The importance of being earnest (at work): Why employee experience matters
May 26 · 8 min read
I hope you’ll pardon my punning title. The Importance of Being Earnest is a play by Oscar Wilde in which the protagonists maintain fictional personae to escape burdensome social obligations. We see this all too often in the workplace—introverts need to maintain an air of openness and welcome engagement, while extroverts need to rein in their enthusiasm.
And when we switch the context from social obligation to work obligation, we can see how employees need to maintain a “healthy and positive attitude” despite personal or professional stresses, strains, and “microaggressions.”
Doug Tedder posed an interesting question on social media in May this year: What does employee experience actually mean? His position was that the phrase referred to how an employee feels when doing their work. And there’s a great deal of truth to that—“Does my work make me happy?” is a question we’ve all asked ourselves sometime (or perhaps, several times) in our careers. But I’d like to propose that the question has two parts, both of which are equally valid: first, “Does my work make me happy?” and second, “Does my work environment make me happy?”
Think of a support agent who loves helping people but has an abusive manager, or a highly skilled developer who loves their team but is bored by their project. They’re trying to balance the “joy of work” (happiness with what they do) with the “joy of working” (happiness with the conditions in which they work). Research has consistently shown that stress and unhappiness have serious impacts on physical and mental well-being, as well as on productivity. Beyond the research, there have been plenty of magazine articles, blogs, talks, and books on this topic; yet we find many organizations clinging to reductive management models that simplify human beings to cogs in a machine.
Happily, the tide is changing! While people-centric management isn’t yet widespread, ITIL 4 has chosen to reflect many of its principles as part of the best practice guidance because they are too important to ignore anymore.
At its core, ITIL 4 has placed a heavy emphasis on culture via the Guiding Principles, which were first introduced in ITIL 4 Foundation. Adopting principles such as “collaborate and promote visibility,” “focus on value,” and “think and work holistically” can help organizations break down communication barriers and silos, and foster collaboration based on a mutual sense of respect.
On the joy of work
The High Velocity IT publication has an entire section devoted to culture, covering behaviors like “trust and be trusted” and “accept ambiguity and uncertainty.” It also reflects on the importance of concepts such as ethics, psychological safety, and stress prevention. Let’s dive into that a bit.
A key aspect of people-centric management is to trust people doing the work—that is, to trust in their abilities and competencies to do that work—while at the same time providing them with a safety net (coaching, training, leadership support, etc.) to help them manage ambiguity, uncertainty, and even unexpected events or those that were out of their scope of control or influence (for example, a new feature doesn’t perform as expected, a sales deal falls through, a project gets delayed).
And this isn’t just about management trusting team members! Team members should trust each other and should trust that management is making the right decisions for them, the team, and the whole organization. Beyond that, there’s an element of trust required in any vendor relationship or partnership.
And trust requires an environment in which people feel safe expressing themselves. To quote the book: “In a safety culture, people feel trusted and valued. They are therefore more likely to point out risks than when they fear that this would damage their reputation and position.” There’s a fine line between expression and abuse, to be sure, but that’s why organizations must also foster a common belief and value system otherwise known as “culture.”
The Create, Deliver and Support publication extends this thinking by reflecting on the importance of results-based employee performance management, which focuses on the outcomes of employee actions and not the outputs. It’s the difference between “kept the CMDB up-to-date” versus “updated 200 configuration item records per month.” (Side note: Many years ago, I had a job which had the latter performance metric…and I was a consultant!) The guidance explains that this method “motivates individuals to improve their skills and competencies in order to achieve the desired results. It also works when there is more than one way to achieve the desired outcomes, which is often true in IT.”
On the joy of working
We’ve talked thus far about the “joy of work,” so let’s briefly discuss “the joy of working.” As I explained earlier, I use this phrase to refer to the satisfaction or happiness with the environment I work in. And this is also something that organizations often sacrifice for efficiency metrics.
Take, for example, the common process of employee onboarding. It’s a prime opportunity for employers to win the hearts and minds of new team members and, paradoxically, it’s one that is often squandered. In many (most?) organizations, there’s a lot of red tape and holdups in getting an employee set up, from getting the payroll system updated, to getting them equipment and access to systems they need to do their work. These touchpoints between employees and IT are frictions that can lead to negative feelings and emotions that ultimately demotivate staff before they’ve had a chance to start working! We often find that this friction is a result of teams and individuals working at cross-purposes due to siloed policies, targets, and metrics—for example, IT operations might be working to comply with information security policies that require rigorous documentation, to the detriment of an HR team that might be trying to onboard an employee within five working days.
The Drive Stakeholder Value publication provides guidance on how a “user journey” can describe the user’s experience from start to finish. The book describes how organizations can simultaneously have high touchpoint satisfaction scores but low end-to-end journey scores, as teams that manage individual touchpoints can lose sight of the user’s needs and outcomes. Using techniques like personas, scenarios, and journey maps can help organizations and teams understand how users experience the services provided, and design better journeys and touchpoints. The book also defines experience as the sum of “functional and emotional interactions with an organization”—you can see that delivering fully functional services to employees is no longer sufficient; organizations must also create a positive emotional interaction!
While guidance in the book applies the term “user” in a generic way, the Workforce and Talent Management practice applies many of these concepts to create an understanding of “employee personas,” and “employee journeys” that can be optimized to ensure that employees have the best onboarding, daily use, and offboarding experience of an organization or team’s services.
While Drive Stakeholder Value and Workforce and Talent Management Practice reflect on the user’s or employee’s experience of touchpoints and value creation, the Create, Deliver and Support publication provides details on how to map and optimize a value stream, which represents the (provider) organization or team’s work between touchpoints.
These techniques are supported by guidance in Direct, Plan and Improve that addresses topics such as collecting and analyzing user feedback (for example, using techniques like Balanced Scorecard), clarifying that value is a “combination of utility, warranty, and user experience.” The guidance also delves into creating goals or metric cascades in an iterative and collaborative way using collaboration tools and techniques to identify friction as quickly as possible.
Employee experience is also heavily influenced by past experiences, including how impacts of prior organizational change were managed. The book reflects that employees who’ve experienced a lot of change within the organization may resist new initiatives because they suffer from “change fatigue.” I believe that individuals carry their sense of “change fatigue” when they switch jobs, as they change established routines and build new relationships. Once again, the importance of good employee onboarding comes to the forefront!
Creating the “joy of work” and the “joy of working” are two necessary conditions for creating a positive employee experience. Combining the guidance from across ITIL 4 publications can help organizations create an environment that is not only a pleasure to work in, but also one that offers rewarding and motivating work opportunities. Thus, both the employer and employee co-create value.
About the author
Akshay Anand, ITSM Product Ambassador, AXELOS Global Best Practice