Employee Experience

What’s next for Employee Experience? 5 Stages to a new normal

As alarming as the original disruption COVID-19 introduced was, businesses face yet even more change and areas to navigate ahead. And these areas come from an unlikely place - the return to new normal.

As anyone who has gone through major change or transition knows, even positive changes, ones that we desperately want, can be disruptive and stressful. HR is now playing a critical role to lead organizations through this transition. In fact, some of the most foundational challenges facing businesses right now fall on the shoulders of HR. But this is uncharted territory.

What makes this looming transition especially difficult is that different regions, countries, industries, organizations and even teams within organizations will enter different phases at different times and will face unique challenges attempting to normalize the employee experience (EX). Thus, it’s difficult to generalize the best practices that organizations should employ to manage through this.

Nevertheless, we are observing 5 distinct stages that all organizations are facing and will face as they transition to a new normal. And importantly, the EX priorities organizations should emphasize differ at each stage.

Five stages of transitioning to a new normal

5 Stages of Transitioning
1. React
2. Plan for Return
3. Initial Return
4. Scaling Up
5. New Normal
  • React. This stage describes most organizations’ immediate reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of us are past this stage already. For the organizations that we’ve studied during these last two months, the emphasis has been on business continuity, employee health and wellbeing, remote work enablement and equipping front-line and essential, onsite workers.
  • Plan for Return. This is the stage that many organizations are in now, preparing for a return to some of their pre-COVID-19 operations and processes, such as a potential return to the office for remote workers. The most prominent EX priorities here are employee readiness to return (or whether to return at all), employee health and wellbeing, workspace distancing adjustments and the many new legal and compliance issues organizations face in doing so. In his recent article, describing how many Manufacturers have already progressed through this stage, Josh Bersin provides resources for HR professionals as they face these issues.
  • Initial Return. This is yet another stage that many organizations are going through right now or are nearing. In many ways, this is the stage that we’ve been hoping and waiting for, as it represents a real move to some semblance of normalcy. The EX priorities at this stage will differ from organization to organization and team to team but for organizations returning to onsite work, health and safety protocols are top of mind. These include symptom checkers, contact tracing tools, and new workplace safety policies and equipment. For organizations whose business operations have shifted, such as in financial services, healthcare and retail, they will face massive workforce reskilling challenges and hiring new talent, some from talent pools they have never tapped before.
  • Scaling Up. This may be the most challenging phase as organizations and employees struggle with balancing old habits and creating new, necessary norms. In his recent article, Bruce Temkin describes this as a “tug of war”. In addition to continued workforce training and hiring activity, people leader development will be the key priority at this stage. This is also the stage where organizations must prepare for the possibility that they may have to return to earlier stages due to new waves of the virus. Yet, this stage also offers a golden opportunity for many to reshape their cultures and capitalize on the positive side effects we’ve witnessed during this crisis (increased virtual connectedness, sense of humanity, etc.).
  • New Normal. This final stage is the one all organizations aspire to. At this stage, organizations must acknowledge that some of the employee experiences they’ve delivered in the past will no longer be relevant. New and adjusted “moments that matter” will appear, such as new onsite safety protocols and augmented hiring and onboarding practices. It is also very likely that the dramatic experiences of many employees over these last two months will change their expectations of their employers in the future. This means that employees will perceive old processes and policies differently in the new normal.

Applying employee experience management (XM) across the stages

While there is no definitive playbook for transitioning through these 5 stages, we have observed some promising approaches among our clients and partners.

  • React. To help organizations through this initial stage, we introduced free solutions for organizations to measure the experiences of their newly remote workers and essential onsite employees. The results were astounding as we saw nearly 7,000 organizations across the globe systematically collected feedback from their workforces, many for the first time ever! Based on their results, one Professional Services firm introduced weekly fireside chats with the CEO to address the most common topics that emerge from the prior week’s pulse. The City of Seattle focused their pulse on childcare needs of their frontline healthcare workers to quickly connect their employees with available local resources.
  • Plan for Return. Our initial research suggests that many employees are not yet comfortable with the idea of returning to their workplace. Not surprisingly, the factors that would make them feel more comfortable are the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) and new cleaning/ sanitizing protocols. Recently, we launched a Return to Work Pulse to help organizations identify their own employees’ readiness to return to the office. This is important because the needs of different populations can be quite different. For example, one of the biggest concerns among employees at one national healthcare services company was actually childcare. Initially, the company piloted split shifts and new remote work policies based heavily on feedback from working parents and are using these insights to inform long term policy changes.
  • Initial Return. This is the stage where we have witnessed the most innovation when it comes to employee listening. For example, one large retail bank in North America has set up an always-on feedback channel for retail branch employees to identify safety concerns in the branches. Instead of implementing a traditional “push” survey, the bank acknowledged that employees need to provide just-in-time feedback when it comes to health and safety concerns of their employees and customers. Several other organizations are implementing self-reported pre-screening tools that employees complete on a daily basis to determine whether it’s appropriate for them to come into the workplace.
  • Scaling Up. While few organizations have reached this stage, we are seeing organizations begin to introduce new workplace norms. Many are wisely grounding these new norms on initial employee feedback they’ve collected in prior stages and are planning to embed ongoing listening to ensure the new norms stick. This approach will allow for agile implementations of the policies, procedures and technologies that enable these norms. One international bank is focusing heavily on leader enablement at this stage, as they recognize that new norms will only be adopted if people leaders, themselves, are enabled and equipped to support their teams. This effort started simply by systematically collecting feedback from people leaders across the bank after every leadership forum.
  • New Normal. Much like the prior stage, we can only propose what might make sense here. At some point, organizations will settle into a new normal but we do expect many to increase their emphasis on collecting and acting on employee feedback. During their implementation of the Remote Work Pulse, many organizations admitted that this was the first time they’ve ever fielded a formal survey of their workforce. Every single one of those organizations went on to say that their leaders and employees were pleasantly surprised by the value of the insights they generated. Several have already committed to investing in employee experience management for the long term.

Ultimately, there is no one right way for organizations to progress through these 5 stages. The unknown and uncertainty of what’s to come is precisely why employee experience management (XM) is so valuable. After all, experience management (XM) is all about continuously learning, propagating insights and rapidly adapting; three capabilities that are essential for organizations to bounce back the right way.


Hear readiness feedback from your employees with the Return to Work Pulse