I recently wrote a piece about sensory customer experiences for Relate where I imagined how software could create sensory work experiences that included music, visual environments, and even aromatherapy. Then I found out that Nan Zhao at the MIT Media Lab already designed software like this. It’s called Mediated Atmosphere and it’s connected to a device that reads a worker’s biometric signals.
With Mediated Atmosphere, each employee would have their own large screen with a special aspect ratio (relation of height to width) that makes it not look like a TV. The screen shows various scenes—a forest, a coffee shop, an artist’s living room—depending on the employee’s preferences and the atmosphere most conducive for the type of work the employee needs to do. In future iterations, Mediated Atmosphere will include sound, fragrances, lighting, and thermal control.
“We imagine a workspace that, when asked, can instantly trade the engaging focus of a library with the liberating sensation of a stroll through the forest,” Zhao explained. “We want to create an environment player that can recommend or automate your space similar to how Spotify or Pandora gives you access to a world of music. We want to help people to manage their day by giving them the right place at the right time.”
Welcome to the "smart office" of the future
Personalized employee experiences like this are the wave of the future. We live in a world where customization has changed from being something special to being standard. So, to expect employees to adjust themselves to a workplace environment, culture, tools, and rewards that don’t allow for that personalization is likely to hurt companies’ ability to recruit and retain talent in the future. To people unaccustomed to the idea of a personalized workplace, that might sound like pandering to entitled snowflakes. But it makes good business sense. Zhao’s research indicates that people’s ability and zeal to perform—their ability to be productive, creative, clear-thinking—is impacted by the environments they’re in, but that those impacts are different for everyone.
To people unaccustomed to the idea of a personalized workplace, that might sound like pandering to entitled snowflakes. But it makes good business sense.
A study by KPMG shows companies that invest in the employee experience are four times more profitable than those that don’t. And KPMG attests that companies “must deliver a new kind of employee experience—one that feels personal, relevant, and responsive to individual needs.”
[Related read: How does your office stack up? The new norm in workplace perks]
Gregory Laurence, associate professor of management at the University of Michigan has written several papers on the importance of personalization to an employee’s psychological state, including their ability to surround themselves with symbols that are important to them.
“For me,” he said, “more individualized approaches seems a natural extension of changes in the economy as a whole…” In the transition from an agrarian society to an industrial one and then a knowledge-based one, he said, “each of the windows of the dominance...has gotten shorter, and so we already have to start thinking about what the “post-knowledge” economy is going to look like. A first step in this direction, I think, is an economy in which personalized work arrangements dominate. Some of these might be based on “gig” type employment while others will be based on full-time employment in virtual organizations that allow people to be where they want to be, working when they want to work.”
In recent years, companies have experimented with numerous ways to personalize the workplace, making it possible for employees to choose individual perks and benefits plans, use their own devices and software, and design their own jobs.
[Related read: 6 strategies for being happier at work]
Bespoke job descriptions
People are dynamic, tech is constantly evolving, markets change. So, maybe job descriptions shouldn’t be written in stone. While it’s essential to have a legal job description that covers a person’s responsibilities, a bespoke job description is one that is written with that employee in mind, rather than trying to fit the person to the description, like Procrustes’ bed. As Vivek Bapat, SVP and head of marketing and communications strategy at SAP suggested in a Harvard Business Review article:
“If you think one of your direct reports is prime for job personalization, I suggest beginning the process with a true-north conversation. Ask the person to describe themselves and their career, and listen closely. What are they especially good at? What gets them excited about their career successes? What kinds of responsibilities have they not sought? Which ones did they seem to talk around or emphasize less? What you’re looking for is how their skills (professional), their passions (personal), and their value (as perceived by the organization) intersect.”
While it's essential to have a legal job description that covers a person’s responsibilities, a bespoke job description is one that is written with that employee in mind, rather than trying to fit the person to the description.
At Asana, a collaboration software company, for example, people have ‘Areas of Responsibility’ that “map discrete responsibilities to individual people”—not just to roles. The AORs are reevaluated at least once a year to ensure employees are working on projects and in areas they’re interested in and competent to handle. If someone wants to work on an area not in their traditional role but for which they show aptitude and have the skills, they’re considered for that responsibility.
By creating more fluid and personalized job descriptions that leave room for people to grow, learn, and evolve, not only are you likely to wind up with a more engaged, creative, and productive employee, but you’ll increase your ability to recruit and retain top talent.
[Related read: Should you hire for potential and attitude, or experience?]
Choose your own toolset
A growing number of employees say they’re more productive when they use their own tools (“Bring Your Own Device”) and software of their choice. And research shows employees want to be constantly evolving their skills as new softwares and hardwares emerge. This doesn’t always fit with companies’ goals for operational efficiency or security compliance.
A PwC study shows that 90 percent of C-suite leaders say they take employees into account when choosing tools, but only half (53 percent) of their employees agree. “That experience gap matters,” the study said. “When you don’t have a clear and accurate understanding of how your people use technology in their jobs, and what they need and want from those tools, the overall experience people have at work can suffer. A subpar employee experience can have a ripple effect across the organization, shaping everything from how engaged people are to their enthusiasm for delivering a superior customer experience.”
Employees want control over the devices and apps they use, and, like customers, the channels through which they do their best work. For some, that’s messaging. For others, it’s email or voice. The report went on to state that “changing work environments mean more people want greater mobile capabilities, but only 60% of employees say they’re satisfied with the mobile options available to them at work.”
UMich’s Laurence believes this is going to call for a transformation of workplace structures that allow for employees to be digital nomads or otherwise not conventionally situated.
"When you don't have a clear and accurate understanding of how your people use technology in their jobs, and what they need and want from those tools, the overall experience people have at work can suffer." - PricewaterhouseCoopers
“There are a number of challenges associated with this sort of development, including building and maintaining an organizational culture when employees are not co-located,” he said. “Our traditional idea of what an organizational culture is will probably need to change as these types of work arrangements become more popular.”
Data-driven benefit packages
An increasing number of employees also want benefits that actually relate to their lives. With four generations currently in the workplace, different incentives matter at different times. One employee might be more focused on having a beefy retirement plan, another on parental leave, and another on the freedom to work wherever they want. Research by HR services provider TriNet shows that 85 percent of employees say nontraditional benefits improve morale; 82 percent said it improves retention.
An article in Society for Human Resources Management magazine said that “While 91 percent of employees feel companies should offer customized benefits packages, only 72 percent of HR professionals do, according to HR Blindspot Report 2018 by benefits-software firm League.”
By personalized benefits, most employees probably mean the freedom to design their benefits to suit their lifestyles. But the industry seems to have a different approach: designing benefits around personal data. A model being developed at Stanford University would collect data from all employees’ digital health records to determine the best health benefit provider. For example, if a lot of people at the company had diabetes, that might make one provider the obvious choice. The problem is that most people don’t want to give access to their digital health records, even if it’s anonymous. John Hancock insurance company got around this by selling insurance that comes with a Fitbit. As the company explains: After your insurance policy is issued, you take a survey to determine how your health stacks up against your age. The company gives you annual personalized health goals and you track your success on the app. Achieving health goals can result in a lower premium the following year.
This version of a personalized employee experience could also be used to measure employee’s satisfaction or psychological state throughout the day. CXLab, a customer experience consultancy, is doing research with biometrics to measure how customer service employees respond to stressful calls, for example.
[Related read: Build a strong company culture by leading with EQ]
The big question, from Laurence’s standpoint, is how to make a personalized employee experience fair. People in service industries, for example, may never see a personalized employee experience, and this just adds to disparities that are already apparent in the workforce.
“Who will have these opportunities and who will not?” he said. “If not everyone in an organization is deemed ‘valuable enough’ to have a personalized work arrangement, how do you effectively manage the jealousy/envy/competitiveness of those who can’t benefit from such deals against those who can? Or, if everyone in an organization is able to access such arrangements, how does the organization balance the need for control of employees against desire to provide employees with work arrangements that ‘work’ better?”
He’s right. We’re in territory that’s a lot more complicated than “personalizing” by allowing employees to have personal effects and tchotchkes on their desks or in their cubicles. It’s also not about pandering to what employees want; rather, putting the onus on employees to define the environment that encourages productivity and holding those employees to prove the results.