What’s the Difference Between Employee Engagement and Employee Experience?
By Sarah Johnson, PhD - September 24, 2021
Over the past two decades, an ever-growing number of organizations have set improving employee engagement as a goal. Engagement has become so widely accepted as an important business metric that it has its own Dummies title, Employee Engagement for Dummies. But even given its ubiquity, people still have different ideas or definitions about what engagement is and what it represents.
To add to the muddle, over the past several years, employee experience has become an area of increased focus, and there is a lot of confusion in the messaging. Is experience the new engagement? If not, what is the difference between employee engagement and employee experience? How does employee engagement relate to employee experience? And should we focus on engagement vs. experience, or vice versa?
In this article, we’ll define employee engagement and employee experience, how they relate to one another, and where efforts should be focused to increase engagement and improve the experience.
The Difference Between Employee Engagement and Employee Experience
To settle the first question from above, “Is experience the new engagement?” – the answer is “No.”
Employee engagement and employee experience have a symbiotic relationship. Perhaps the easiest way to think about them is in a process/outcome context, though it’s a bit more complicated than that since each one has an impact on the other. At the most basic level, engagement is the outcome of a positive employee experience.
What is employee engagement? Engagement describes how employees feel about the organization (an emotional attachment) and what they are willing to do as a result of that emotional attachment. When an employee is engaged, they feel connected to the organization and to their work, and they are willing to advocate for the organization to others and to remain with the company. Employees who are engaged are enthusiastic about their work and their organization, and are willing to go “above and beyond” in performing their work to help the organization succeed. Employees will engage when they can anticipate their success with the organization.
Employee experience, on the other hand, is everything else – literally. Employee experience broadly describes what it’s like to work in the organization and how employees feel about their experience within the organization. It encompasses the employee’s feelings about their relationship with their manager and co-workers, the physical environment of the workplace, their access to the resources needed to do their job, autonomy in their work, the development opportunities open to them, and more.
A deficit in any of these areas can translate into lower engagement. An employee who has a difficult relationship with their manager, for example, is much less likely to feel enthusiastic about their work. The same holds true for employees who lack access to resources or development opportunities. Deficiencies in important areas of the experience become barriers to engagement – they prevent the employee from becoming fully engaged and enthusiastic about their work and the organization.
Which is More Important – Employee Engagement or Employee Experience?
Leaders of organizations might be tempted to place more importance on employee engagement, for very good reasons. Numerous studies have demonstrated that higher levels of engagement correlate to higher profits, lower attrition, and better business outcomes. Clearly, engagement is critical to business success.
But it’s important to not put the cart before the horse. Engagement is an outcome, and as noted, it is symbiotic to the employee experience. A poor experience leads to a lack of engagement; too narrow of a focus on engagement scores can distract from doing the work necessary to improve the experience.
At Perceptyx, we measure engagement according to these four indicators:
- Intent to stay
- Referral behavior
- Pride in organization
- Intrinsic motivation
These four indicators are measured by asking employees to rate their agreement or disagreement with these types of statements:
“I intend to stay with the company for the next 12 months.”
“I would recommend the company to others as a great place to work.”
“I am proud to work for the company.”
“My work gives me a feeling of personal accomplishment.”
Employee responses to these statements allow us to determine current levels of engagement – but that’s all they can tell us. The difference between employee engagement and employee experience is that engagement measures provide us with the what, but not the why. Elements of the employee experience are the why of whether or not employees are engaged – and to find out what those specific elements are, we have to dig deeper. We have to ask employees to share their perceptions about the entire range of their experiences in the organization to determine what’s working and where there may be barriers to engagement.
There’s no disputing the importance of engagement – but it must be understood in relation to the experience; creating a positive experience for employees is the only path to high engagement. That requires a conversation with employees to identify where the experience should be improved – and a commitment to take action to improve it.
Focus On the Employee Experience to Increase Employee Engagement
As noted, employee experience covers a lot of ground. It is the sum total of employees’ experience working in the organization.
Many organizations focus on the experience in a very superficial way. But to really solve problems, we have to think about everything:
- Relationship with manager and co-workers
- Performance management
- Recognition for contributions to the organization
- Opportunities for development and advancement
- Feeling of accomplishment/contribution to the organization’s success
- Trust in leaders and their vision for the organization’s future
- Resources and support
- Diversity and Inclusion
To understand employees’ perceptions about their experience, we have to ask for their feedback on all of these elements. Only then can we see where barriers to engagement may exist.
The elements of the experience have a lot of moving parts, and to make it even more complex, barriers to engagement can vary across segments of the organization, whether those are locations, skill groups, or functions. But we can’t provide what our employees need unless we ask them about it.
As if it weren’t complex enough already, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, curating a positive employee experience has become more challenging than ever. Many organizations have adopted remote and hybrid work arrangements for a greater number of employees. This will significantly reduce the control the organization has over those employees’ experience and has a number of other implications. For employees working remotely, either full or part time, the line between the employee experience and their overall life experience is blurred; this will require a different skill set for managers supervising these employees. There are also significant issues of equity to consider and monitor in these new work arrangements – will remote and hybrid employees have the same opportunities for development and advancement? Organizations need to seek employee feedback – and be thinking three steps ahead to consider how they will address these challenges.
The key to removing barriers to engagement and improving the experience is ongoing dialogue between the organization and employees. A listening program tailored to the unique needs of the organization – with surveys designed to elicit employee feedback on the experience and issues of strategic importance to the organization – is one of the best ways of uncovering the insights needed to improve the experience, but it’s not the only way. Crowd-sourcing, company message boards, team conversations, or even one-on-one conversations between managers and employees are other ways to keep the dialogue going.
Most important is following through with action. If you’ve gone to the trouble to measure engagement and surveyed to find out where there is dissatisfaction with the experience, nothing will change without action. There’s no point in trying to find out why employees are disengaged or what is preventing them from engaging if you aren’t going to try to address the problem. In fact, asking without acting can actually drive engagement lower.
Remember: Engagement is the Means to an End
Don’t get the wrong idea – just because engagement is only the what, a number or score, it’s still an important number. However, it is not the end-all, be-all goal.
The goal is business success. The strong correlation between a highly engaged workforce and business success is the reason we’re striving to increase engagement in the first place. That correlation means that organizations that have achieved success have created an employee experience that enables that success.
Improving the employee experience by asking for and acting on employee feedback is how we can achieve high engagement and reap the rewards of its benefits. There is no quick fix; the work is long, incremental, and always continuing – but the payoff is a win-win for both the organization and its employees.
See the way forward to a more positive employee experience.
The Perceptyx platform gives you the flexibility to develop a listening strategy that fits the needs of your organization and identifies unsatisfactory elements in the employee experience. Combined with survey design assistance from our people analytics experts, you can zero in on the experience of employees in every part of your organization and identify the specific factors with the biggest impact on employee experience and perceptions.
Perceptyx provides support in addressing those issues as well, with easy-to-implement action planning. Our platform not only helps you keep your finger on the pulse of your people’s perceptions – it also helps you monitor actions and outcomes that help you build internal best practices to share throughout the organization.
Get in touch to see how we can help your organization improve the employee experience to increase engagement – and profitability.