In search of a working definition of employee experience (and EX)

Emma Bridger

3 Feb 2023
Employee Experience
One of the challenges working in a relatively new and emerging field like EX is that there is no consistent or commonly held definition of what exactly it is. There are, of course, numerous definitions of employee experience out there (arguably one of the hallmarks of an immature discipline!) but they vary widely and, in some cases and in our opinion, tend to over complicate an already slippery concept. 

Thoughts on definitions

So we want to offer our own perspective on this and our thoughts on definitions of both ‘employee experience’ and, separately, the professional practice of ‘EX’. We think it’s important to differentiate between the two.  

We don’t set these out as the perfect definitions, but hopefully they add to the debate and help those of us with a passion for this area to move towards a more common understanding. Anyway, let us know what you think and please feel free to challenge - only through healthy dialogue will we move this profession forward.

When it comes to definitions it’s important to draw a line between the holistic concept of employee experience itself (the ‘what’) and the professional practice of ‘EX’ (the ‘how’). They are, after all, two different things. 

The nature of experience

Before diving into that, however, let’s remind ourselves of the nature of ‘experience’ as this really is at the heart of it. Put simply, an experience is any event or occurrence which leaves an impression on an individual. Experience refers to conscious events in general, more specifically to perceptions, or to the practical knowledge and familiarity that is produced by these events. More than that though, whether good, bad or ugly an experience makes you feel something – it’s emotional, it’s heart more than head.

So, from an employee perspective, experiences can be anything that happens to the employee in a work context that leaves an emotional impression on them.

Working outwards from this core definition of experience, we can think about the overall ‘employee experienceas every event, occurrence or interaction between an employee and their employer which leaves an emotional impression on that employee.

A broad concept

As others have observed, it’s an extremely broad, multi-faceted and holistic concept. Some elements of it - some experiences - can be managed and orchestrated, while others cannot. Think about the overall experience associated with joining an organisation. The onboarding experience is often intentionally designed, however we also have to take into account how it feels on your very first day at work. For example, you might be made to feel welcomed and included or, alternatively, your new team might all head off together for lunch, leaving you on your own. Both are valid experiences, but they leave a very different impression.

Experiences have always existed and, similarly, employee experiences have existed since the birth of employment - there’s nothing remotely new here. 

The professional practice of EX, on the other hand, is new - according to some its use dates back no more than a decade.

From our perspective EX is:
"the intentional design and facilitation of the entire employee-employer relationship to enable the employee to thrive and perform at their best. This then unlocks engagement and drives organisational success. The professional practice of EX involves thinking about, influencing and shaping every interaction, from the moment an employee first thinks about joining an organisation, until long after they have left. It’s every aspect of that relationship, from what and how they are paid and how their first day at work felt, to the conversations they have with their manager and how it feels to be part of a team, to what it feels like to leave."
Breaking this down, the key elements are:
  • Intentional design - EX is planned and purposeful, using tools which put the employee at the heart of the design process.
  • Facilitation – it’s not just about designing big ‘set piece’ experiences, it’s also about facilitating the everyday experiences employees have and influencing others (e.g leaders and managers) to create positive experiences through their behaviour.
  • Employee-employer relationship – a recognition that experiences can be created with every touchpoint between employee and employer; it’s holistic and all encompassing.
  • Enabling the employee to thrive and perform at their best – great experiences enable employees to bring their ‘best self’ to work.
  • Unlocking engagement and driving organisational success – the employer benefits too through increased commitment, discretionary effort and improved performance.

EX and Engagement are not the same

This final point is hugely important to us - the two concepts of employee engagement and employee experience have become muddied in recent years and they are, mistakenly, now being used interchangeably in some quarters. This is a nonsense and it’s time to reconnect them and clarify the fit between the two. From our perspective, employee engagement is the positive outcome of great employee experiences - the two concepts go hand-in-hand but one is very much the result of the other. 

Of course, there’s a compelling argument that each and every organisation should take time to explore this topic and develop its own definition - or at least find one with the best fit.  Certainly, there is enormous value in engaging senior leaders around this topic and involving them in identifying what it is – because only by understanding the scope of it can we possibly hope to influence it. So we actively encourage you to craft your own version (if you do, please do share it with us).

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