by Myles F. Suer

Humanizing the employee experience

Oct 01, 2019
IT Leadership

CIOs tell me all the time that they are looking for opportunities to add business value. Why not start by improving what it is like to be an employee? Why not create systems that engage employees?

Several years ago, I co-founded a company that created an app to measure caregiver and patient engagement on a daily, ongoing basis. Looking at summary reports for our partners, I was continually amazed to see firsthand how patient and employee engagement correlated.

Two experiences with the app shaped my thinking about employee experience. The first was asking why a particular day seemed particularly out of norm for labor and delivery nurses and their patients. It turned out that during a full moon more babies are born so nurse and room capacity is stretched thin. Armed with this data, managers had a clear mandate for the next full moon.

The second was a nursing leader crying to me about why her scores were always lower than other managers. Her problem was that she always kept herself cloistered in her office. She did not practice what Tom Peters identified years before as “management by walking around.”

For me, I learned from real data the relationship between business outcomes and employee engagement. And to be fair, everything does start with a company’s selecting the right people to be managers. Process and technology are second order effects. But with this said, one question persists: Are there things that CIOs can do to assist managers in improving employee experience. In other words, can they make it easier for managers to engage employees. This is the question that I recently posed to our weekly #CIOChat Twitter chat session.

When do your processes, systems and technology limit employee experience?

CIOs confirm that corporate immaturity—an absence of processes, systems or even technology—does impact employee engagement. Organizations in this situation end up with a free-for-all that’s inconsistent and territorial. CIOs believe that processes, systems and technology typically get in the way when there are goals other than the employee experience to consider. For example, procurement regulations may require burdensome processes, but cause those using them to find them difficult to navigate.

CIOs believe that both onboarding and employee review process have long been the worst areas for employee experience. Onboarding, for many, is seen as overly tedious and clinical. And employee review programs are often just a bunch of words on paper that are meaningless. Employees often don’t get much value from either process.

At the same time, CIOs claim many companies get each of these very wrong. One CIO said from their personal perspective, having gone through onboarding thrice in the last decade, employers should have as a business objective improving this process from cradle to grave. In some cases, CIOs say the process isn’t clearly defined and can result in an employee engagement disaster.

For this reason, many participants in the chat believe it’s time to consider improving employee experience. CIOs say that this is the place where technology leaders often forget that the experience is just as important as the technical elegance and simplicity. Sometimes we need to build for the feel, not for clean implementation. Meanwhile, anywhere there is a lack of clarity and transparency as to why a process is required, it is time to reconsider the process.

Should humanizing the employee experience be part of the IT agenda?

The initial CIO answering asked me whether there’s another option – that if the user’s not first, they’re always last. Another CIO said bluntly that if you are not doing this, then you’re heading down the wrong road. In the chat session, CIOs shared numerous cases where they talked to colleagues and realized that IT could streamline a process and change team members’ lives for the better.

CIOs stress, however, that the CIO and the entire C-suite need to pay attention to humanizing the employee experience. The agenda needs to go beyond human resources and work for the entire business. Business leaders shouldn’t forget the people stuff. Mentoring, team building and knowing A, B and C players matters, too. Business leaders need to have programs that enable nurturing A then B…and removing C.

With this said, IT leaders should regularly be looking for places where they can simplify business processes, which increasingly needs to include the onboarding process. Employees need the simplest way of moving forward. Clearly, streamlining isn’t entirely up to IT. Processes need to change as well. As goal, IT organizations should aim to improve accessibility and usability. These should be balanced against standards, uses cases and efficiency. At the same time, it’s important to address process conflicts with all the interested parties. What human resources needs, for example, are the forms and processes for employee on-boarding to seem less onerous for new employees. What the CIO needs, on the other hand, is ensure all parties have the documentation they require.

What is the biggest root cause of poor employee experience?

People clearly represent a significant issue. As are people implementing friction that causes processes to be implemented using subpar technology. It’s clear that people are responsible for processes that work and don’t work. One of the things that amazes one CIO is how rules are enforced that aren’t even corporate policy. One of our jobs, says this CIO, is to ask why until we figure out the reason people keep running into brick walls that shouldn’t be there.

A lack of understanding of end user experience is a problem, too. The fact is that every piece of technology wrapped around it is less than optimal. One CIO said here that onboarding is critical, because it is where we start to set expectations and either live up to them or not. Unfortunately, some CIOs say that they can sometimes get funny looks when they talk about the strategic value of human resources.

Clearly with executive interest, the first step is to have systematic conversations about human resources and business processes. It’s hard to have certain human capital process discussions when those functions are it depends. At the same time, it is important to find ways to get user experience baked into efforts – both new projects and ongoing support is key.

There can be multiple competing values without clearly prioritizing employee experience. For example, executives will say that revenue is important, delivery is important and public trust is important – but then just assume good employee experience will just happen. It’s important here for CIOs to partner with human resources. One CIO said they’ve had good luck partnering with human resources at more than one company.

What should be the first thing on the business/IT agenda for driving better employee experience?

One chart participant suggested a way to start is by building community. With a community, a lot of the issues get fixed because that’s not how we should do it – “let’s fix it” becomes the default answer when the experience isn’t good. The starting point, for this reason, can be whatever is at the top of the most requested list after you survey your employees.

But more is needed. CIOs need to listen to the employees and follow up continuously until issues are resolved. CIOs shouldn’t tell employees what they think they need. Instead, they should say “I heard you say XYZ and this is what we delivered.” It’s important to establish an attitude of delivery and service to the business as a whole. This involves communicating with everyone at any level all the time. It involves challenging each other and the organization to do business better.

Here it’s important that CIOs make a sincere and real commitment to show that employees matter. Follow the resources and what preferences are revealed by resource alignment. Does resource alignment show employees matter or is employee experience just an image story?

It also involves engaging employees in the IT project priorities discussion. Employees are very interested in understanding system dependencies, integration challenges, etc. if they have a say in what IT tackles next.

Should CIOs be aiming to humanize the employee experience with IT processes and systems?

CIOs believe that it is important to automate as much as possible to remove manual intervention and latency. Auto-approval of expense reports with proper logging to trust and verify is a great place to demonstrate this. Doing this creates joy for employees. CIOs need to question why things need to be so hard to do.

CIOs say there’s a lot of space to make it better by empowering folks to make smart decisions. It’s important that employees know they’re allowed and expected to make things better. To do this, it’s important to be present and available. One CIO said that they do breakfast with the boss sessions where they bring in doughnuts each month and let team members ask any question. They let themselves be seen as real person and answer personal as well as business questions.

Other good approaches include a “Bright Ideas” submission form to a system that recognizes and rewards improvements with financial, training or other rewards. At the same time, it’s important to start meetings whenever possible with recognition and reinforcement, even if it’s small. This is how CIOs apply the concepts of continuous improvement to the people side of things in addition to technology.

Those concepts are important to help shape conversations, too. Where openness exists, any day, any moment, someone unique walks through the front door. These are opportunities to engage and humanize employee experience. It not only helps engagement but improves the chances for success as well.

At the same time, CIOs need to say to their teams “if you see one of your team members doing something awesome, send me a note, a Slack, a Tweet, or just tell me who and what.” This requires the development of non-IT relationships up and down the organization and seeking people out for feedback – and demanding the rest of the IT management team does so, too. It’s important to walk the hallways outside IT and routinely check the pulse of the organization and determine how IT’s doing?

It seems clear that humanizing employee experience has reached the CIO agenda. Some of this is discovery. Some of this is listening. From Forrester’s research, EX is bigger than human capital management. Technology and processes are now critical to EX. These are beachheads that the CIO not only has influence but the potential to have real business impact.