Which Parts Of Employee Experience Really Matter Most?

I’ve been hearing about “employee experience” everywhere. Almost every software vendor, HR consulting firm, and HR executive is trying to figure it out.

Why? Because the concept is very broad and vague, and in some sense it encompasses everything at work.

The term “employee experience” (EX) came out of AirBnB around 2017 when the company started to apply design thinking to its employee services. They found out, as others now know, that actual employee “experiences” are far more complex than the traditional HR programs we build, so they started to co-design solutions for their people. Since then we’ve called them “moments that matter,” “employee journeys,” “employee interactions,” and lots of other things. And hundreds of books, articles, and tools are being developed.

The bottom line, however, is that all this is noise if we can’t figure out where to focus. Companies with “heads of employee experience” or EX programs have to decide where to start.

The Irresistible Organization Model

In my research over the years I came to understand that the drivers of employee happiness are complex and highly varied. As the model below points out, the issues range from the work itself, to management, to the environment, opportunity to grow, trust, leadership, and overall well-being. Each of these is important, and in every company some are more problematic than others.

My research shows that “growth” and “meaningful work” top them all. In my research last year with LinkedIn, respondents rated “ability to grow” almost four times as important as pay. When I asked 2,800 people what makes them “happy” at work, by far the number one answer was “a job I love.”

Well, some new research by Willis Towers Watson now clarifies this further, and I want to highlight it here.

Willis Towers Watson High Performance Research

Willis Towers Watson has one of the industry’s larger databases of employee engagement data. Each year, the company surveys more than 500 companies and nearly 10 million employees and has been doing this for more than 50 years. This means they can correlate employee feedback data against many long term business results (over a billion surveys).

In the new EX research just released, the company segmented its clients into two groups:  average financial performers and high-performers. The High Performing companies (30 companies out of 500) outperform the average by more than four-fold over a three year period. In other words, these are very successful businesses.

(Remember also that almost every company has been growing over this period, so these are exceptionally successful companies.)

Of course there are many possible reasons for these results, and one cannot always tell whether “employee experience” is a result of success, or “employee experience” is a driver of success.

So what Willis Towers Watson did is look at their employee engagement history in these companies in detail. What they found is that these high performing companies have particularly strong outcomes in the following 14 areas. As you can see, the team differentiated these areas into essentials (everyone needs this), emphasis (what differentiates the companies), and excellence (areas which highly differentiate these companies).

While all these 14 areas fit into parts of EX, you can see that the top purple areas have 4-6 times higher impact than the areas at the bottom. In other words, creating a sense of trust, inspiration, drive, and growth are far more important to success than focusing on fair pay, work productivity, and environmental support.

As I look over the data I am reminded of the research done by Great Places to Work, which essentially found that among all the hundreds of employee-engagement programs they’ve studied, the sense of “trust” scores highest in employee impact. To me, as an entrepreneur, this research points out that companies with clear market focus and leaders who “know where we’re going” and can inspire others to follow, create the best EX of all.

Note that many of the “hygiene” factors like pay, organizational support, inclusion, and voice are still important. In fact giving employees a voice, building capabilities, and creating a fair environment are three times more important than fair pay. But even above these important areas, this sense of inspiration, mission, and growth tops all.

The Willis Towers Watson HPEX Model

As the Willis Towers Watson people dug into all this data, they developed a model that is fairly easy to understand. It shows, in narrative form, what these essential elements really mean. And as you can see from the top bar below, these fall into concepts like “I am inspired by my work” and “We are ahead of the market” and “I can achieve my potential” and “I trust our leadership.”


As the team applied this model to the database, they once again found that this EX model definitively predicts financial results.

What Does All This Mean?

Given all the elements in Employee Experience, what does this research mean?  

Well, it means that Employee Experience, the newest buzzword in HR, still points back to the basic principles of human performance. As Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need explains well, people crave self-actualization at work.

Think about it this way. People don’t come to work for free lunch or exercise facilities, they come to work to get something accomplished. The most engaged, happy, and successful people feel truly fulfilled by their jobs, so themes like trust, growth, and inspiration score high.

The bottom parts of Maslows Heirarchy are the “hygeine” factors that get in the way of success. If people feel underpaid, unsafe, or unsure they are being heard, these factors become a drag or distraction on their performance. We want to minimize or eliminate these blockers, and enhance or accentuate the positives.

I recently had a conversation with the CEO of Dropbox, one of the fast-growing tech companies in San Francisco. Their company is well known for its gourmet chef, free breakfast, lunch and dinner, and even free massages in the office. She questioned the value of all these perks and surveyed employees to see if they wanted it all. The finding? They really didn’t want it as much as executives thought: what they wanted was investment in training, leadership, and tools and systems to make their work more productive.

The Process Shredder: Don’t Forget That Productivity Matters

By the way, spending money to simplify work has a huge return. The Willis Towers Watson data reinforces that companies that embrace autonomy and make a continuous effort to improve customer and employee productivity outperform. So while free lunch and fancy perks may not be as valued as you think, making work easy, productive, and integrated is critical.

Tools like Pepsi’s “Process Shredder” are good ideas for everyone.  Pepsi rolled out a simple employee voice application (built on Waggl) that lets employees suggest a single thing that would make life easier at work. The system crowdsources the results and quickly identified the #1 barrier to success.

Guess what it was?  The performance management process! The message to me is simple: we in HR have to not only make work easier for people, but also avoid making it more complicated. This is all part of the EX crusade.

Focus On The Basics

As this research points out, make sure you go back to the basics.

Yes we need to do many things to simplify the work environment, make HR technology easier to use, and give people consumer-like experiences at work. But when it comes to the foundation of your investments, go back to the Simply Irresistible model and focus on inspiration, growth, trust, and clear leadership. You’ll find an inexhaustible opportunity to drive performance, and your employees will light up with energy, passion, and commitment.

People Analytics Certificate Program Now Available In the Josh Bersin Academy!

josh bersin academy

Finally, let me just put in a small plug. Next week we launch our People Analytics Certificate Program in the JBA. This is the best way in the world for any HR professional to understand the basics of this important discipline and learn to apply data to your job in HR, whatever role you have!

We now have 8 complete Certificate Programs, more than 200 micro-learning, research, primers, and case studies, and more than 4,000 of your peers to join and learn from for only $40 per month.  And lots more to come!