Some reflections on EX, the role of managers in creating colleague-first experiences and the challenge of relentless change for all.

Investment in colleague-centricity is finally catching up to customer-centricity. We have many more conversations with our clients nowadays about people-first transformation efforts, focusing on experience design and giving colleagues the tools needed to put them in the driving seat of their own careers. But for all this progress, we inevitably hit barriers created by the overarching system/org structure, prevailing fixed mindsets and the need for new technologies to create the right conditions for the future of work. And then change teams seem to come right back to where they started – an org- & tech-centric view of the work to be done… a classic chicken & egg conundrum.

This interesting article from the Sainsbury’s Experience Design team takes an in-depth look at a practical example of building a strategy for colleague experience, which is full of interesting tools they used, learning and insights from their work to date – I thoroughly enjoy reading their blog on a regular basis. However, what strikes me most is the lack of focus on the role that leaders and managers play in making the colleague experience strategy a lived reality.

Managers as gate-keepers

Managers are often the gate-keepers of our day-to-day experience of work. They shape how we interact with each other, how we prioritise our work and the tools & techniques we leverage to get work done. Although some research from Culture Amp indicates that the old cliche of ‘employees don’t leave companies, they leave managers’ isn’t quite as straightforward as it sounds, their conclusions still indicate that this is a human problem, not a technical one:

“Our data showed that the percentage of people whose decision to leave an organization was driven by a manager or pay was roughly even at 12% and 11% respectively. Leadership was more than double that at 28%. Development opportunities came in at a whopping 52%, dwarfing the other factors as the primary factor for deciding whether to leave”.

Further research, carried out this time at Facebook (and summarised here in HBR), indicates that people quit jobs because of the way the job was experienced, which is indirectly controlled by a manager. So although not not a direct cause, it was still an area that the managers could influence and change:

“If you want to keep your people — especially your stars — it’s time to pay more attention to how you design their work. Most companies design jobs and then slot people into them. Our best managers sometimes do the opposite: When they find talented people, they’re open to creating jobs around them”.

What does this mean for org-wide Employee Experience (EX) efforts?

Many organisations are mapping their employee experiences from an HR perspective as a starting point for transformation. Mapping all the way from awareness and recruitment, through to the moment of exit and joining the alumni community, looking at the technologies, processes, and – less often – the ways of working used to achieve their goals.

From a transformation perspective, this is a smart move – research from Accenture shows that companies that get CX right increase profitability by 11%, yet those who also get EX right see an increase of 21%. Whilst the systems operating at an org-level are crucial to improving EX initially, they are only a part of the long-term puzzle; and because they are under HR’s more direct control, they are easier places to start. But the key to true, lasting EX transformation lies in the hands of managers and leaders – those who create our roles and those who orchestrate our work.

I feel like much of the time, when talking about transformation failure, managers take the hit. They need to be more future-focused (whilst not missing existing targets), they need to be courageous (whilst ensuring their leaders look like the heroes) and they need to learn new skills (whilst also role-modelling new behaviours to others). It has never been clearer that people management is a capability that not everybody possesses. We need to build new routes to the top that do not involve managing teams. Managers need to be allowed to specialise and collaborate to succeed, just like teams do. We have to stop expecting our managers to be self-sufficient islands, able to do it all.

Because now comes the hardest challenge of all: we need to ask them to start designing roles and orchestrating their team’s work to maximise individual employee experiences. This requires empathy, coaching, facilitation and org design as basic skills – not often part of the current job description of a ‘manager’.

The current management cadre is being squeezed between the old and the new, the future and the past, our Tayloristic tendencies versus the fast-paced, VUCA world of now. But a team of managers can pull it off – they could bring a diversity of understanding, experience and approaches to help teams really fly. Time to start laterally connecting our managers, helping them to use their individual strengths in service of many teams… maybe then they can start to prove what they are capable of building the future of work.