How the Potential Rail Strike Points to an Era of Employee Power

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Economically catastrophic railroad shutdowns that we narrowly avoided last September have returned with a vengeance. Unions and freight rail companies are once again at odds over poor working conditions. One of the workers’ key points is simply wanting to attend pre-scheduled medical appointments without incurring penalties for missing work.

In a different industry, Apple employees are petitioning the company to rethink its return-to-office policies. The petition argues that requiring in-office attendance ignores Apple’s stated diversity goals and doesn’t take the circumstances of each individual into consideration. In other words, Apple employees believe the policies suit the needs of the company more than they do the needs of the workers.

These important labor developments — together with the Gen Z phenomena of “quiet quitting” — make it clear we are in an era where employees now have extraordinary leverage when it comes to how businesses are run.

In this environment, it is very difficult to run a successful business of any kind without prioritizing the employee experience (EX). This new paradigm is a significant shift from the business management of the recent past, which stressed that the customer experience (CX) was king.

As companies look to the future, navigating the employee experience era may mean overhauling everything from basic benefits to the board of directors. But the businesses that thrive will honor the leverage employees have and focus first on their needs.

Here’s how business leaders need to address these challenges.

Related: What the Great Reimagination Means for the Future of Work

Consider how your company is structured

Every company should have someone with decision-making authority managing human resources and empowering EX as a priority. In an increasing number of organizations, this might even be someone on the board of directors.

The number of new board members with HR backgrounds has risen from 6% to 11% over the past three years, according to the National Association of Corporate Directors. At the same time, a significant number of HR leaders (61%) now report directly to the CEO or president, with 23% reporting to the CFO or COO.

These numbers point to the growing importance of securing HR expertise at a high level, a trend that should continue to explode in the coming years as we settle deeper into the EX era. Forward-looking companies must have experienced leaders to help build programs and address needs.

The financial impact of these developments can hardly be overstated. A 2020 report from PwC pointed to talent as the largest investment for major companies, estimating that as much as 85% of expenses are dedicated to the company’s own people.

The influence of employees on virtually every aspect of a company and its decision-making is growing. Raising the level of importance leaders grant HR and empowering them to implement EX programs will help companies sustain growth and remain competitive.

Related: Unionizing Isn’t the Only Way to Restore Workers’ Bargaining Power

Build the necessary feedback channels to understand and respond to what your employees need

The examples of railroad workers and Apple employees pushing back against company policies are noteworthy, in part, because solving each problem is an EX need, but requires a vastly different approach. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for either challenge.

It’s not a surprise that workers react when they feel like they are not being listened to, not paid enough or are harmed by bad policies. For years, people have left jobs, gone on strike or slacked off at work in response. The difference now is the power of their voices — amplified by social media, in many cases.

As is the case with the railroad workers, it’s clear that benefits must evolve and change. Freight rail companies are operating with decades-old policies in many cases. Taking the time to gather employee feedback and addressing those needs almost certainly would have helped avoid the potential for shutdown altogether.

Acting on employee feedback is best approached with a sense of humanity on both sides. All employees — whether white or blue-collar workers — need to be cared for, enabled and supported.

Related: The Great Resignation is Not Over. Employers Should Make Employee Experience a Top Priority Right Now, And Here Are 5 Ways To Do It.

Continue to lead with a vision

At the same time, creating a company culture dedicated to EX does not mean simply bending over backward to give employees everything they want. Although some leaders may worry about rank-and-file workers seizing power within their companies, EX is not simply giving in to every whim.

The relationship between leaders and employees works best as a two-way street, especially as employee voices are being amplified in the EX era. Employers certainly need to listen to employees, but employees also must understand and be driven by the company’s mission.

Customers and CX — which drove the previous era of business operations — are still critically important. Fortunately, the evidence for synergy between these programs is clear: When companies listen to their employees and create best-for-all programs based on feedback, those employees take care of customers. EX and CX measurements both rise.

Ultimately, the EX era comes down to empowering people. Part of our corporate mission is to set people free to do great work. By listening to our employees, trusting them and providing a good experience, people are motivated by our mission.

Creating good company cultures is no longer about ping-pong tables and nap pods. People want real improvements to their quality of life and to feel like their work matters to the company’s success.

These desires mean there are no shortcuts to success when building good employee experiences. Leaders have to enshrine the importance of HR and EX within the top levels of the organization, they have to listen carefully to employee needs, build programs and share a vision that inspires the best work.

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