The shift to employee experience is here to stay

In recent years, employee experience (EX) has become even more important than customer experience (CX). And it’s not just a trend. Companies around the world are realizing that this focus is a win-win situation that works in the long term.

The global workforce underwent a spectacular change during the twentieth century: technological, medical, and legislative changes caused massive improvements in worker safety. Changes such as improving health and safety workplace standards, heating and cooling office buildings, and reducing work hours all amounted to vastly improved conditions for the average worker.

Despite these more structural changes to the workplace, the employee’s role was still a largely utilitarian one for most of the late twentieth century. As Jacob Morgan writes, this utilitarianism meant that employers focused solely on providing the essential tools and resources that employees needed to do their job. 

As time went on, the employer’s focus changed. First, employers established processes and procedures to extract as much as possible from employees in the quest of improved productivity. Engagement was next, shifting the employee-employer relationship from one that involved extracting as much as possible from the worker to one that looks at what the organization can do to actually benefit the employee. This change in the workplace relationship was a radical redesign of how things had been done for most of the entire history of work. The goal was that it would have massive benefits on productivity, happiness, etc.  

Unfortunately, this didn’t really pan out. The short-term morale boost of, say, getting a foosball table in your office building soon went away, and employees returned to their usual unenthusiastic equilibrium. Following engagement efforts came the rise of employee experience.

Where did the concept of employee experience come from?

The concept of the employee experience (EX) is difficult to trace from its origins. It seems to have become a hot topic around 2017, with one of the most newsworthy stories revolving around Mark Levy and the transformation of the HR department at Airbnb. The company became a pioneer in employee experience, even titling Mark Levy as Global Head of Employee Experience rather than using the more traditional Human Resources nomenclature. 

But what is employee experience exactly? 

Susan Peters, Former Senior Vice President of Human Resources at General Electric, defines it as “seeing the world through the eyes of our employees, staying connected, and being aware of their major milestones.” This definition is a little vague and hard to quantify into actual policies and procedures or workplace design. But luckily, Jacob Morgan, writing for the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), gives a more concrete explanation of the employee experience mindset: “Instead of trying to force people to fit into outdated workplace practices, organizations must redesign their workplace practices to fit with their people.”

In other words, people are starting to become the central focus of the organization. This change started with an intense focus on customers and customer experience, but has since been translated more internally to explore the experience of those within the organization. Those companies who were first to embrace employee experience are the same companies that are most sought after by today’s talent: Facebook, Google, Apple, Accenture, Southwest Airlines… In fact, authors and consultants at McKinsey suggest that the war for talent will be won or lost based on EX.  

Employee experience in our context

Employee experience was already an upward trend, the culmination of decades of ever-increasing focus towards human resources and better policies, as well as the people themselves. The global pandemic has only heightened this organizational awareness towards HR and the employees. As we come out of this pandemic and look toward the future, the increasing importance of HR and an employee-centric vision is already being seen. The US is currently facing a labor shortage more acute than in previous times, as people are opting not to return to their pre-pandemic jobs—or to take up new jobs on the other side of this. Where this is most acutely felt? In low-wage and toxic workplaces, such as in the restaurant industry.

CEO of JP Morgan Chase, Jamie Dimon, recently mentioned that “people don’t feel like returning to work.” And he’s wrong. Companies that embrace employee experience are overwrought with interest. A recent report claimed that Google, a company that ranks very high on employee experience, receives 2 million applications a year. What people are increasingly NOT interested in are companies with poor EX, who take poor care of their employees—either in wages, toxic working cultures, inflexible structures, and the list goes on.  

Looking ahead, this is the major shift I see happening: I see HR having an ever-increasing role in the organization. This is partly in response to the pandemic and the need to focus more on people, but mostly driven from the ground up, by upcoming employees and talent voting with their feet and opting only for those workplaces that provide a high-quality experience. Any company interested in attracting and retaining talent needs to pay heed: start listening to your employees and start caring more about them, or else.


Jeff Thomson is an educator and life-long learner currently pursuing his third masters degree through IE’s master of Talent Development and Human Resources.  Passionate about L&D and organizational development he aspires to improve the employee experience so that more people go to work happy, productive, and satisfied.