Ciara Ungar, Contributor
New research continues to emerge, demonstrating the increasing concerns over companies falling short in improving employee experience.
A 2019 study by Gartner found that only 13% of employees surveyed reported being fully satisfied with their experience, despite an average spend of $2,420 per person on such efforts.
It’s becoming evident that providing more flexible work options, redesigning offices, and offering learning and development opportunities alone are insufficient to enhance the employee experience.
Often, we focus too much on the work experience, growth, rewards, structure, and even the organizational experience, such as technology and physical environment, and overlook the value of purpose and social experience, including teaming and relationships.
To improve the employee experience of their valued team members and create a competitive edge, business leaders must consider the social, work, and organizational contexts of the employee experience and implement strategies that address them.
Here are 10 tips you can include in your 2024 planning to improve the employee experience in your organization:
- Cultivate Inclusive Leadership
- Prioritize Employee Well-Being
- Foster Open Communication
- Respond Actively to Feedback (Even When It Hurts)
- Embrace Diversity and Inclusion
- Provide Meaningful Work
- Create an Inspiring Workplace
- Offer Growth and Development Opportunities
- Show Appreciation and Recognition
- Strengthen Leadership
Leaders who focus their strategies on these three areas (social, work, and organizational) collectively tend to witness a greater positive impact on employees’ trust, connection, and sense of value, which are crucial to a company’s success.
Tip 1: Cultivate Inclusive Leadership
I list this first because I believe it to be the most important element in creating a positive employee experience, and it spans social, work, and organizational contexts.
When we refer to inclusive leadership, we’re talking about leaders who are skilled at leveraging the diversity of people, thoughts, and experiences within their companies.
This includes the actions they take to ensure all team members are treated equitably, feel a sense of belonging, and have the support they need to achieve their full potential. This is increasingly important as environmental trends, markets, and technology change how businesses and people work.
A leader who is looking to improve the employee experience must come from a mindset of inclusive leadership because it has a ripple effect across every aspect of the employee experience.
As a leader inspiring other leaders in the organization, curiosity, cultural intelligence, collaboration, and commitment will enable you to identify areas where the employee experience is falling short and design solutions that effectively improve the employee experience.
Focusing on inclusive leadership, wherein you’re focusing on embedding the support your employees need to achieve their full potential, can catalyze the success of the micro-initiatives in your organization that aim to enhance all aspects of the employee experience.
Tip 2: Prioritize Employee Well-Being
Targeting employee well-being is a great way to improve the employee experience because it helps to alleviate burnout and solve the lack of engagement, which are two common factors that contribute greatly to the employee experience.
Targeting employee well-being is also a great way to demonstrate to your team that you care about and value them as people first. A 2023 Gallup survey revealed that only 24% of respondents believe their organization cares about their overall well-being, a stark contrast to the 49% reported in 2020.
If employees believe you care about their well-being outside of how it benefits you as a business, they’ll feel more valued and will be more inclined to engage in organizational, work, and social dynamics and experience increased motivation.
Carving out time to focus on company culture and how it contributes to employee well-being demonstrates a commitment to “people first” beyond their day-to-day role in the organization.
An investment in physical and mental health initiatives, flexible work arrangements, and generous leave policies is a good place to start; however, sustainable improvement comes from genuine care and attention to people’s needs and the environment at all levels in the organization on a daily basis.
Tip 3: Foster Open Communication
You might be wondering how this is a tactic that improves the employee experience and not just a best practice. You may also jump to notions of “open-door policies” when hearing the words “open communication.”
The truth is that encouraging a culture where employees feel comfortable expressing their ideas, concerns, and feedback is a habit you build and reinforce through words and actions. It’s good to say you have an open-door policy.
But how well are you really listening to your employees’ ideas and needs? And is your open-door policy simply out of obligation?
Employees hear what you don’t say as a leader and can pick up on whether you genuinely are interested in their perspective and feedback. It’s important to be aware of this and check in with your intentions.
An honest inquiry into their feedback and ideas and listening to the answers, because you value their perspectives and are leading from an inclusive and growth mindset, fosters true open communication. This is a good segue to the next tip.
Tip 4: Respond Actively to Feedback (Even When It Hurts)
As a leader, you’re often faced with the task of providing feedback to others, but more importantly, receiving feedback and taking action. In either situation, how you respond to feedback shows you’re listening, you care, and that their valued input is being used to implement changes based on their suggestions.
It’s not always easy to positively and actively respond to feedback, especially when it comes to our ego and expertise, but being mindful of the impact your response has on employees makes a difference in building a growth mindset.
There is a school of thought in Business Management that believes in the power of “yet” when it comes to responding to feedback. That is, weaving in the language of “yet” into the daily activities and touchpoints with team members, especially in moments of feedback, establishes a team-wide growth mindset.
When it comes to improving employee experiences, a growth mindset when it comes to how you and others respond to feedback impacts whether someone feels shut down or engaged in the work they do. Negative responses to feedback, such as dismissing feedback, positioning it as finite, or becoming defensive, inevitably lead to feeling alienated, attacked, and shut down.
The more an employee experiences these types of interactions, the more it impacts their sense of connection, belonging, and value in the organization. Ultimately, this impacts their experience across social, work, and organizational touchpoints.
To keep employees feeling valued through feedback, negotiating this sense of mutual learning for future growth is key. Responding actively from a place of “yet” is an important tool in combating defensiveness and reassuring employees of their value.
Tip 5: Embrace Diversity and Inclusion
There is no question that most markets are increasingly diverse. As previously discussed, global megatrends are making business environments more diverse and complex than ever before.
Many studies show that more diverse workplaces achieve better results and have happier employees. As a result, many business leaders are building education programs centered on diversity and inclusion and focusing on initiatives that recruit diverse talent to help drive business growth and deliver a long-term competitive advantage.
However, many scholars and business leaders will point out that embracing diversity and inclusion goes beyond recruiting and hiring. Embracing diversity and inclusion means creating a workplace where everyone feels valued and respected, regardless of their background. But it takes more than intention to accomplish this goal.
It takes skills, systems, and perseverance across the many dimensions of diversity. Whereas most companies focus on just four or five of these dimensions in their diversity efforts (think diversity training, anti-bias training, objective hiring processes, and grievance systems), there are over 20 dimensions spanning functional levels, external, and internal dimensions.
This leads to difficulty in identifying and addressing personal bias, especially unconscious bias, which operates outside of our awareness and affects structure, culture, and tasks in daily work.
Employees who work in environments where they do not feel represented and included or face daily stresses from obstacles designed to impede their success will not perform at their peak productively or with their best clarity and creativity. They’ll feel disengaged and less loyal to a company that devalues and dismisses their lived experience.
This is why it is important to embrace diversity and inclusion at every touchpoint, not only because it is morally centered, but also because it leads to better outcomes.
Employees who work in environments where there is a consideration for their diversity across procedures, processes, and distribution of resources improve employees’ ability to work more effectively within diverse markets, better connect with diverse partners and customers, access diverse ideas, and enable diverse individuals in the workforce to reach their potential.
Tip 6: Provide Meaningful Work
With good reason, a 2018 Harvard Business Review headline reads, “9 Out of 10 People Are Willing to Earn Less Money to Do More Meaningful Work.” The multiple studies cited and supporting this headline underscore how important it is for employees to be seen as people, not just workers, and, more specifically, as people who seek purpose in their lives—and that includes work.
A go-to solution for creating purpose and meaning at work that many business leaders seek is working with a brand agency to craft a beautiful purpose and mission statement that goes into onboarding material, the website, and corporate governance documents.
Further, perhaps a few PR initiatives throughout the year reinforce the company’s commitment to certain causes that employees care about. While not without its merits, some leaders believe this is all it takes to create purpose and meaning in the workplace.
The solution, however, is much more simplified. For many, work is no longer a means to an end. Curating purpose and providing meaningful work is more personal, and the simple solution is more focused on not limiting the things that create a sense of purpose for each employee individually.
Assigning tasks that challenge and motivate employees will vary for each individual. Choosing work and projects that are in line with their interests, contribute to the company’s mission, and allow them creative ownership and autonomy over their work goes beyond the traditional employment model. This approach fosters deeper relationships, a sense of community, and purpose-driven work that enhances the daily employee experience.
Tip 7: Create an Inspiring Workplace
As mentioned above, social experiences and organizational experiences should work hand-in-hand to create a positive employee experience. One element that brings these two areas together is that of creating an inspiring workplace.
This can and should include the physical environment and social environment that work together to create a comfortable and stimulating work environment with proper access to technology, furniture, and opportunities for emotionally safe and positive social interaction.
By investing in these details that serve as microcosms in the daily employee experience, you not only reinforce your commitment to the above-mentioned tips but also demonstrate with actions that you value the employee experience.
In his 2016 article, Rhett Power, a fellow coach, discusses an important lesson companies have learned by looking to leaders such as Google, Apple, and the SAS Institute. Power says,
“…Encouraging and fostering a work environment that is fun and inspires employees to take joy in their work can reap enormous benefits. Happy employees are loyal employees, and loyal employees can do amazing things.”
I couldn’t agree more with Power, and those are words I frequently repeat to my own clients. Such small details can make a significant difference in enhancing the daily experience of employees.
A comfortable place to sit and enter “flow,” a place to socialize about non-work life to build connection and trust, or a space to release cortisol and rebalance the nervous system all contribute to a positive employee experience. And this will contribute to happier employees that contribute to the success of the company.
Tip 8: Offer Growth and Development Opportunities
Once you’ve established structural support for the daily aspects of employees, you can consider how to contribute to their growth as professionals and human beings at large outside of the organization itself.
Providing opportunities for growth, whether training, mentoring programs, career development paths, education, reskilling, and more, is a great way to not only show there’s room for growth within the company but also demonstrate a commitment to who they are individually.
By providing growth and development opportunities without a quid-pro-quo, you’re helping employees fulfill their potential professionally and personally, which also helps to build a perception of the company that attracts quality talent.
What’s important to keep in mind is that if you’re going to offer growth and development opportunities, doing so with an expectation of how they’ll apply or use those new skills can counteract the positive experience. It’s hard to feel motivated or truly valued if there’s an expectation of quid-pro-quo.
Tip 9: Show Appreciation and Recognition
Celebrating employee achievements, big and small, and acknowledging their contributions publicly is another way to improve the employee experience.
In an increasingly emotionally demanding culture, we need to know we are seen and valued. From an early age, we learn to crave recognition from authority, and this desire for positive affirmation continues as we grow into professionals in the workplace.
Although bonuses, plaques, titles, and other forms of recognition may appear to be sufficient to show appreciation and recognition, our subconscious desires more. This is because recognition and appreciation are connected to our sense of identity and self-worth.
It may seem as though employees owe you and thanking them for “doing their job” is nonsensical, but no one—even you—is exempt from the need to feel acknowledged and appreciated for the effort you expend and for being who you are. And the more one feels this acknowledgment and appreciation for their behavior, the more natural the behavior becomes for them.
Employees at all levels seek validation, self-worth, belonging, and connection. Acknowledgment and appreciation provide these, driving motivation, engagement, happiness, and well-being.
So what does this look like? Showing appreciation and recognition is not something that happens once per year. It’s a habit we build as leaders and is unique to each individual.
By building the habit of publicly and personally appreciating our employees in our daily activities as leaders—recognizing them for achievements, exhibiting desired behaviors, going above expectations, and reaching milestones—we can improve the overall employee experience.
This brings me to my last point: leadership.
Tip 10: Strengthen Leadership
I think it’s fitting to end our discussion by circling back to the picture of leadership. Earlier, I discussed the importance of cultivating inclusive leadership, but empowering managers to be supportive coaches and mentors can impact the trajectory of the employee experience.
It’s no secret that poorly trained managers negatively impact the employee experience. It’s also no secret that a large contributor to this problem is the high rate of promotion to managers and leadership roles without proper training on building trust, communicating, giving feedback, and other critical areas that influence the daily lives of workers.
It’s worth noting that the importance of strengthening leadership is even more crucial in today’s rapidly changing world. Leaders need to be adaptable, resilient, and capable of navigating complex challenges in a continuously evolving landscape.
By investing in and nurturing strong leadership, we can prepare ourselves and our employees for a future filled with unprecedented opportunities and challenges across individual, team, and organizational aspects of business and organizational culture.
This can mean conducting self-assessment and development, building relationships and communication, empowering and motivating others, and leading with vision and strategy. It’s key to remember that strengthening leadership is a continuous journey, not a one-time event.
By actively seeking feedback, investing in development, and consistently working on skills like empathy, you can become a more effective leader who inspires and motivates your team to achieve success.
Why Improve the Employee Experience
By now, I hope it is becoming more evident why prioritizing employee experience is important for leaders. Improving the employee experience is a win-win situation for leaders, their teams, and the organization as a whole. It’s an investment that pays off in both the short and long term.
Simply put, a positive employee experience leads to happier, more engaged, and more productive workers. But it’s not just a matter of investing in employee benefits and programs. It considers the psychological, neurological, and emotional needs we have as humans and weaves these needs into daily practices, procedures, and interactions.
A positive experience for employees means considering the factors influencing social, work, and organizational contexts—both inside and outside of the proverbial four walls of your organization.
When employees have a positive experience across all these areas, not just a select few, they experience less threat and strain, replaced by more motivation and engagement.
Ciara Ungar is a New York City-based Author on Leadership, Certified Business & Leadership Coach & Consultant, an Award-Winning Strategist, and an International Speaker. She is also an Innovation Women Speaker, Instructor with Columbia University Immersion Programs, a Mass Challenge Advisor, a Startup Council, and Forbes Coaches Council member. She has a blended academic background with degrees and certifications in Communication, Psychology, Integrated Strategy, Entrepreneurship & Business Strategy, and Cultural Diversity from Purdue University, Georgetown University, and Wharton Business School. She applies her robust 16 years of professional expertise working with Fortune500 companies, high potential startups, top global agencies, and Angel/VC Investors to entrepreneurship, leadership development, business strategy, and professional growth. A disciple of “Start With Why,” her purpose is to guide others through transformative thinking as they build businesses, teams, and personal purpose that inspires change.