Arthur W. Page Society

What’s Up with Employee Experience? Communication, Generations, and Strategic Alignment

Multiple generations in the workplace. Increasingly diverse populations. New ways and places to work. Emergent technologies. Oh, and the COVID-19 pandemic. All contribute to the maelstrom of change leaders and employees alike must contend with together (like it or not!)

For leaders of all stripes, effective employee communications is critical to successfully navigating the contemporary business environment. My team and I at Integral spent three years in collaboration with The Harris Poll studying the changing workplace and how to understand (and effect) the future of collaborative, productive, and intentional employee experience. 

The full report (around 90 pages worth of analysis) is freely available for you to download, but here are a few highlights. 

The Kids (aren't totally) alright

Generational differences play a huge role in workplace communication strategies—but beyond crankily complaining about “kids today,” what can we do to ensure high performance and harmony? Each generation might be characterized (some say stereotyped) by attitudes or trends in how they show up in the workplace: Baby Boomers brought competition, drive and visibility to their work. Generation X brought autonomy and ambitions for work/life balance. Millennials brought collaboration, an emphasis on meaningful work, and digital adaptability to the workplace. 

Young adults born between 1997 and 2010, known as “Generation Z,” enter today’s workforce with both optimism and skepticism. They’re emphasizing the importance of mental health, diverse and inclusive work environments, equitable technological advancement, and a healthier mix of work and wellness. Sadly, when it comes to company values, our research found that workers 18-24 are the most likely to say that their employer’s values align with their own values only “somewhat” or not at all, and that their company’s best days are behind it. Additionally, half of all workers aged 18-24 say that the behavior of top/senior level management aligns with the organization’s stated values only “somewhat” or not at all. There is, alas, a huge gap between what work might positively represent in the lives of the in-bound workforce and their perceptions and lived experience.

Work life is political life

Employee communication strategies can and should be individualized when addressing political and/or social issues. In recent years, organizations have been expected to deal with politics by way of establishing norms for respectful dialogue in the workplace as well as taking a stand on issues. This is all well and good, but most organizations, and many folks who hold leadership roles, don’t have the tools or knowledge to establish these practices. Your employees are people who care about matters outside of work, and it’s important to give them space to think about these issues. When asked about societal issues they felt are most important for their organization to try to make a positive difference on, we found that employees’ good health and well-being was by far the most frequently selected issue at 42%; and job creation was the second most frequently selected at 33%, compared to climate change/environmental responsibility/environmental efforts and gun violence, which both ranked the lowest at 17%. 

The TLDR? Your employees are a public and they experience the ebb and flow of the news cycle just as any other constituency. In the wake of a sickening wave of mass shootings, employees sought reassurance from their employers that they’d do something about it. In the wake of George Flyd’s murder, employees’ expectations peaked for their management teams to do something meaningful to dismantle systemic racism. And yet employees consistently rank the issues most salient to their relationship with their employer as the most important for the company to make an impact on -- their health and well being, their job security, their data privacy and their employer’s fairness when it comes to recognizing and compensating people of all backgrounds and identities.

It’s (almost) all about the manager

We found that those in leadership positions can quickly become disconnected from middle management, frontline managers and non-managers -- and vice versa! When this happens it can lead to fundamental organizational systems breaking down. 

We asked cohorts of different seniority levels to rate each other, and they exemplified something called “Miles Law,” which explains how a person’s point of view tends to align with their role in a community or organization. We asked employees how much the behavior of each “seniority cohort” aligns with their organization’s stated values. Without exception, each cohort rated its own alignment to organizational values the highest. 

Additionally, frontline managers, or those who supervise non-management employees, are no more confident in their ability to collaborate effectively with colleagues online than non-managers: Among those who do collaborate online, 72% somewhat or strongly agree that they are confident compared to 71% of non- managers. Frontline managers are more likely to say they are anxious than non-managers (16% vs. 9%), and slightly less likely to feel grateful (31% vs. 34%). 

It may be tempting to think that the disconnect between different levels of seniority is normal. It’s certainly common, as our study shows. But it’s also a real problem in a world where employees are increasingly independent, empowered and seeking to work for organizations that they believe in. That breakdown in shared confidence and identity will surely lead to higher turnover amongst the best performers, who have the most career optionality.

A puzzle worth solving

There are so many sides to the employee experience Rubik’s Cube, and it’s important to pay attention to your employees and support their needs by listening actively and bringing their needs into your system of organizational improvement and communications. Culture and change management is an ongoing process deserving of attention at the senior-most levels. 

None of the work my team at Integral undertook would have been possible without our Page and Page Up community. I’m particularly grateful to Dr. Rita Men from the University of Florida and Rob Jekielek from The Harris Poll, so many thanks to them! And a huge shout out to the many folks who contributed to Page CCO Culture Guide — we are so grateful for their valuable contributions within the world of Culture Change and Management which continue to enrich our profession and inform our thinking and research.

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