will take investment and may also require a lot of changes to how policies are written.

The business also benefits from taking a more empathetic approach. People who feel fulfilled are more engaged, especially when the work aligns to their personal sense of purpose. Purpose-driven organisations that emphasise their values and world-citizenship can gain the upper hand here.

Secondly, technology should never get in the way, but should empower employees to get their job done and done well. This may involve the use of AI and automation to take care of the dreary, repetitive and mundane tasks, freeing up employees to focus more time and effort on more satisfying tasks involving creativity, lateral thinking and complex problem solving.

Employee experience will be the key competitive differentiator between your business and its cross-town rival. EX will determine your future profitability, whether your staff are happy, healthy and productive, as well as your ability to attract and retain the best talent.

If the ongoing skills crisis has taught us anything, it’s that work needs to be rightsized to fit employees, not the other way around. Workers are going to be increasingly vocal in making sure this happens – and will quickly move elsewhere if it doesn’t.