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The experience of work

Employees who are engaged in their work are more innovative and self-starting, research suggests, but 85% of workers globally are disengaged.

The role of technology in productivity and engagement

Employees who are engaged in their work are more innovative and self-starting, research suggests, but 85% of workers globally are disengaged. This has prompted employers to consider the working experience they create for employees and how to make it as engaging and productive as possible.

T o create an engaging employee experience, technology investments should be guided by human needs, writes Ben Whitter, founder of the World Employee Experience Institute

Ben Whitter
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How are businesses around the world improving their employee experience, and what role does technology play? To find out, The Economist Intelligence Unit surveyed 1,145 senior executives including IT, HR and other business leaders. This research report presents the key findings, including insights for IT executives on how to maximise their contribution to the employee experience.

Executive summary

The more engaged employees are in their work, previous research suggests, the likelier it is that they will contribute to the success of an organisation. They will be more productive than less engaged colleagues, as well as more innovative and self-starting—critical attributes when business models and the competitive environment are changing rapidly.1 But what specifically fosters such attributes? In recent years a consensus has formed around the idea that, rather than one or two individual factors, it is the totality of an employee’s involvement with the organisation—the “employee experience”— that ultimately influences their contribution to success.

Today, the employee experience is firmly on the senior management agenda of the vast majority of firms, judging by the results of a survey conducted by The Economist Intelligence Unit. The research also makes clear that nothing influences the employee experience more than the quality of the organisation’s leadership. But technology is also an important contributor, and especially so at firms whose employees are, according to respondents, more engaged and more productive than their rivals (termed “high performers” in this report). The same is true at organisations that are further along in their digital transformation than others (termed “digitally more mature” organisations). Perceived improvement in the employee experience has also been greater at these groups than in the rest of the sample. The clear conclusion is that business leaders have several technology levers they can pull to brighten their employees’ journey through the organisation, from the time they are recruited to their departure and even later. The challenges to doing this well are numerous, above all getting IT and HR to collaborate effectively toward this end, but companies featured in this report are finding ways to meet them.

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Other key findings of the research are: Responsibility for improving the employee experience is often blurred. Shaping the employee experience tends to be a shared responsibility among multiple senior executives. This can, however, often signal a lack of leadership clarity and lead to a vacuum.

The risk of this is apparent in the survey, as little more than one third of C-suite respondents strongly agree that they take full responsibility for it across the organisation. Only a few more say they take full responsibility for it even within their own teams. As companies mature digitally, C-level executives, including the CIO, take on more of a leadership role in this area. Access to information breeds engagement and empowerment. Having ready access to the data and insights they need to do their jobs, wherever they are located, does more to influence employee engagement and productivity, and ultimately their overall experience, than other technology factors.

For many companies, that translates into “mobile first” policies and efforts to perfect their use of collaboration tools, the digitisation of onboarding, training and other employeedevelopment activities, and efforts to recreate the consumer experience at work to the extent possible. IT and HR may not be natural partners, but bridges are being built. In the survey, the two functions appear to feel they have a joint stake in improving the employee experience. For example, similar numbers of IT and HR respondents say they feel personally responsible for this within their team or more widely. At high performers and digitally more mature organisations, a large proportion of both IT and HR executives say the objective is part of the strategy of their function. To overcome the lack of understanding that hampers collaboration, many firms are taking practical measures such as employing specialists with knowledge of both disciplines and developing common metrics. Companies struggle to measure improvement in the employee experience. Although virtually all companies in the survey measure employee engagement and productivity, and most are striving to devise suitable metrics to capture improvements in the employee experience, not many are as yet registering success. Less than onethird, for example, “strongly” confirm that they can quantify such improvements in financial terms. A higher proportion of high performers, however, are able to do this.

Employee engagement is a complex phenomenon, says Katie Bailey, professor of work and employment at King’s College London, and there are a number of reasons why companies have struggled to make significant progress

Katie Bailey
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Employees of all levels are looking for meaning in their work. This insight should guide decisions that impact the employee experience, explains Dr Kaveh Abhari, assistant professor of information systems at San Diego State University

Dr Kaveh Abhari,
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