Head of ‘employee experience’… or just CHRO?

Aren't new-fangled heads of 'employee experience' just... CHROs?

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Aug 10, 2023

When – in 2015 – Mark Levy, switched jobs, changing from CHRO at AirBnb, to become the company’s global head of employee experience, the news of this odd-sounding change in job title naturally made headlines around the world.

Was HR as a concept we’d all come to know finally dead?

Was ‘employee experience’ the new silver bullet we’d all be waiting for someone to actually pull the trigger on?

Would HR now be reduced to this simple, arguably Millennial concept?

It certainly seemed that way.

AirBnb – like many growing companies – had reached an inflection point. It was a company had doubled in headcount, and because of this, it wanted to create a work environment which very visibly oozed its newest ‘belong anywhere’ mission statement.

As an interview with Levy in Forbes revealed: “If Airbnb had a Customer Experience Group, why not create an Employee Experience Group?

This sort of candid thinking clearly made him the perfect fit for new conversations about the function of HR.

He was also ex-head of talent at a branding a design agency. It was a match made it heaven and much of the chat that surrounded him talked about him ‘getting rid of HR.’

How an ‘experience’ bandwagon was started

HR was – sort of – got rid of. It’s probably more accurate to say that much of what was there did actually remain – just under a different guise.

The existing HR function, comprising groups split into talent, recruiting and a group called workplace culture were brought under new specialisms, such as compensation and benefits and facilities).

But, to the world’s press, the nuance was lost, and the die had been cast. Everything was now about ‘employee experience.’

Fast forward to the last few years especially, and there has been numerous pieces of research that suggest that it’s an ‘experience’ that employees now truly want (see box below).

And, as surely as day follows night, what follows these articles, are the inevitable articles written about the research. And so the momentum continues.

Experience seems to be having its ‘moment’

Just recently, a flurry of new pieces have been popping up, which all seem to suggest ‘employee experience’ is having is moment.

In February this year, WorkLife published a piece entitle: ‘Why employee experience manager is the hot new job’.

It quoted former head of employee experience, Kim Rohrer, who quite boldly declared that employee experience was “not HR; not people operations; not talent acquisition; not workplace design – it’s purely focused on what is the tip-to-tail experience that people are having.” Wow, strong words indeed.

A few months later, in April, Fortune also posted it’s own piece headlined ‘The Rise of the Chief Workplace Experience Officer’.

…but is HR’s task simply to stand back and pause?

Amongst these, and other articles, what exactly a good employee experience is ranges from having a job that gives them a sense of meaning/purpose at one end of the spectrum, to having one that doesn’t have enervating systems, processes, or policies that actually prevent, or frustrate them from getting what they need to get done.

What’s interesting about the Fortune piece however, is that this can be viewed as something of a post-Covid update on the potential that experience officers initially had before the pandemic. Back then, creating an exciting experience seemed easy. Offices could be glitzed up, as sensory, stimulating, ‘cool’ places. As long as workplaces looked and felt good, the job of creating a good’un.

But, with employees still resisting the return-to-the-office, Fortune now sees the chief workplace experience officer role as a predominantly digital one – about giving staff the technology they need to get their job done.

And so…cue another onslaught of employee experience data – mostly from technology providers – that suggest it’s having the best, most seamless, most familiar tech that drives the employee experience. Funny that.

So what are we supposed to read into all this?

Does HR now need to just throw a ton of dollars at getting some better technology in and hope the experience they seek ‘sticks’?

Should HR now be more concerned about the digital experience the workplace gives staff?

Is that really their number one concern?

The bad news is that it’s tempting to think this.

Earlier this year, LinkedIn pulled together its annual ‘Jobs on the Rise: 2023’ list – listing the 25 fastest growing roles in the US.

Fifth on the list was – drumroll – the ‘Employee Experience Manager’.

But, and this is the key – take a look at what it defines these people as doing:

An employee experience manager “oversees processes that support employee engagement, well-being and development within an organization, which may include training programs and mentoring initiatives.”

Well… not to be blunt about it, but isn’t this what a CHRO already does?

Are employee experience leaders the emperor’s new clothes?

One only has to look at some existing head of employee experience to find out that they all come from an HR background – see below:

Who are employee experience leaders?

Name: Jo Bartnickle:

Current: Global employee experience director, Unilever

Formerly: Global performance and talent services manager, and global HR change manager at Unilver.

Name: Davis Eguilar

Current: Head of employee experience, Diageo

Formerly: Global Payroll partner; and HR operations lead, Mondelez International

Name: Rachel Blanc

Current: Director of employee experience, GKN Automotive

Formerly: Global head of leadership and develop, Kingfisher; head of L&D Amazon (Europe)

So maybe, the real message that’s needing to be said is that while employee experience seems to be taking hold – even developing into a more tech-driven path, employee experience is still, arguably what HR already is.

As Levy himself said when asked what employee experience is: “My view on what great employee experience is, is creating an environment where employees can be their best self at work.”

That still sounds very much like an CHRO’s existing role.

So, is employee experience – is it the emperor’s new clothes?

Yes, arguably it is.

Experience has always been central to what HRDs have been tasked to do.

Whether it’s a digital or physical experience HRDs want to create, maybe what’s really being required is for HR folk to return to the basics of what their job has always been about (but not necessarily given that term).

So, if you’re worried about losing your job to an ‘employee experience’ manager, maybe you shouldn’t just yet.

BUT… maybe it is worth reflecting on what they’re being charged to do, and asking whether you yourself are doing this…


Is post-Covid employee experience all about a digital experience?

A recent poll by chatbot provider Capterra, was remarkably honest – revealing that nearly half (49%) of HR departments using chatbot technology are finding that instead of their staff embracing it, they’re actually complaining about it – and making their at-work experience even worse.

It also found only 67% of HRDs are themselves confident that the tech is delivering accurate information.

This is a worry, considering 41% of HRDs are currently considering getting some form of chatbot technology.

Digital Employee Experience (DEX): What the data says

Applaud’s recently published ‘2023 Digital Employee Experience Trends Report’ finds:

  • DEX solutions are moving away from being in the ‘nice-to-have’ category to being ‘business critical’ – with 63% of HR leaders looking into what technology can bring managers and their reports closer together.
  • 89% of companies say they expect technology to help them drive innovation in the HR department
  • 50% of organizations say they have improved their levels of DEX personalization for staff in the past 12 months.
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