Focussing on the employee experience in a sector that traditionally hasn’t

By Kate Faxen, Head of Employee Experience, UCL.
10 January 2023
Kates’s case study, The importance of individual leaders to create change and the necessity of listening, is one of many included in UCEA's 'Employee experience in HE' guide, accessible to members.

When I took on the role of Head of Employee Experience at UCL in 2019, I was believed to be the first professional dedicated entirely to employee experience in the UK higher education sector. The sector has traditionally been more comfortable focusing on the student experience. Perhaps it is understandable that this area has grown in popularity as a strategic focus ever since the National Student Survey (NSS) launched in 2005. And that growth has continued to the point where now, you will find that nearly all universities have established teams dedicated entirely to optimising it. 

So, my burning question is, will it be only a matter of time before almost all universities have a team dedicated to understanding and enhancing the employee experience? Here’s what I think, and some suggestions for how you might speed up the change.

Why is a high NSS score so desirable? 

It would be nice to think that the main motivation behind achieving a high NSS score is all about making sure our students are thriving. I’m sure that to a large extent that is true, but it’s hard to avoid the reason that universities started to gamify the area of student experience was likely down to NSS scores are available on degree comparison sites and directly affect university ranking tables such as The Times Good University Guide

The impact that a positive NSS score has on overall applications received may in fact be quite low (1), but everyone knows that universities like a little friendly competition, especially when the results are publicly available. 

Will achieving a high staff engagement survey score ever be desirable? 

We would hope that, similar to the student experience, employers would want their employees to thrive as a matter of course. But for most universities, this still doesn’t seem to rank highly as a strategic priority, not yet anyway. During the pandemic, a shift towards “human-centric” decision-making was felt within our sector and beyond. At UCL, this was one of our five guiding principles for all decisions which were made at priority speed to help us through the multiple challenges. And this approach seems to have been well received by staff, with many colleagues highlighting UCL’s response to Covid-19 as a positive factor in our recent staff survey. 

It is heartening to note, that since I was recruited as the first employee experience lead in the sector, many more similar posts have now been created. And while I am no longer working in sector-wide isolation I wonder if it will ever be as important a focus as the student experience is. Perhaps that is becoming more likely but may only continue to grow as a strategic priority with the introduction of a little more friendly competition.

Is it desirable to benchmark employee experience across the sector?

Since ORC (2) pulled out from our sector, a couple of years before the pandemic, there has no longer been a simple way for universities to benchmark their employee satisfaction against that of other universities. But would that be helpful? UCL moved away from the likely suspects of survey providers and ran our most recent staff survey with a company called Qlearsite. We have since learnt that for us, internal benchmarking was the most valuable information. But we still needed some level of external benchmarking to identify areas that offered the most room for improvement so that we knew which areas had the most potential for positive impact through interventions. 

What’s most important for employee experience in our sector?

While I believe sector-wide benchmarking would be beneficial, I think there are more important things to focus on. Specifically – how we go about improving employee experience in a way that leads to meaningful and sustainable change in areas we know (with or without benchmarked surveys) really require our attention. Workload and the cost of living struggles leap to mind.

How can you help speed up this change?

The first step of any employee experience function should be around building a deep understanding of your workplace culture and how different communities of people may be affected differently by it. 

At UCL, we do this by listening to our employees in several ways, such as:
  • Employee experience survey 
  • Pulse surveys 
  • Online discussions 
  • Focus groups and workshops
Once you know what the hot topics are for staff, work collaboratively to find solutions.

Employers certainly need to make listening more effective, as identified in the ‘Voice of the workforce’ - one of the four ‘jigsaw’ connected themes in UCEA’s EX model. The sector’s distractions are certainly not alleviating in our post-pandemic world – but listening leaders need to remain focused on creating change and a better employee experience. And my final top tip relates to bringing people on the journey with you; the more people you bring along, the more support you’ll be able to rely on when you need it most.

1. Gibbons, S., Neumayer, E., and Perkins, R. October 2015, Student satisfaction, league tables and university applications: Evidence from Britain. Economics of Education Review. Vol 48, 148 - 164 
2. ORC International are an employee engagement firm who used to provide similar surveys to around 40 different universities. In approx. 2018, they pulled out of the HE sector citing their inability to impact engagement as their reason for leaving.