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Exploring the employee experience

At the MIT Sloan Center for Information Systems Research, Nick van der Meulen aims to help organizations “create an environment where employees can do their best work.”
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Photo of Nick van der Meulen standing next to an office cubicle, with an out-of-focus Charles River visible through the windows behind him..
For more than a decade, Nick van der Meulen’s research has focused on employees.
Photo: David Sella

Getting to the crux of his work on the Employee Experience Research Stream at the MIT Sloan Center for Information Systems Research (CISR), Nick van der Meulen poses a rhetorical question: “In general, nothing happens in our organizations without our employees, right?” Groundwork in place, he continues, “So how can organizations create an environment where employees can do their best work?”  

For more than a decade, van der Meulen’s research has focused on employees. Originally from the Netherlands, he completed his PhD at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University in 2016. His dissertation examined the challenges of remote work with a special interest in employee coordination and collaboration. From there, he joined the faculty at the University of Amsterdam. At that point, he had been collaborating for a couple of years with MIT CISR on research related to digital workplaces and the employee experience. In 2018, MIT offered him a full-time research scientist position, which he accepted, he says, without hesitation. 

“MIT CISR addresses the most pressing issues facing practitioners; it facilitates frequent interactions between consortium sponsors such as Allstate, Johnson & Johnson, and Tetra Pak; and researchers at the center are expected to hit monthly deliverables, which helps get new findings into the hands of practitioners as quickly as possible for maximum business impact — and that is what drew me to MIT.” 

To demonstrate real-world impact, van der Meulen cites several key findings from a briefing he co-authored, “Employee Experience: Enabling your future workforce strategy.” For example, organizations ranked in the top quartile of employee experience as measured by MIT CISR had net profit margins (when adjusted for industry averages) that were 8.4 percentage points higher than the other 75 percent of companies. And their revenue from new products and services introduced in the past three years (i.e., MIT CISR’s measure for innovation in this study) was more than double that of the other 75 percent. Moreover, organizations that provided great employee experience also outperformed the rest in time-to-market and the ability to change rapidly. 

Maybe it should go without saying that employees have been assigning value judgments to their work experiences — good, bad, and indifferent — since the advent of employment. And it seems intuitive that organizations benefit when they create an environment that inspires people to do their best work. But employee experience as a concept that is definable and measurable has only recently come to the fore. Now, much like “innovation,” business leaders know that it is important even if its definition and parameters for measurement are up for debate.  

For the sake of clarity, MIT CISR defines employee experience as “The extent to which employees are enabled or constrained by the work environment and work habits to do their jobs today, and to re-imagine their jobs of tomorrow.” Baked into this definition, van der Meulen explains, are two equally important components. On one hand, you have what he and his colleagues call an “adaptive work environment” that adjusts to the needs of its employees and not the other way around. An adaptive work environment provides greater choice to employees and opportunities for them to organize and craft their work. “Collective work habits,” on the other hand, determine how natural it is for employees to make use of these opportunities. Think of them as MIT CISR’s more practical version of what is typically referred to as work culture. In combination, an adaptive work environment and collective work habits can elevate the employee experience and significantly impact organizational performance for the better (as demonstrated by the MIT CISR briefing, above).  

But the two components need to align. For instance, let’s say an employee makes use of an organization’s remote work policy, taking the opportunity to work from home on Thursday. But, when they return in person on Friday a manager or colleague comments, “We didn’t see you in the office yesterday, did you take the day off?” The work-from-home arrangement is beside the point because the implication is that if an employee isn’t in the office they aren’t working. In other words, the adaptive work environment is rendered useless because the collective work habit does not exist. 

These days, van der Meulen has been researching employee empowerment through decision rights. Decision rights define who has the authority and accountability to make decisions within an organization. But managers, fearing chaos and complexity, can be reluctant to grant decision rights to employees. Issues around interconnectedness, collaboration, and technologies interfacing with each other can arise when teams, independent of one another, decide what kinds of data they use, the work habits they create, or the technology they rely on.  

That said, speed is sacrificed when an organization defers every decision up the hierarchy to senior executives. Consider the subheading of a study van der Meulen co-authored: “Creating an empowered decision-making environment enables companies to sense and respond to changes in their business environment faster than ever.”  

So, how do you provide teams with autonomy to make their own decisions while being aligned with other teams across the organization? As described in another research briefing van der Meulen co-authored, the solution lies in decision rights guardrails. “The guardrails,” he says, “are enabling constraints that help to keep teams safe, just like guardrails on the road. They provide direction and give teams the confidence to go faster while providing business leaders with a sense of comfort when granting greater decision rights.”   

Building on current and prior work at MIT CISR, van der Meulen notes that beyond having the authority to make their own decisions, employees also need the appropriate talents and capabilities. Which is why his newest research project, "Developing a Digital-first Workforce,” will examine digital talent for the future. “We want to make sure that employees have the necessary future-ready skill sets to help drive organizational performance. It’s an important challenge, and an exciting new addition to the Employee Experience Research Stream at MIT CISR,” he says.  

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