Employee Experience: What’s in a name?

By Ian Barrow and Kathryn Willoughby

Having worked in the employee culture and engagement research consulting arenas for a combined total of over 35 years, we have seen many changes in the way the relationship between employee and organisation are described, and the way we measure that relationship: from employee satisfaction, employee motivation, employee alignment (with vision and values), employee opinion, and eventually through to employee engagement.

‘Engagement’ seems to be the descriptor that has stuck around the longest and has had global reach. In the UK, it was supported by the Engage for Success (E4S) movement, which started in Autumn 2008 when John Hutton, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, commissioned David MacLeod and Nita Clark to write a report answering three key questions:

  1. What is Employee Engagement?
  2. Is there evidence to suggest it matters?
  3. What were the (four, as it turned out) things present in organisations that were successfully engaging their people?

Whilst employee engagement seemed to be a ‘noughties’ continuum of employee satisfaction/motivation/opinion (Google searches for ‘employee engagement’ first started in mid-2006), it was actually first mentioned as a term in an academic paper in 1990. However, it never gained traction until the mid-2000s.

Key to this uptake was the number of organisations that started to show renewed interest in the Service Profit Chain model (Heskett et al, 1994), which showed how employee attitudes and behaviour could improve customer retention and consequently sales performance. The links between employee engagement and company performance increased the interest in engagement and started the ball rolling.

So, what does ‘engagement’ look like now, and is employee experience (EX) the new kid on the block?

Despite all the research and evidence over the last 20 years, there is no universally agreed definition of employee engagement. Our knowledge and expertise have definitely intensified, but it has become evident that whilst there are common factors that engage all employees across all organisations, which are firmly rooted in the Psychological Contract (Chris Argyris 1960) and were further developed by Denise Rousseau in 2000, each of us are uniquely different and there are clear differences on what pushes our own engagement buttons.

However, E4S were clear that there are four enablers that drive positive engagement, and these remain as strong drivers of engagement:

  1. Visible, empowering leadership providing a strong strategic narrative about the organisation, where it’s come from and where it’s going.
  2. Engaging managers who focus their people and give them scope, treat their people as individuals and coach and stretch their people.
  3. Employee voice throughout the organisation, for reinforcing and challenging views, between functions and externally. Employees are seen not as the problem, rather as central to the solution, to be involved, listened to, and invited to contribute their experience, expertise and ideas.
  4. Organisational integrity – the values on the wall are reflected in day-to-day behaviours. There is no ‘say-do’ gap. Promises made and promises kept, or an explanation given as to why not.

However, whilst these enablers are good for all seasons, engagement will always boil down to an individual employee’s passion and commitment to the organisation and their role, the part they play in delivering the organisation’s goals and objectives, and let’s not forget, for many, it is about how employees are recognised and rewarded.

So, what has changed and why has employee experience started to increasingly become the new term used to describe the relationship between employees and their organisation? Again, via Google, searches for the term ‘employee experience’ really started to gather pace around 2015 and in the last three years, searches have quadrupled each year. The move towards using the term employee experience is perhaps due to the fact that employee engagement has become a limiting term and paints a picture that it is transactional, i.e. you do X as an employee, and as an organisation we will do Y.

But engagement is no longer transactional, it is about human emotions, it is about connections and relationships, and it is about the gut feeling you get deep within yourself that the organisation is a good place to work.

‘…using the word “engagement” often limits our thinking. It assumes that our job is to reach out and “engage” people, rather than to build an organization that is exciting, fulfilling, meaningful, and fun’.
Josh Bersin, Forbes

The basic principles of engagement and experience are the same, and you can’t have employee engagement without positive workplace experiences. So is employee engagement the outcome of a positive employee experience? In our view, employee experience is slightly different, and the key differences are:

  • Experience is seen through the lens of the employee rather than that of the organisation.
  • Experience is also about how the organisation responds to ‘moments that matter’ for colleagues, i.e. the things that have the biggest impact on an employee’s working experience. This could be how the recruitment experience feels, the first day experience, or how the organisation manages big life experiences, e.g. maternity/paternity etc.

In addition, employee experience is an easier way to map the ‘touchpoints’ in the same way as the customer experience, and it ensures a shared ownership: it’s not just ‘an HR thing’ or a ‘management thing’, it broadens the scope out and makes it more tangible for employees in their day-to-day lives rather than something called ‘engagement’, which for some is an intangible concept.

Designing the new employee experience – the human organisation

The global pandemic is changing the way organisations and employees think about the workplace, and there is a need to create a new experience. As employee experience encompasses the employee as a human being, so the ‘new’ employee experience which will drive engagement, has to be built around the needs of employees – humans first, buildings and solutions follow. There are five employee experience challenges:

  1. Personal – do you understand how employees feel at every touchpoint of their experience in the organisation?
  2. Culture – how will the employee experience match and adhere to the organisational purpose, values, goals, etc.?
  3. Processes and systems – how do your processes and systems support the employee experience
  4. Technology – do you have technology in place to allow employees to work at their best?
  5. Voice – are employees empowered and have a voice so that they have the freedom to challenge, innovate and be agile in their roles?

These challenges and the move towards a more human organisation mean that:

  • The physical experience of the workplace needs to change. Workplaces need to accommodate five main interactions at work: concentration, conversation, collaboration, exploration and reflection.
  • The technological experience needs to have connectivity and hardware as a basic, but also how we use Teams/Zoom in a potential hybrid working environment means that communication channels need to support remote working better.
  • The culture needs to enable new ways of working – the ‘values and beliefs framework’ needs to support a new way of working to ensure business priorities and individual behaviours align.
  • Attracting and retaining talent has become a real issue, and identifying and communicating the employee experience has become vital. Employees now have different motivations from salary and perks, and there is a much wider talent pool due to ‘working from anywhere’ policies in some organisations. Hence there are more organisations competing for the best people. Organisations need to tell their story and describe the employee experience candidates will encounter in a different way, to appeal to potential employees and employee’s needs.
  • Connecting with colleagues – corridor and water-cooler conversations become less frequent, reliance on the impromptu chat lessens, and employee interactions need more effort and planning.
  • Ensuring a strong employee voice, without reliance on usual face-to-face channels or creating inequalities between those who choose to work from the office and those who don’t.
  • The opportunity for a levelling up for operational/field-based employees – no longer the poor cousins unable to experience the office environment, what can be learned from the audiences who already work remotely?

The upshot is that whilst employee engagement generally focuses on the workplace and productivity, employee experience also encompasses the employee as a human being. Both engagement and experience still have a place within organisations, and both are valid measurements of how employees feel.

However, the COVID pandemic in 2020 and into 2021 has changed the workplace. Trends that otherwise may have taken far longer to gain momentum have accelerated, and this means that employee experience and engagement are undergoing huge changes.

However, it remains the case that engagement can’t exist without a good employee experience, and visa versa, but the need to look towards the wider employee experience is critical. After all, with social media, the employee experience at individual companies is no longer a secret, in the main due to sites like Glassdoor and Indeed. Many organisations see the importance of this and now have Employee Experience Directors/Managers in place.


  • Putting the Service-Profit Chain to Work, by James L. Heskett, Thomas O. Jones, Gary W. Loveman, W. Earl Sasser, Jr., and Leonard A. Schlesinger. Harvard Business Review, 72, 1994.
  • Understanding Organizational Behaviour, Chris Argyris, The American Political Science Review, 1960