Optimizing the next-gen employee experience via smarter online tools is the future of the hybrid workplace

Originally published in the Globe & Mail February 18, 2021

Employee experience has been a hot topic for HR and executive teams for years, coined as a term to capture all that employees encounter in their tenure at an organization. Just as marketing teams focus on deepening relationships by creating excellent, seamless experiences for customers, so too have HR and executive teams for employees.

The result is the emergence of Employee Experience platforms (EXP) – the next-generation incarnation of “employee portals” designed to help employees manage all work-related and HR tasks. Looking back, we could never have anticipated how critical this piece of technology would be for what was to come in 2020, a year that was all about getting everyone online safely and quickly.

Now in 2021, these platforms can help break us out of the tendency to carry out our days online in the same way we used to in person. Instead of the same, often unproductive lengthy meetings, we should aim to create workdays that reduce burnout and enhance engagement, performance and productivity in a hybrid working world.

The challenge is in integrating a multitude of HR and workflow-related technologies in a frictionless way. Providers like ServiceNow and Workday have offered solutions for HR and IT to more seamlessly manage information and processes (Workday also recently announced that it would acquire Peakon, an employee survey platform). The launch of Microsoft’s Viva platform earlier this month is also notable, as it’s the first such platform to bring tools for collaboration, learning and well-being into one central place. As EXPs continue to evolve, employees will be able to take more ownership of their experience along three important dimensions:

Collaboration: In the shift from analog to digital, many of us have developed a love/hate relationship with virtual meeting tools. On one hand, they are our best option to simulate face-to-face meetings. But on the other, countless hours staring at screens is causing extreme fatigue. According to a recent study by McKinsey, 60 per cent of respondents indicated they are struggling with connectivity and belonging through the pandemic (with racialized employees struggling more). This number is shocking but not surprising, given the social interactions that cannot be replicated online. We need to find creative ways to collaborate outside of traditionally defined meetings: 2021 is the year to optimize features such as virtual whiteboarding, shared drives, microsites and more. The goal is to enable a more productive and inclusive working environment whereby we are not exclusively relying on meeting recordings and late-night calls to keep our global colleagues in the loop.

Learning: 2020 taught us that learning successfully is not measured by the number of hours spent in an instructor-led training session. “Learning in the flow” is increasingly important as employees have less time and patience to access seemingly endless content which is not immediately useful. They need access not just to training content, but to just-in-time practical knowledge. This happens formally through traditionally defined learning assets and also informally through person-to-person interactions. The next generation of employee experience more seamlessly enables user-generated content sharing (as we are already accustomed to via social-media platforms like YouTube and TikTok) to promote a culture of continuous learning. To activate this broader approach to learning, we need to reframe each activity, task, meeting or moment as a learning or teaching opportunity. Then, by leveraging tools like learning platforms and knowledge portals (ideally integrated into an EXP to reduce user friction), knowledge can be captured and shared at scale, in the flow of work.

Well-being: We’ve recognized for years that healthy employees are more engaged and more productive – and that an enterprise-wide focus on holistic well-being leads to lower absenteeism and presenteeism. However, as well-being is so deeply personal, how can organizations provide offerings that address all employees’ unique needs? One way is through data – in this dimension, companies are only just starting to explore the possibilities of integrating wellness data directly into productivity tools. For example, Microsoft’s Viva allows users to access personalized analytics such as how many “long and large” meetings they have (which have been shown to result in lower productivity) and how much “quiet time” they’ve had. Based on this data, employees can create “virtual commutes” to mentally bookend remote workdays. Another example is Toronto-based health care benefits app League, which provides real-time health data as part of their platform to enable better decision-making at an enterprise level.

As companies continue to refine the next-gen employee experience for a hybrid working world, a few things are becoming clear: Using data to create personalized experiences that prioritize well-being, collaboration and learning are more important than ever – a responsibility shared by enterprises, managers and employees alike.

Naomi Titleman Colla is the founder of Collaborativity Inc., a Toronto-based consultancy focused on driving progressive talent strategy in the new world of work. She is also a co-founder of Future FoHRward, a Josh Bersin Academy partner.

Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.