Why employee experience trumps company culture

Company culture is a hot topic, but studies on employee engagement suggest perks alone don't translate into happier workers. It might be time to ditch your company culture and focus on your employee experience.

Focusing on employee experience
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There's been a lot of talk about engagement in the workplace -- whether or not employees are happy and satisfied, and what that means for their work performance. In a two-year study of the American Workplace, Gallup found that as much as 70 percent of the U.S. workforce is not engaged at work. This isn't a recent trend, either. The report indicates that over the past 15 years, engagement has consistently held under 33 percent.

Engagement is often tied to company culture -- the idea being that providing the right perks and environment for your workers will boost engagement. But the stats suggest that the past few years of focusing on company culture hasn't done much to boost engagement. That's why Aye Moah, chief of product at Boomerang, a company focused on productivity software, suggests backing off company culture and focusing on the "employee experience."

What is the difference between company culture and employee experience? "A company's culture is the atmosphere that results from the collective actions and attitudes of employees in the workplace, whereas employee experience is specific to each person," she says.

Employee experience is about the day-to-day workplace, relationships between coworkers and your employees' values and goals. Alternatively, culture is more about benefits and perks, like flexible work schedules or unlimited PTO and free food in the break room.

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Breaking past culture

Startup culture played a large part in how companies began to view their office space and employee benefits as companies like Google and Facebook -- startups at the time -- were offering workers quirky and unique work spaces, relaxed dress codes, free lunches and wellness programs. Slowly, larger corporations looking to compete for top talent began offering similar perks. Today, you'd be hard-pressed to find an office that doesn't, at the very least, offer its employees an on-site gym, wellness programs and flexible hours.

And, while Moah points out that these are perks employees can certainly enjoy and benefit from, soda in the breakroom does not necessarily encourage collaboration or team building. Instead, Moah says if you look at it from an employee experience angle, you might consider offering free lunch, but having everyone eat together outside or away from their desks.

Tom Gimbel, founder and CEO of LaSalle Network, a national staffing and recruiting firm, says his company will do something as simple as get everyone together for an ice cream break or to celebrate an employee's work anniversary with balloons, streamers and photos.

Gimbel says companies make a mistake when they assume employees want a ping pong table at work or perks like pet insurance. It might make workers temporarily happy, but in the long run it won't do much to influence engagement. Instead, focus on bonding with your employees, getting to know them and supporting them in their personal and professional lives.

Creating a positive employee experience can be as simple as creating workplace traditions to help build rapport and communication. "One of our oldest traditions is an Alabama jacket that gets passed around to someone who closes a big deal. They wear it or hang it on their chairs. You can recognize staff and build team camaraderie without a large budget," says Gimbel.

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Embrace a 'work-away' trip

Your typical work retreat probably involves conference rooms, an off-site hotel and team-building exercises. But at Boomerang, Moah says they have reinvented company retreats by eschewing traditional team building trips and exercises, dubbing them "workaway trips."

Since it's a small office, Moah's company will typically rent a big house that can fit everyone comfortably. She says they don't want to book hotels because of the potential for seclusion with individual rooms and out of a desire to avoid "windowless conference rooms when it's time to work."

"We like to choose a house that has a great view and preferably an outdoor area for us to work in. The house we stayed in our most recent 'work-away' trip to Switzerland had a giant outdoor patio with a table where we could all sit to discuss or eat a meal. A lot of our trip involves cooking together and eating together, which also saves money since we're not buying meals out at restaurants," she says.

But if Switzerland isn't in your budget, she says you simply have to find "somewhere you don't normally go." It could be in the same city, or state, but just taking time to get away from the office and your typical scene. Moah says these trips have helped foster team unity and have also been vital in getting new employees comfortable and familiar with the team faster than they would in the office.

Creating a fun, lasting experience that will help employees bond can mean more than a "bring your dog to work day." It doesn't have to be extravagant; it just has to blend the right mix of fun, work and relaxation to leave employees feeling closer and invigorated.

"You'd be surprised at what people enjoy. We've had company-wide sales incentive trips to Miami and San Francisco, and to celebrate our best sales quarter in history we took busses to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. People enjoyed that trip just as much, if not more, than the trip to Miami or San Francisco. When you have the right group of people, it doesn't matter where they go. The fact that you care enough to close down the office for a few days to help develop them says a lot," says Gimbel.

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This story, "Why employee experience trumps company culture" was originally published by CIO.

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