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A Sad Tale of Employee Engagement Gone Wrong

Your company’s workplace strategy for 2023 and beyond has stabilized, and employees are more or less back to their old routines or accepting of their new ones. Does that mean we can expect to see a diminished focus on employee experience?

Unfortunately, the answer will be “yes” for some companies—especially in the face of other factors impacting the business. Consider this anecdote shared with me regarding employee experience posture at a family-owned, privately held manufacturing company. This company recently laid off roughly 10% of its workforce, including the department created during the pandemic with the charge of optimizing employee engagement.

What I’m sharing comes from a manager at the company, but not somebody personally involved with the decisions around employee engagement. From their recounting and perspective, however, it seems the company recognized the rising interest in employee experience in the world at large and proceeded to create—and hire for—an employee engagement department without putting enough rigor around its decision. Not doing so led to one big mistake and a crippling problem.

The big mistake: The person leading the employee engagement strategy was a remote hire, in keeping with the times in which they were hired. However, most of the company’s employees weren’t remote nor, as plant workers or employed in the headquarters location, would they ever be. Working remotely—not even in the same city but in a different state and region—this employee engagement leader had no physical or emotional connection to other employees. They were, literally and figuratively, worlds apart.

The crippling problem: The big issue was trust. Surveys and polls are primary mechanisms for gathering information from employees about how they feel and how engaged they are with each other and the company. Especially for a company just launching an employee engagement initiative, conducting an employee survey is a basic first step. But employees at this company neither trusted the new hire who was so out of touch with their work-life reality, nor the survey process itself. They had no faith in assurances that their input would be anonymous, and so most opted not to respond at all, providing the employee engagement team no data with which to work. Managers themselves weren’t compelled to encourage participation, either, absent those assurances.

With factors such as these, this company’s employee engagement effort was a nonstarter. Executives did not convey the importance of the employee engagement initiative to employees, nor perhaps even believe it themselves. Certainly, they did not put the department head in a position to gain trust or institute meaningful change.

Of course, there’s no way of knowing whether, given more time, the employee engagement lead could have built an emotional connection with employees, driven up survey response rate to a usable range, and made measurable impact on employee experience. Surely, in the face of a big layoff, you would think the need to hone in on employee experience and put programs in place with the aim of creating a fully engaged workforce would be a priority. But alas, employee experience didn’t survive the cuts. Let’s chalk this up to another mistake on management’s part.

I’m sure with some poking around, I could find other similar stories of employee experience getting the post-pandemic shaft. And I’d not be surprised. About a year ago, I shared results from a global tech spending survey we conducted showing that while most companies anticipated continued healthy spending on employee experience for 2023, if the economy soured, that would change. In fact, spending on employee experience technology would be the first to go, ahead of professional services, peripherals, laptops/computers, workplace collaboration, customer engagement/customer service, security, and networking. And, as I had pointed out, HR is among the top three business units facing decreased spending in 2023.

This sort of potential shift is definitely on the industry’s mind. Employee experience application providers that I’ve talked to recently are paying close attention to any potential shift in attitude around the programs and tool adoption companies put in place during the pandemic. The good news is, from them, companies, and especially employees, Metrigy’s latest employee experience research shows that 34% of 499 companies surveyed still see employee experience spending on the rise, up an expected 11.5% on average from 2023 to 2024. And, only 5.6% say they’ll be decreasing their spend. The bulk of the remainder, 44.5%, will keep spending flat.