The incredible, fractured Employee Experience - is EX ready for primetime?

Brian Sommer Profile picture for user brianssommer March 12, 2021
The view for now seems to point to a free-for-all space today and work is needed by HR, ERP and niche vendors to really get it on track for greatness.


There’s an awareness in HR and leadership circles that something needs to be done to improve employee retention and morale. Companies are trying to roll out new cultures, experimenting with new technologies and more just to stem the tide of employees leaving the firm. (One clueless HR executive actually thinks that changing the color of their logo can do the trick!)

This issue has urgency, too. In a recent comment by HR analyst Laurie Ruettimann, she states:

A majority of US-based employees are also sheltering in their jobs, waiting out the pandemic until it's safe to look for work elsewhere.

People are or will leave employers and too few employers know why. What businesses desire are:

  • Insights into the mindsets of employees
  • Insights into how processes and policies could be improved to prevent further attrition
  • Root cause identification of the factors leading to employee stress, work dissatisfaction, etc.
  • Methods to ‘fix’ their culture
  • Etc.

What businesses are discovering is that they need to fix the way employees engage with leaders, with each other, with their systems/processes and more. In other words, companies have to make a better employee experience possible if they want to retain the best and brightest people.

Unfortunately, the tech world is far from developing a single, comprehensive and effective solution to solving the Employee Experience (EX) problem right now.

EX is not 'a thing' – it should be a comprehensive program

With the Spring HR Technology show next week, it might be time to examine all of the fuss around EX and the noise around ‘engagement’, too!

Talk to different people and you get different definitions of employee experience. If you’re evaluating the options below, know that a case can be made for most every one of the line items present. Personally, I like the last one but there’s definitely merit in the others as well.


The one word that shouldn’t be present in describing employee experience is friction. Friction occurs when your jobseekers, alumni and employees are struggling to get answers, get something accomplished or be respected as a human being. Friction can be caused by obtuse leaders, confusing technology, a lack of access to subject matter experts, indifferent colleagues, a bad culture and more. You can’t be having a great employee experience if your work experience is full of those things.

A great employee experience is a laudable goal and one that more managers and business leaders should create. To create great employee experiences requires:

  • Imagination by software vendors
  • Empathy on the part of management
  • Insights into the workforce
  • Unvarnished view of the challenges and stress points workers face at home and at work
  • Reinvention/reengineering of some processes and technologies
  • Capturing the firm’s knowledge into highly accessible data stores (e.g., a chatbot powered Q&A system)
  • Fully digital and smartphone accessible applications
  • Attention to fulfilling requests in a highly responsive timeframe
  • And more!

EX is not just a technology problem that needs a technology solution. It’s an issue that impacts how people feel, how they value their employer, colleagues and their management. In fact, you can’t create great employee experiences if any of the four major pillars are missing. Specifically, employees can’t stand frustrating, high-friction internal processes that make it hard to get a job interview, get answers to payroll questions, to get reimbursed for T&E charges, etc. Employees need managers and top executives that walk the walk re: company culture and values.

Moreover, they crave leaders that can create a work environment that causes people to want to work there years longer than they would have otherwise. Employees also need technologies that make everything a self-service wonderland.

Finally, employees and employers need tools. Some tools can measure progress of different EX initiatives and solutions while others might contain codified knowledge that helps people do their jobs well.


Sadly, some technology vendors just aren’t in a position to offer much in the way of EX. So, we see a lot of incomplete and variable products being hawked these days.

The universe of incomplete EX solutions

Let’s first stipulate that there is no one definition of what constitutes an EX solution. It’s a free-for-all out there and marketers are branding all manner of technology and services as an EX solution. It’s a market with no guardrails today and that’s a real shame.

Of all of the EX products being hyped these days, some of the worst are what I refer to as ‘mood rings’.  (Note: Wikipedia has this excellent definition of a mood ring. “A mood ring is a ring that contains a thermochromic element, such as liquid crystal, that changes colors based upon the temperature of the finger of the wearer. Most new rings come with a color chart indicating the supposed mood of the wearer based upon the colors indicated on the ring.”). The EX mood ring can be some kind of smartphone app or quick survey tool that polls employees as to their general level of satisfaction at periodic intervals.

I seriously question whether these mood rings measure ‘engagement’ let alone promote a better employee experience. I’ve noticed some workers don’t like all of this polling and quickly learn to game the ‘tool’. Anything that gets gamed is probably not adding or creating any value or insights.

An equally dubious EX tool is the one-dimensional solution where firms can auto-magically fix their engagement or EX issue if they’d only get employees to:

  • Lose weight
  • Get control of their finances
  • Make better dining choices
  • Exercise more
  • Be more mindful
  • Reduce their blood sugar levels
  • Lower their blood pressure
  • Get more involved in social causes


  • De-stress their lives

These goals are great except vendors confuse causation with correlation. Yes, there are studies that show engaged employees to be more productive. And there are studies that show that people who aren’t worried/stressed out are more productive.

But, the inverse isn’t necessarily true. You could have an ideal body mass and still not be productive (e.g., you could be undergoing a divorce). So, making people lose weight doesn’t mean that productivity will increase. While it’s tempting to connect huge corporate bottom line gains to a one-shot goal, it might not work. Worse, when employees see management flounder through one after another miracle engagement or EX cure and not succeed, they become jaded. The lesson is to research these solutions and have a Plan B.

Some HRMS/HCM vendors offer up a modicum of employee experience functionality. Unfortunately, that might not be enough to declare victory. Why? The removal of friction within a firm’s technologies and processes may require access to applications beyond the HR suite vendor’s product set. For example, friction could be abundant in:

  • Travel & entertainment reimbursement processing - This may rest within the Accounting or Accounts Payable realm (not HR)
  • Timely payment of sales commissions and bonuses - This may reside in a special commission accounting or CRM solution (not HR)
  • Non-existent, incomplete or poorly designed self-service applications – If employees can’t get access to tools to alter retirement savings, sign-up for external education, etc., then they will get frustrated and disengage

But HR vendors could have the home field advantage of sorts in the EX front. Their solutions have the greatest concentration of employee-based data. If these vendors can offer outstanding self-service applications, especially self-service apps that run on smartphones, they can make the interaction with HR and Payroll relatively painless and timely.

That’s especially so if they can incorporate the contents of their business policies and other knowledge into an easily searchable (and action-oriented) knowledge base (e.g., think of a high-powered Siri for HR: “HR, can you change my number of dependents to 3 and schedule me for three days of PTO next week?”).  If HR can get its solutions to handle 90%+ of the in-bound calls it receives from employees digitally, then it can be a huge force for driving new EX gains.


But there is one EX area that almost no HR vendor wants to address: the behaviors of bad bosses/executives. Depending on the study you read, bad bosses account for ½ or more of personnel departures. There are even books dedicated to the plight of employees suffering from bad bosses. Yet, I’ve yet to meet an HR solution vendor that wants to train their software on identifying these miscreants. How can you claim to be a purveyor of EX solutions and consciously ignore this problem?

But EX and HR still have other hurdles. EX should cover future, current and past employees. Job seekers that have less than optimal hiring experiences with your firm, are less likely to come work with you.

Years ago, a major analyst firm tried to recruit me. They made me come to their office multiple times over the course of 4 months all the while forgetting what we discussed in prior encounters. That disorganized mess that firm called recruiting still colors my recruiting brand image of that firm. Interestingly, there is one group of HR firms that really understands the jobseekers’ needs/wants: Candidate Relationship Management vendors (e.g., Symphony Talent’s SmashFly). Those firms absolutely get this business requirement.

Alumni also have expectations of their past employer. If alumni encounter friction from HR in post-employment insurance issues, requests for tax documentation, etc., it can forever influence their willingness to help your firm and/or make them never to want to return to the fold.

So, does the real scope of an EX solution best rest with an ERP or HR solution provider? The ERP vendor is more likely to have more of the modules that could create or resolve a number of non-HR friction issues (e.g., T&E, Accounts Payable, tuition reimbursement, etc.).

But, other vendors aren’t going to let the HR and ERP vendors lay claim to EX without a fight. Service ticket/ITSM vendors (eg: ServiceNow, Cherwell) see opportunities to use their ticket technology and advanced technologies (e.g., chatbots, machine learning, etc.) to help employees get answers to questions and even resolve those questions fast. These tools could also use exception handling, workflow processing, problem escalation and other capabilities to help employees get things done.

Likewise, Customer Relationship Management vendors see their products as capable EX technologies. The same tools that can poll customers (e.g., NPS scoring or customer satisfaction surveys) could be tweaked to help understand the pulse of the firm’s workforce.

Where does this leave us?

EX may be best dealt with by a platform not a single app. This observation comes with the realization that EX is an end-state that employees should delight in not a bunch of applications.


An EX platform would contain a number of advanced technologies that when applied to a number of applications that employees use, would dramatically reduce friction and make for a more pleasant and productive work life. Readers should note that although many ERP and HR vendors claim to have these advanced technologies in their tech stack, they may not have actually enabled them in any meaningful way in all of their applications. Moreover, the way they do enable them may not be to improve an employee’s experience but rather makes a process incrementally more efficient. Those are different things altogether.

ERP vendor Zoho is taking this platform approach for their ERP suite. They teased industry analysts re: this last week but details are still under wraps for now. We’ll report on their progress when it’s announced.

My take

I don’t hold a lot of hope for many traditional ERP vendors to get EX right. Why? These firms are notoriously tone-deaf to customers and lack empathy. Remember these are the vendors that were still bragging to Wall Street about how recession-proof their revenues and earnings are when the pandemic was kicking into high gear last year. Empathy is just not in their skillset folks. If they can’t understand their customers, I doubt they’ll understand the people who work in those firms either.

To really ‘get’ EX, software developers would need to do primary research. They’d have to step into the shoes of the poor people who must use their software. And this means discovering how infrequent and super-users alike experience the products. That knowledge of how people must toil with their products would be uncomfortable. People don’t want to know how sausage and legislation happen and vendors don’t want to know how people struggle with their products.  Additionally, vendors would have to understand how much friction exists between their applications and those of competitors. That’s the world users live in – a world full of third party apps from many providers not just one.

Niche vendors will continue to offer up pieces of the solution and large vendors will try to duct-tape a number of application enhancements together and market it as an EX solution. These efforts will likely not be as robust as employers need. Worse, vendors won’t take on the psycho-boss problem as that boss could be the software buyer.

Bottom line - you should expect no clear leaders for now, but let’s remain hopeful.

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