Round-table session on new employee experience HR trend

19 October 2017

Everybody happy at work

HR directors are currently busy with the latest trend in their field: employee experience. It may yet be in its infancy, they say, but is nevertheless something companies can no longer ignore — how to make the employee happy on a sustainable basis.

"The future of work is all about the employee experience," argues Jacob Morgan. The successful American author recently published The Employee Experience Advantage, the first book specifically focused on this topic.

Employee experience goes a whole lot further than employee engagement, which is largely effective over the short term. Morgan compares it to investing in paint and upholstery to do up an old car. But if you want to improve the car’s performance, you’ll need to work on the engine. According to him, organizations worldwide now realize the importance of employee experience in ensuring on a systematic basis that employees go to work with a smile on their face. Because they want to, and not because they have to.

Morgan believes getting started on employee experience isn’t complicated. As a company, you need to focus on three key aspects: corporate culture, technology and the physical work environment. The participants in this round table discussion, which took place in mid-May on the 17th floor of the A'dam Toren (the former Shell head office), found this clear delineation very useful. The group of HR directors had been invited by Raet to discuss 'Employee experience: HR's newest challenge'. Facilitator, Thomas van Zijl, made sure the discussion ran smoothly.

Busy with reorganizations

International research confirms employee experience has become a real trend. Deloitte, for example, confirmed that nearly 80 percent of CEOs indicated that they found employee experience very important, yet only 22 percent said they had been able to create that successful employee experience.

This was all very familiar to the participants. This latest trend is still only in its infancy in their companies, too. Charles Amkreutz, HR Director at Pon, for example, has recently launched a new HR strategy of which employee experience forms a part. Until now, he has mainly done research into employee engagement, and at the time the company and HR were predominantly busy with growth.

The same goes for insurer Vivat, since 2015 in the hands of very determined Chinese owners. "We’ve been busy with the transition from a national to an international organization, and didn’t previously have sufficient time for these types of themes” explains HR manager, Mirelle van Dam. “But now, slowly but surely, we do. We’ve seen too many employees leave us and are now starting to look at employee experience."

This means employees must embrace a new corporate culture, with both Dutch and Chinese influences. "Everything was very well organized within the company, but that left little room for innovation," adds Vivat’s HR Solutions Director, Nynke Hessels. "If you’re too supportive, you don’t meet the expectations of the new generation who are, for example, much less worried about their pension and more focused on the here-and-now. We want to see people working with us because they have a passion and contribute to our success; not because they want security. That’s the new employee experience we’re trying to achieve."

Feeling of success

Camiel Coremans, HR COO for Nationale Nederlanden, is also going through turbulent times. Following the merger with Delta Lloyd, the company now has 16,000 employees. "NN and Delta Lloyd have a lot of similarities, but the Delta Lloyd brand is going to disappear and every employee will now need to develop a new shared NN-feeling." This must incorporate the strengths of both companies, a major challenge. He sees two goals in terms of employee experience: a good customer experience, and stimulating and binding employees to the company.

When the meeting was held, T-Mobile had just presented some impressive revenue figures. The telecom company had also recently won a prize for best network for the second time running. And that all helps create a good employee experience, as HR Managing Director David Thomas can confirm. "Success gives employees a very good feeling. And in HR we’re currently leveraging that with a people strategy. For the coming period, we’re going to be building rather than reorganizing."

Supermarket chain Jumbo's HR Director, Gea Kuiper, has to try to keep some 60,000 employees happy. "In recent years, we’ve been busy with integration, optimization and harmonization. Now it's time for other things, like employee experience." Such as the JES (Jumbo Elke Dag Sterker — Jumbo Everyday Stronger) project, where the ‘whole experience is mapped out’. "We need to stay very close to our people because we ask a lot of them. We’re now in the middle of that process."

Family culture

She believes the company’s culture helps here. It’s the culture of the founders and owners, the Van Eerd family. Every Jumbo employee is brought by bus to the new head office in Jumbo’s home town of Veghel to experience that culture first-hand.

"Family culture is definitely an important factor in employee experience," is also Charles Amkreutz’s experience with family business, Pon.

"For employee experience, it’s crucial that you know people well and how they’re performing," argues Thomas van Zijl. "Which of you knows your employees less well than you would like?"

Things can always be improved, Camiel Coremans feels. "It’s the same as with development programs: the dreams and ambitions are in the minds of the employees, but you want them to share them with you. And to spar with you, as that way you'll arrive at fresh ideas together."

Hard facts & figures are there to provide insights, but don’t always say a lot, as employees often give the same ratings. So Coremans would like to go further in the use of data. "I’d like to measure and analyze everything. You shouldn’t be afraid to do that. But it does require good agreements on data privacy within the organization. The aim is for all of us to improve as a result, and this is a topic of discussion with the OR (Works Council)." The others present agreed data analysis can definitely be a good tool for improving employee experience.

HR as catalyst and facilitator

HR must become the owner of employee experience, was Van Zijl’s next provocative assertion. "I don’t think HR should have responsibility for it," responds Coremans. "That’s down to everyone in the company and, ultimately, the Management Board." Mirelle van Dam puts it more strongly: "If it becomes an HR tool, it will never be adopted."

And if employee experience really becomes very important? "Then the role of HR will change!"

All agree that HR must be the catalyst and facilitator, but always backed by the business. "Every line manager has a crucial role," says David Thomas. "We can think of only so much, but the manager needs to support you in the interaction with their employees. That, for a large part, determines the employee experience."

“And if employee experience really becomes very important?” Van Zijl answers his own rhetorical question. "Then the role of HR will change. Will you then still be doing the same things five years from now?"

With all the technological possibilities, such as self-service, operations will become easier for HR. "You’ll then have much more time for the business partnership," says Camiel Coremans, who is witnessing this development continuously. "By working with new service delivery concepts and modern tooling, you have more time for tactical and strategic HR tasks." Until recently, his tasks were 75 percent operational, 25 percent tactical and strategic. Today, the ratio is more fifty-fifty.

And there is still much room for improvement, confirm the colleagues round the table. The expenses claim receipt that can be scanned and forwarded digitally instead of having to be submitted at set times; the lease car that the employee can arrange for themselves instead of the request having to go via HR. Nynke Hessels: "Why don’t we work with budgets? That’s far easier to oversee."

A generation thing 

David Thomas frowns briefly at this. He thinks such changes can only work if all employers go along with them. "There are generations who still find holiday money and a thirteenth month’s salary very important." 

Gea Kuiper supports this view. "It really is a generation thing. Change takes one to two generations."

Ernst Wagenmans also knows examples of young organizations who have scrapped old ‘employee victories’, like holiday money and the thirteenth month salary, yet still employ many older people.

There are also intermediate variations, such as the cafeteria model for employees, which appeals to Charles Amkreutz for one. "Flexibility of choice is better than imposing something. For me, just moving from Choice A to Choice B lacks innovation."

A higher goal 

In his book, Jacob Morgan discusses the huge importance of an organization's "reason of being". Van Zijl makes the point more concrete by using Apple as an illustration. Since the higher social goal of 'contributing to a better world' was dropped, it has been all downhill for the company. The cleaner at NASA who declared that he was doing his job to help land people on the moon is another of the great examples Morgan quotes.

"It’s about conveying such a higher goal to the employees, that’s the dilemma. How do you ensure that such a reason for being is felt by employees?" wonders Mirelle van Dam out loud. 

"And maybe we should get rid of those people who don’t embrace that goal," suggests Ernst Wagenmans, global sales executive at Raet.

Should vision and employee experience go together at all, Charles Amkreutz asks? "The goals of Natuurmonumenten (a Dutch nature and national parks charity) are close to my heart, but surely that's less so in the case of our companies?"

It's good to have a shared point on the horizon, agrees Gea Kuiper, "but I think as an employee you pick a business for other reasons, such as culture, size and work environment."

David Thomas' experience is that people who have been employed at a company a long time, in particular, are not so interested in new goals or visions. "They often think: fine, whatever; it’s just a passing fad." 

According to Debby de Gelder from Raet, the vision can be clear but then at the operations level various other needs emerge, "and there lurks the danger of subjectivity." 

"That’s right,” agrees Thomas, “while one person is delighted with a laptop, another values a warm reception from his team more."


In one sentence Thomas has managed to flag up two of the three elements in Morgan’s book: culture and technology. The third, the physical environment, is something many companies are currently working hard on, with new, attractive offices. 

Van Pon has just such a dream ‘employee magnet’ by the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam. "It will be an ideal place to meet, get to know people and share ideas," predicts Amkreutz.

Gea Kuiper said she’d be very happy to give those present a tour of Jumbo’s stylish and spacious new headquarters. Especially now that one of Max Verstappen’s Formula 1 cars stands parked in Reception. That sort of thing does something with employees, she’s noticed. "It makes people so proud." But why, ask her colleagues. "Because we sponsor him and his success has an effect on all of us." But there was absolutely no conscious strategy behind this winning decision. "Frits (Van Eerd, ed.) is himself a passionate racing car driver and was sponsoring Max back when he was still a Go-Karter."

"So it does radiate that love of sport” Ernst Wagenmans points out. “Feelings and passion are important."

Debby de Gelder goes a step further. "In other words, a love of something works better than an elaborate strategy." This final observation brings a smile to the lips of the participants. One enjoyable employee experience richer, and with The Employee Experience Advantage tucked under one arm, they depart aware that there’s still much homework to be done.


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