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Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today Magazine

Moments of truth

Committing to building a great employee experience involves much more than rebranding your survey, says Leighton Abbot. Roll up your sleeves, it’s time to make a difference!

I remember it well, when “employee engagement” became part of my day-to-day conversations. If it seems strange that I should remember such a time, perhaps I should also mention that I was working for a small Auckland-based company called JRA, and our business was all about conducting and drawing insights from employee surveys.

For many people, the concept of engagement makes a lot of sense—the more that people feel “connected” to their employer and see the organisation as being worthy of their efforts, the more likely they are to say and do things that improve organisational outcomes. Our business gave employees a voice, assessed engagement levels, and helped many organisations become better places to work.

Over the years we shared inspirational stories of what organisations had done to achieve high engagement levels—building values-based cultures, designing leadership development programmes, improving communications, addressing poor performance, recognising outstanding performance, supporting wellbeing, and becoming more inclusive. These efforts improved the performance and prospects for many Kiwi employees and organisations.


In being involved for many years with what was ultimately known as the IBM Kenexa Best Workplaces Survey and Awards, I had the opportunity to get up close and personal with the data that was aggregated across all participating organisations.

One thing that I was particularly interested in was whether the survey process and subsequent programmes of work were, year-on-year, actually driving increases in engagement levels for the average organisation. We celebrated the improvements of individual organisations as part of the Awards programme, but of course they were more examples of “what’s possible” rather than “what’s normal.”

What I found was that the vast majority of organisations had engagement results that were essentially static. Sometimes their scores moved a percentage point or three up or down from last year, but unfortunately few organisations do enough across 12 months to meaningfully change the way it feels to work there.

I have been keen to understand why this might be. Why, despite investing in annual research and boldly setting expectations around change, do so many organisations not see improvement? Two things stood out: firstly, the purpose of traditional annual engagement surveys has been misrepresented; and secondly, surveys simply struggle to build a strong enough case to galvanise leadership into action.


In an increasingly data-driven world, engagement surveys seem to fit right in. They quantify things that are otherwise tough to put numbers to (eg, how people feel about stuff), and allow targets for improvement to be set.

Unfortunately, these numbers are not treated in the same way as business financials are. When costs get out of control, quick action is taken to rein them in; however, the same urgency is rarely applied to poor engagement levels, despite the related retention and customer experience impacts. While we would all laugh at the clichéd phrase “hope is not a strategy,” too often this seems to be the chosen path for improving engagement.

A common perspective shared with me over the years is that “the first survey sets a baseline, and the second survey establishes a trend.” So, years down the track as you’ve been waiting to see if your problems “really exist”, your people continue to deal with them.

The survey is promoted as a game-changer, but then treated as a scoreboard. It is little wonder that employee scepticism about engagement surveys flourishes!

As low leadership expectations for change continue across months and years, complacency builds, and the numbers lose any power they may have had.

Current thinking is that more regular surveys—monthly, weekly, even daily—provide more real-time insights and continuous conversations can occur. While this may be the case for motivated leaders, actual improvements will still be completely dependent on people acting on the survey data.


Engagement surveys appear to do a great job of aggregating the perspectives of lots of people down to a single number. However, numbers often do little more than point in a direction. “Sixty-four percent of people have confidence in leadership? Hmmm, that’s … well, that’s something. We should probably find out more about that.”

To supplement quantitative data, open-ended questions are normally included in surveys. I have often been told that the comments made to these questions provide the most valuable insights of all. It is a funny quirk of the survey that we spend so much time analysing responses to rating-scale questions, but are actually much more influenced by a few sentences typed into a box.

The reason for this is that people are naturally attracted to personal stories. The words that we choose and the inherent emotion are compelling in a way that numbers are not. And so the survey, which may use great analytics to identify your key drivers of engagement, often fails to create a sense of urgency amongst leaders.


Over the last few years the term “employee experience” (EX) has risen in popularity. There have been some rather dramatic misrepresentations made by some people when considering the related concepts of engagement and EX, two of which I think are worth addressing!

Firstly, please be assured that engagement is not “dead” or becoming less important. Engagement describes how people think, feel, and act when at work—it is an outcome of how the employment relationship is working out for the employee. If we believe that people have feelings, feelings influence actions, and actions affect organisational performance, then engagement will always be relevant.

Secondly, employee experience has been proposed by some as being an “evolution” of engagement. You will be able to identify this perspective when you are presented with a rebranded survey with accompanying (very familiar) action planning process where teams brainstorm, prioritise, and (hopefully) act on a list of initiatives. A shift in mindset is actually required for an organisation to take ownership of their employee experience.

Core to the early stages of employee experience design is to really understand your current employee experience. A survey provides shallow and impersonal data, and most popular tools explicitly depersonalise feedback. They can do a good job of broadly identifying strengths and issues, but tend to leave people wanting much more.

I have found that interviewing people 1:1 provides a depth of insight about experience that a survey never could. While current trends suggest we need more data and analysis, I have been much more impressed by the detail I’ve learned in conversation. I can also then share compelling stories with leadership in ways that I’ve never been able to before.

Once you understand your current EX, the next question is not “how do we improve it,” but rather, “how do we want people to feel?”. We have of course been taking this approach to customer experience design for years, and it’s great that there is increasing interest in treating employees like customers! This then leads us to hone in on those moments that matter.


Historically, the field of HR has identified many of the key moments in the employee lifecycle. There is plenty of “best practice” content available, and often many technology solutions, to support processes like recruitment, onboarding, performance reviews, and managing employment issues.

Unfortunately, many organisations design these processes as ones that matter most to themselves—to ensure compliance with legislation, to process people in volume, to “tick boxes.” The result is that the employee experience can be poor and at odds with their expectations.

If your organisation wants to deliver great employee experiences, you will look to understand what is most important to those working in your organisation, and what generates emotional reactions. What are all those baseline employee expectations (eg, ability to be productive), and where do you want your organisation to excel, distinguish yourself from others, and leave people feeling great? These are your moments that matter.


The moments of truth are where the rubber hits the road. It’s how you deliver on those moments that matter for your team—both the ones you’ve planned, and the spontaneous ones that are important to your people.

A typical problematic “moments that matter/moments of truth combo” for many organisations is that of employment branding and induction/daily work. Many organisations have allowed their employment branding communications to get completely out of touch with what it is actually like to work there, thereby overpromising and underdelivering. It’s a potent combination for poor EX.

Spontaneous moments that matter can sometimes be prepared for (eg, responding to a health and safety incident), but often the moment of truth is delivered by other employees or leaders in the moment. This is where a strong organisational culture can come into its own.

For example, if you have a value around caring for each other, unexpected life events such as illness or death are moments that matter. The way that people feel empowered to act in support will be noticed by many more people than just those directly affected.


With our attraction to (and possibly unhealthy love for) numbers, many New Zealand organisations have found themselves prioritising survey data collection over genuinely understanding what it is like to work there.

Numbers summarise how engaged people are, while at the same time we have this nagging sense that we’re ignoring things that frustrate people and affect their ability to perform. Survey numbers can also be tough to move, encouraging us over time to lower expectations of improvement.

Now is a great time to take stock of how you’re measuring, understanding, and taking ownership of the experience that your employees are having. If you’re finding that you aren’t able to tell the stories behind the numbers, you’re probably also finding it hard to build momentum for change.

If you’re interested in designing a great employee experience, look beyond the numbers; the future is to really, genuinely, listen.

LEIGHTON ABBOT is a senior client partner at Humankind. Visit

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