HR Leaders: It’s Time to Build Your XM Skills

Over the last few years, it’s been great to see a rising number of HR professionals focusing on Employee Experience (EX) and driving more engaged, high-performing workforces. This has only enhanced my belief that EX represents a critical opportunity for the entire HR profession to increase its value.  

By definition, EX is the collection of experiences and interactions that employees have with their employers. But despite the increased focus on EX, many of the HR leaders that I’ve worked with over the past few years find this effort daunting and many still leverage decades-old approaches. 

That’s why I decided to write this post about an organizational capability that will equip HR professionals to manage and master EX. This capability, called Experience Management (XM), is defined as:

The discipline of using both experience data (X-data) and operational data (O-data) to measure and improve the core experiences of a business. 

And one of the most foundational of those core experiences is the employee experience (EX).

Now, most organizations do measure and improve certain components of their employees’ experiences. And many have even built formal people analytics functions and teams to produce insights and implement changes. This ad-hoc approach to EX, however, represents only the most basic level of XM. 

The Role of XM in HR

While many organizations focus on isolated approaches to managing EX, very few have built XM into a discipline. As a discipline, XM requires a sustained focus; it’s not a project or two that an organization implements and then suddenly “achieves.” In fact, among the hundreds of HR departments I’ve worked with, the ones with the highest levels of XM maturity are the ones that constantly feel like they are behind and look for ways to improve.

Another hallmark of XM is that it involves the combination of X-data and O-data. While most organizations have multi-instrumented O-data systems in place to collect and manage employee operational data, like course completion rates, employee productivity, turnover, etc, their X-data systems are lacking. That is, organizations know a lot about what is going on with their employees, but not nearly enough about why it’s happening.

XM combines the power of what and why with a set of operational processes for putting those insights into action. Specifically, XM helps HR teams to:

  • Continuously Learn. XM helps organizations more effectively sense and interpret what’s happening to employees, how they are behaving, and why. For example, employees’ needs, wants and expectations are always changing, as are organizational priorities, and HR teams need formal, flexible mechanisms to keep up with these changes.
  • Propagate Insights. XM helps organizations put actionable intelligence in the hands of people across their ecosystem who can use it, creating seamless access to the right information, in the right form, at the right time. As the organization collects insights from its workforce, it must act on them. And in order to act on them, those insights must be available and consumable to senior leaders, frontline managers and individual contributors alike. 
  • Rapidly Adapt. XM helps organizations act on the insights they’ve uncovered at an increasingly faster pace, finding ways to create new experiences and renovate existing ones. Senior business leaders, HR teams and people managers need to make changes faster than ever, especially during times of major disruption and crisis.

Operationalizing XM Across HR

How can you weave the XM discipline across HR and across your EX practices? By focusing on three areas that we call the XM Operating Framework:

  • Competency. To gain value from XM, HR teams need to expand their skill sets and develop new approaches for gaining and using insights. Competencies are the skills and actions that ultimately establish XM as a discipline. We’ve identified six XM Competencies: LEAD, REALIZE, ACTIVATE, RESPOND, ENLIGHTEN, and DISRUPT. 
  • Technology. To master the competencies at scale, organizations need a flexible, scalable platform that is capable of collecting, analyzing, and distributing insights to the relevant people and processes. This technology empowers everyone to understand and – more importantly – take action on the insights generated from both X-data and O-data. Technology also helps core EX teams create modern X-data systems that operate more like O-data systems, collecting employees’ attitudes, thoughts and feelings in seamless, automated ways. 
  • Culture. For XM competencies to thrive, companies need to foster an environment that instills XM-centric mindsets and behaviors in their leaders and employees. Most organizations have established ideal cultural values which are represented by artifacts and underpinned by underlying beliefs. When these artifacts, values and underlying beliefs are aligned with XM, not only do XM mindsets and practices grow, but so do business outcomes.

Starting Your Journey Towards Employee XM

So how can you move from ad-hoc employee surveying or disjointed EX efforts to true employee experience? Here are 4 simple steps to get started. 

  1. Learn more about the XM Operating Framework. Specifically, start by focusing on the six XM Competencies. While culture and technology are critical enablers of XM, the competencies are the most foundational and directly actionable for HR leaders. 
  1. Assess your current EX Maturity. Once you’re familiar with the competencies within the XM Operating Framework, it’s time to assess your organization’s current maturity. We’ve developed a short assessment designed for HR leaders and practitioners. As you take the assessment, be honest; there is absolutely no benefit to inflating your scores.
  1. Learn about the State of EX Management. We conducted a study of large, North American organizations of their EX maturity. Within the same report as the maturity assessment is a summary of our findings. This report will help your benchmark your organization against others who’ve taken the same maturity assessment. 
  1. Join the XM Professional Network (XMPN). At the XM Institute, we have created the XMPN which connects XM professionals across all experiences (employee, customer, product and brand) and facilitates greater learning and education. Click here to register. 

A final benefit of XM is that it is a singular capability that organizations can leverage across the core experiences of business: customer (CX), employee (EX), brand (BX) and product (PX). Personally, one of the most rewarding aspects of XM is that it has introduced new and innovative ideas from the other pillars to greatly enhance its application to EX!

How to Provide Certainty Even During Times of Uncertainty

Last month, at the XM Institute, we held our second ever XMPN Virtual Meetup. We met with experience management (XM) professionals from around the world, with most reigning from the APJ region and Africa. 

The bulk of the conversation was centered around applying XM during this time of crisis. We anchored this part of the discussion around four experience design-based tips for leaders, one of those tips being “choose certainty over uncertainty.”

The importance of this tip was emphasized by an XM practitioner from New Zealand who pointed out that organizational leaders are struggling to communicate with certainty because of the uncertainties at the national and local governmental levels and the uncertainties among the leaders above them in the organization. In other words, uncertainty has a tendency to spread. 

This got us thinking – while these chains of uncertainty are common, they are certainly not necessary!

Why Choose Certainty over Uncertainty?

As many of us are learning the hard way right now, humans respond much better to certainty than uncertainty, even when the certainty might be bad news. Many airlines have come to embrace this principle, communicating things as simple as flight delays with detailed timelines and updates. Flight delays are almost always bad news, but knowing what, why, and when helps us (as consumers) manage and cope. 

In fact, in times of crisis and uncertainty, human beings actively seek out certainty and stability. And this is the case for many employees and customers around the globe right now. 

How to Break the Chain of Uncertainty

While uncertainty spreads aggressively when left unchecked, here are 3 simple steps that leaders can take to break the chain:

  • Make the uncertain, certain. First, clearly lay out the issue and acknowledge the uncertainty facing everyone. Avoiding the issue can actually make things worse. For example, many remote employees are wondering if and when they might be asked to return to the office. And for many organizations, there is no definitive answer to this. As a leader whose employees are looking to you for guidance, be frank with them that you don’t know and neither does the organization. That fact, at least, serves as some form of certainty.
  • Clearly share what is certain. Next, transition to communicating what is certain, even if the news is not great. Building on the scenario above, while you may not know for sure if and when the team will return to the office, what you do know is that it is not for at least the next three weeks. Share those details and outline the relevant state or local guidance your company is relying on. Also share any known dependencies, such as if and when your team returns to the office, there will be new policies and procedures in place to protect people. 
  • Provide a path for more certainty. Finally, build on what is certain by sharing any known timelines for when updated decisions may be made. For example, you may let employees know that you will be providing updates every Wednesday with the latest information. You could also share the resources that you are using to drive the decisions, which will allow them to stay informed. This step requires some work upfront on your part but is well worth the effort. 

In summary, even when we are surrounded by uncertainty, it is almost always possible (and highly desirable) to provide some level of certainty.

Managing the Working-From-Home Employee Experience

Last week, my colleagues Steve Bennetts, Sally Winston, and I held a webinar (watch it here) focused on how organizations should manage their employees’ work-from-home experience. While we covered several meaty topics, we also tried to keep the discussion light and lively. In fact, we covered this topic while working from our own homes and at certain points during the webinar, you can clearly hear children playing and laughing in the background. This is indeed the world we are living in right now! 

Importantly, each of us represented different global regions, with Steve based in Sydney bringing perspectives from the Asia, Pacific region, Sally based in London with perspectives from the EMEA region and myself, based in the U.S. bringing a North American perspective. 

Here is a summary of our discussion:  

  • Organizations must understand the human experience cycle. We started the discussion by anchoring on a basic understanding of the human experience cycle. This is a foundational concept for experience management (XM) that explains the determinants and outcomes of human experiences. We focused heavily on expectations – a core component of the human experience cycle that influences how humans perceive experiences. Among the components of the cycle, we agreed that organizations have the greatest direct impact on the experiences they deliver to their employees and the expectations they set and manage. We also agreed that employee expectations of their employers are very likely to change in the future, based on the dramatic and emotionally-charged experiences they are going through right now. 
  • Now is the time to adjust Employee Experience (EX) Management programs. Next, we dove into the most tactical topic of the webinar, starting with an overview of our research that employees want to be asked for feedback during times of change and are actually more engaged when they are. This is precisely the time when organizations should ask their employees for feedback. However, we also vehemently agreed that conducting a business-as-usual survey is not appropriate and that organizations must be extremely sensitive to employees’ concerns and uncertainties (e.g., safety, job security). We closed this section by concluding that one of the hallmarks of a strong EX Management program is its agility and we pointed to resources that answer other common, tactical questions about EX management programs. 
  • Employee health and well-being must be top-of-mind. To be clear, organizations should always be concerned with employee health and well-being but it is especially important right now. Many employees are working remotely for the first time ever and have lost their social networks (at least physically). This has the potential to dramatically impact employee mental health and physical well-being. Steve Bennetts, who brings a strong background in clinical psychology and workplace safety, explained that “employees are having a normal reaction to abnormal events”. He suggested that organizations and its leaders attempt to “normalize” peoples’ reactions to this unprecedented situation. We closed this section by discussing practical tips for people leaders managing remote teams such as creating new, virtual touch bases (e.g. daily standups, virtual lunches, virtual happy hours) and getting to know employees in this new, virtual world. The latter point is important because employees may behave very differently in this novel environment. 
  • Strong people leadership is even more important right now. While there are tons of articles providing direct tips for remote workers, we acknowledged that far less has been published for people leaders. As our founder and CEO, Ryan Smith, pointed out in his recent article, “right now the work needs leadership, and it has to start with people managers”. We discussed several global examples of organizations that have actually created sub-task forces focused specifically on front-line people leaders and the ways in which they have trickled tips and tricks. Our discussion ventured into performance management and goal setting and how people leaders play a critical role in continuously aligning their newly-remote workers’ goals and expectations.  
  • Employees’ expectations of their employers are likely to change. Our discussion came full circle, back to the human experience cycle and the role of employee expectations. Here are 3 changes to employees’ expectations that we think are likely to persist:
    1. Employees will expect to bring their whole selves to work. Employees will expect that the blending of their personal and professional lives will not be counted against them in the future.
    2. Employees will expect more workplace flexibility. Not every employee will want to work from home but many will expect more flexible policies from their employers in the future.
    3. Employees will expect greater global alignment. While the COVID-19 pandemic is certainly a horrific global event, it is also globally unifying and employees will expect an increased level of global alignment in the future.

All in all, we thoroughly enjoyed our conversation and we all learned something about how different global regions are handling this crisis. Our overarching conclusion from the session was that organizations that are focused on XM during this time, are the ones who will thrive when this crisis ends.

Adjusting Your Employee Experience Program In Times Of Crisis

In times of organizational crisis and change, the company looks to their HR leaders for guidance and reassurance. This is especially the case, now, given the disruptions associated with COVID-19 and the related economic crisis.

So how can HR and employee experience (EX) leaders help their organizations appropriately manage employees’ experiences during these trying times?

The same way that all experience management (XM) professionals can: “by enhancing the capability to continuously learn how people are thinking and feeling, propagate insights into the hands of people who can take action, and rapidly adapt in this dynamic environment,” as Bruce Temkin points out in a recent article.

In most cases, this means making adjustments to the EX Management program.

5 principles for making changes to your XM program

As organizations consider changes to their EX management programs, it is important to anchor on foundational XM principles that apply to all XM professionals during times of crisis:

  • Show humanity. As you ask employees for feedback, you must be ultra sensitive to their existing circumstances and concerns and be clear about how the collection of their feedback can help them. In times of crisis, employees’ concerns shift to the most fundamental of needs such as their health and safety and whether they will have a job tomorrow.
  • Take a hiatus on metrics. Major organizational disruptions can have a dramatic impact on employee survey responses and scores. For example, many organizations observe drops in survey scores shortly after mergers and acquisitions. At times like this, you should still ask employees for feedback, but your focus should be on what’s important to employees right now, not on metrics and historical comparisons.
  • Ask less, listen more. As you adjust your existing employee listening strategy, shift your measurement approach to be more open-ended and less anchored on what questions have been asked in the past.
  • Build up your immediate response skill. Following up with employees on their feedback is always important, but it is even more critical in times of crisis. One of the core competencies within the XM operating framework is “RESPOND”, which is all about how organizations respond to and act on feedback. During these times, take greater care to ask about what you can act on, get feedback to the people who can do something with it, and communicate, communicate, communicate with your employees.
  • Accelerate your feedback cycles. Building on principles 3 and 4, it’s critical that you collect, manage and respond to feedback as quickly as possible. For most organizations, this likely means introducing new or different types of listening mechanisms, such as always-on feedback to digital employee experiences.

Common EX program questions in times of change

Over the past several weeks, we fielded dozens of questions from our EX clients and partners about the specific changes they need to make to their EX management programs during this time of crisis. While this is certainly not an exhaustive list, here are answers to the 7 most common questions we’re currently being asked:

1. Timing for annual employee census – should we delay?

While there’s no one right answer to this, there are a few practical approaches that could make sense. Remember the first principle – show humanity. Much of the content of traditional employee census surveys will be (and will be perceived by employees) as irrelevant right now.

This was a key topic of a recent conversation we facilitated with numerous EX survey experts and the consensus was that this is precisely the time to survey employees but not about business-as-usual topics and themes.

In line with this, we have observed two productive responses to this issue. Mainly that organizations have either:

  • delayed their annual census but temporarily implemented targeted pulse surveys that focus on content that is highly relevant and actionable, or:
  • moved forward with their census but made significant adjustments to the content to be highly relevant and actionable

2. Should we adjust our expectations for survey response rate?

Organizations should expect to see changes in survey response rates, just as they would survey scores.

It is my belief, however, that the current disruptions from COVID-19 won’t directly impact response rates as much as when, how and why surveys are administered.

For example, one might argue that response rates will go down because ‘filling out surveys’ is the last thing on employees’ minds right now. That could indeed be true if the organization rolls out the same business-as-usual survey(s) as it has in the past.

On the other hand, the organization may actually observe an increase in response rates if it creates timely and relevant content, communicates a clear value proposition to employees, and asks for feedback in a seamless (effortless) way. Much like survey scores, we recommend taking a hiatus from tracking response rate metrics but if organizations apply the 5 principles above, they may very well see response rates increase!

3. How should we compare trends to past surveys?

It is very likely that survey scores will be impacted in some way. For many traditional census survey themes, organizations may observe score drops from past years, that are at least partially impacted by these disruptions.

But it’s also possible to see increases in certain areas, especially around communications and trust in senior leadership, if the organization is emphasizing these areas.

However, as we highlighted in the second principle above, survey scores and metrics should not be your main concern right now. Take a hiatus from your metrics, especially if they keep you from focusing on what’s important and actionable now. There is a time and a place for score trending, now isn’t it.

4. Should survey scores influence compensation?

Firstly, in almost every case, we recommend that organizations not incentivize leaders based on survey scores. However, we recognize that this is a reality for some organizations. Given the likelihood that survey scores will be impacted, this is an opportunity to refocus incentives on the actions leaders take in response to employee feedback vs. the survey score or metrics themselves.

In fact, when organizations implement incentivization tactics, it is usually a well-intended effort to build accountability for action. With any luck, this temporary change will stick and continue in the future!

5. What should we ask employees?

It is impossible to create an exhaustive list of topics that covers all situations and that is precisely why the 3rd principle – ask less, listen more – is so important during these times. In some organizations, a refined list of these timely, relevant topics may come from direct conversations with employees, open-ended items, focus groups, etc.

Nevertheless, in my recent discussion with several employee survey experts, we aligned on several timely and critical topics:

  • Personal safety and employee well-being
  • Roadblocks to getting work done
  • Ways that the organization can support employees better
  • Frequency and quality of communications about process and policy changes
  • Concerns meeting customer needs
  • Perceptions of senior leadership and their communications

Other areas that our internal experts and organizational psychologists recommend for certain companies, include:

  • Effectiveness of change management efforts
  • Role/job clarity in the new work environment
  • Perceptions of workload in the new work environment
  • Autonomy and empowerment
  • People leader enablement

6. Should we make adjustments to lifecycle surveys?

One of the hallmarks of mature EX management programs is that they are never static.

It’s critical that your EX measures are always relevant, timely and impactful to employees and the business.

If your core people processes, such as your candidate and new hires processes, have been disrupted in the short term, we recommend temporarily adjusting the survey content or if it’s more practical, pausing the existing surveys and creating separate instances of those measures while the temporary processes are in place.

7. Collecting feedback for both work from home and on-site employees

Applying the first principle, you should first acknowledge that many of these employees are in harm’s way at work and in some cases, for the first time in their careers. So before asking for any feedback, make sure that you show genuine appreciation for the work they are doing.

Secondly, acknowledge that they may be more concerned with their personal safety at work than ever before. These should come through in the communications surrounding any request for feedback.

From a practical perspective, surveying these employees usually requires different distribution mechanisms. Before deciding on a single distribution mechanism, ask yourself whether it is possible to survey those employees safely (i.e., without diverting their attention from critical/ dangerous work tasks, without increasing their exposure to the virus, etc.).

If the answer is no, use other listening mechanisms such as focus groups, one-on-ones and skip-level conversations. If the answer is yes, ask yourself whether there are technology-mediated or digital experiences that these employees engage in. Look for opportunities to embed surveys, questions, and feedback in those systems they are already using, e.g., point of sale devices, internal portals, mobile devices, etc.

Originally posted on the Qualtrics Blog.

Why I joined the XM Institute: HR to EX to XM

Note from Bruce Temkin: This is the first (of many) posts that will be written by thought leaders besides me. I’m thrilled to have Ben Granger join our Qualtrics XM Institute team and contribute to this blog.

Today, I am excited to announce that I have officially joined the Qualtrics XM Institute! I am joining a fantastic team of XM researchers and visionaries.

For the last 15+ years, I have been deeply immersed inside of the world of HR and recently, within the growing subfield of employee experience (EX). And this space is hotter than it’s ever been! Which begs the question (which I have asked myself many times) – why the change?

As Qualtrics, and now, SAP, introduce the category of experience management (XM) to the business world, I have viewed HR and EX through a different lens. One that makes EX look surprisingly similar to the fields of customer experience (CX) and traditional market research.  

Over the last 4 and half years, I have worked with hundreds of HR leaders all over the globe. And among them, I recognize an undeniable appetite to learn from their peers doing similar work with their organizations’ customers and future customers. For me personally, some of my greatest learnings have come from non-HR professionals – exceptional researchers like Carol Haney and Bruce Temkin and methodologists like Dave Vanette and Steve Snell have greatly influenced the way I consult my clients…about EX!

Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that some of the most innovative and intriguing EX programs that I have come across, are led by former CX program and marketing leaders. 

The alignment between EX and XM became readily apparent to me when Bruce Temkin and I sat down for an interview a few months ago. As is always the case when Bruce and I chat, we got lost (in a good way) talking about “big” ideas and possibilities for XM.

In fact, as I learned more about the discipline of XM and it’s foundational frameworks and principles, I saw in them, solutions (answers) to many of the problems (questions) that I and those HR leaders that I’d built relationships with were trying to solve.

In some ways, I felt that HR and the related fields of IO Psychology and EX were already deeply immersed in certain XM activities. For example, IO Psychology has built an incredible body of academic research to support many of the EX measures that organizations leverage today.

But, I also felt that HR/ EX was well behind in other areas. For example, measuring employee experiences in seamless and conversational ways, designing processes that are consumer-grade, translating raw data into consumable and actionable insights. I sometimes summarize these (over simplistically) as a lack of creativity. There is so much left for us to learn from XM!

While my move to the XM Institute is partially self-serving (I want to expand my knowledge and expertise), I suspect that my personal transition from HR to EX to XM is simply a microcosm of   a major industry trend. A trend of organizations aligning their XM principles and practices and building bridges across all of the experiences that they must manage and master (customer, employee, brand, product, etc.).

And for those not totally convinced that this trend is real, ask yourself these simple questions.:

  • Are employees and customers going to be more or less demanding of organizations in the future?
  • Will employee and customer acquisition and retention become more or less challenging in the future?
  •  Will alignment across the core experiences (e.g., employee, customer, brand) become more or less important for organizations in the future?

Likely everyone who reads this will answer “more” to every question. I have yet to find anyone who has not. 

I rest my case.

 Throughout my career, my passion has been around building and improving the experiences of employees at work and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. But I am extremely excited to be joining an exceptional group of researchers and thought leaders and to help bring XM to the business world!