What I talk about when I talk about Employee experience

By Mark Latuske, Deputy Director of People & Culture (Employee Experience), Ulster University
3 November 2022
Mark’s case study, An organisation-wide approach to employee experience, is one of many included in UCEA's Employee experience in HE guide, with access available to members.

Haruki Murakami fuelled his fame with his 2007 memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, setting out his interest and participation in long-distance running. The link between Murakami’s focus on running and the concept of Employee experience might seem initially tenuous at best but maintaining enthusiasm and focus on the latter can be as big a test of endurance as the former.

Let’s explore the links between the two further. Running is a deeply personal experience for many – over and above an initial desire related to fitness and health which applies and appeals to most of us, the reasons and stories beyond are unique. One should only look at the myriad of costumes worn by competitors in a major city marathon, or the wide variety of charities and personal motivations represented by those taking part, to understand the truly unique set of circumstances for each athlete in the field.

And Employee experience is remarkably similar – whilst we talk of a homogenous pool of ‘employees’ or ‘staff’, each and every one of us is a living, breathing, emotional human being (at least for now until AI advances further!) Each with our own history, set of circumstances, and ambitions. And this is only part of what makes a focus on Employee experience such a complicated race to navigate. Consider for a moment the two ‘e’ words and what each one actually means (as defined by merriam-webster.com):
  • Employee - a person who is hired by another to perform a service especially for wages or salary and is under the other's control.
  • Experience - something personally encountered, undergone, or lived through.
The challenge with the definition of ‘experience’ is that it literally applies to anything that an individual faces; and the difficulty with the former is there would be few who would claim that they would actively choose to be working, under someone’s ‘control’ unless they absolutely had to. So given that many people perhaps might prefer not to work, and given that an experience refers to almost anything that any one person faces – how on earth can any organisation expect to be able to truly focus on the ‘employee experience’ in a coordinated and planful way? The very thought becomes akin to the most ultra of ultra-marathons….

So, what can we do to provide meaningful and realistic focus on the employee experience? And, what is it that I talk about when I talk about Employee experience? Well, here are two key points that surface consistently:
  • First, to continue with the Murakami theme, the most important first step in our institutions is to make everybody realise that this is a long and testing race that we all must run. Creating the right experience for colleagues is not the preserve of one department – be it the ‘Human Resources’ department or of say a specific faculty that wants to enhance the way a team works together. But rather a focus on the employee experience is the responsibility of everybody, and that applies to both the ‘employer’ and the ‘employee’ alike – given that experiences happen minute by minute. Everybody has a role to play in thinking about how they are in the workplace and the impact their approach and behaviour has on the lived experience of others.  
  • Second, and despite the dispersed ownership in the field as referred to above, the advancement of the employee experience clearly requires a pacemaker, and that pacemaker invariably is the organisation’s (consistently carbo-loading!) HR department. In fulfilling this role, there are two hurdles that we, as HR Professionals, need to overcome. We need to constantly remind ourselves and others that employee experience is not simply a rebadge of other similar initiatives we have championed before. It may share links but it is distinct. In addition, we have to avoid the trap of falling into a universal ‘one-size-fits-all’ focus because of our individuality as human beings. In this respect framework and approaches that apply to all are of course required, but equally individual circumstances and relationships must be carefully acknowledged and fully appreciated.
At UCEA’s recent launch event for its research in, and resources about, Employee experience, it was so empowering to stand on the start line with so many buzzing and dedicated colleagues all keen to understand this concept better, and to support each other in our future focus. We had all run similar races before, and wear the battle scars of the HR professional; but there is a sense that things might be better this time. And that there is a growing appreciation across HE across different disciplines in the sector of the critical focus on the ‘employee experience’ at work, as well as the role and responsibility that all of us have to play in advancing its betterment.