Why employee experience is key to a sustainable workplace culture

As worker values and workforce communication styles shift, companies must stay open to change—or risk losing their best talent. 

The Great Resignation. Quiet quitting. Talent wars. Among all the buzzwords about whether employees choose to work—and stay—with a business lies a central truth: Workers today want more from their companies, and they want it without sacrificing everything for a job. Full-time, salaried employees spend about four years with a company, on average, meaning that no single role, manager, or firm can expect to be everything to an individual. So, to keep staffers onboard and actively engaged for as long as possible, how can an organization keep its promises about the “great company culture” touted during recruitment? 

This much is clear: Business leaders need to ditch outdated understandings of what motivates employees and lean on newer, pandemic-era-aware retention methods. Rather than believing individuals should be grateful to have any job at all, especially as the economy slips toward a recession, executives should stay in tune with what workers value now. Smart leaders will look out for and prioritize the most highly valued components of the employee experience and put conditions in place to foster an attractive, agile, and sustainable workplace culture. That’s the only sure way to bolster engagement, boost productivity, and maintain top talent during significant workplace movements.

Recognizing and reacting to cultural shifts

An initial step for employers building a sustainable workplace culture is acknowledging that employee values have shifted since 2020. In 2022, money isn’t the top priority, according to new research from HCLTech, an IT service firm and consultancy. 

Work-life balance now takes priority by a wide margin, notes Rakshit Ghura, HCLTech’s senior vice president and global head of digital workplace services. Among a cross-industry group of 200 senior executives in North America and Europe, 51% of leaders say it’s the most important factor in creating a sustainable employee culture, with wages and salaries (40%) and benefits (31%) trailing behind. Notably, Ghura views work-life balance as more than “clocking in and out” at reasonable times. “It includes employee wellness, flexible working arrangements, mental health programs, and social safety nets,” he says.

Looking ahead, employers that offer flexibility will be better positioned to retain key talent. Zurich Insurance Group placed a big focus on flexible working frameworks even before the pandemic hit, and in March 2019, its UK business began advertising all new vacancies with options: Recruits could choose from full-time, part-time, or job-share arrangements. “Within two years, we not only saw part-time hires double, but we also watched overall applications to our UK business jump by two-thirds,” says Barry Perkins, global head of business technology for Zurich. As a result, Zurich didn’t see much of an impact from the Global Resignation, he adds. 

Ghura notes that HCLTech has analyzed every aspect of the employee experience, looking for ways to infuse flexibility without cutting corners. Updates include investments in advanced collaboration tools, new learning and development opportunities, careful management of in-office hot-desking, and even a reevaluation of the company’s parking policies. The “extremely meticulous” approach to hybrid work and flexibility places employees’ needs upfront and requires collaborative contributions from all departments. 

A culture of two-way communication

“Bidirectional trust” is a phrase Ghura often uses to describe the feedback process at HCLTech. From training leaders on empathy-based management to holding regular townhalls, to soliciting anonymous, 360-degree employee feedback on company culture, the organization incorporates many opportunities for two-way, transparent, employee and employer communication. 

The move away from top-down dictates is consistent with HCLTech’s research. Nearly three-quarters of executives from innovative, culture-attuned companies say it’s crucial for managers to seek out employee perspectives on working models and key initiatives. With that in mind, however, executives still indicated it was their responsibility to present “a coherent and actionable vision” of how the future workforce and its values should look. According to Ghura, that vision needs fine-tuning by a range of stakeholders—leaders from human resources, legal, finance, IT, facilities, administrative, and operations teams, all of whom must incorporate ideas from all ranks. 

Ghura says leadership values are changing in tandem with overall workplace values. His company’s management training program covers topics like “fostering a culture of care and compassion, cultural dexterity, developing a managerial mindset—inclusion, networking, collaboration, and more.” Similarly, says Perkins, Zurich’s online manager academy focuses on “inspiring employee trust, belonging, and well-being as foundational elements in supporting employees during the changing world of work.”

If, ultimately, employees stay with their employers for four years or so, then company leaders are changing their approaches to make those years count. Perkins cites statistics claiming that the vast majority of the jobs of the future don’t exist yet—meaning that nurturing talent, training new skills, and fostering a sustainable culture are all the more important. In his view, a healthy workplace culture sees employees as people first and value-drivers second. “In a sustainable workplace, we are committed to supporting the life-long employability for our people,” Perkins says, “while delivering what our customers need.”

Click here to read the full HCLTech survey findings in the proprietary white paper Futurework: Designing a sustainable company in a rapidly evolving world.