Our Experience Experiment

As leaders tinker with how work gets done, they shouldn’t overlook this critical component of any successful organization, says Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Leadership U: Accelerating Through the Crisis Curve.

This week my wife and I were fortunate to be invited to attend our first in-person major sporting event in 15 months. It wasn’t just an outing—it was a milestone.

From the moment we arrived, however, it was surreal. Masks, lines, checkpoints, vaccination cards, negative Covid tests…. It felt more like an experiment than an experience.

The game and our hosts (who we hadn’t previously met) were fantastic, and we were grateful to be there; immersed in that energy again. If I’m being honest, though, it fell a bit short of the normal experience we’re all familiar with.

Why? Because the safety measures that, thankfully, are protecting all of us—and rightly so—also put a filter on conveying emotion. At that game, we couldn’t see a smile, a frown. We couldn’t sense disappointment or elation—sarcasm or sincerity.

Conversation was almost impossible, so we nodded politely at times as if we could understand what our hosts were saying. It was kind of like being at the dentist—where I also was recently, for the first time since the pandemic started—and having someone talk to you. With two instruments, a mirror, and suction tube in your mouth, you’re trying to respond to the dentist asking about your family, your dog, and your job.

It was almost the same, sitting at that game.

Of course, going to a sporting event pales in comparison to what some people are dealing with. But the point is we were missing the connection, the experience, the emotion. And, let’s face it, the experience and the emotions are everything. That’s why, as the old saying goes, there is no funeral without laughter, no wedding without tears.

Physically and virtually, we’re all trying to figure it out these days as organizations experiment with how work gets done. It’s like a mad scientist formula—and no one knows the solution just yet.

Without the solution in front of us, it’s easy to resort to old answers from an old world—the tangibles of office space, real estate, and technology. The temptation is to default to the physical, thinking that it’s 90% of it. But really, it’s only 10%.

I’ve been to open floor plan environments that felt siloed, isolated. It’s not the space—it’s the headspace, the heart space. What matters most is connection—and the language of connection is emotion. It’s the spirit of how we do things—and it’s more likely to be felt than stated.

Many years ago, before I joined Korn Ferry, I was involved in a company move and tasked with figuring out where people should sit. It was like playing 3-D chess—those who wanted a view, teams who needed to be close together, and some who needed to be further apart. But there was one outlier—the guy who specifically asked to sit close to the office kitchen. When I asked him why, his answer was simple—and refreshing. “I like seeing everybody—I feel connected.”

In this new world, it doesn’t matter only where people sit. What matters most is how people fit—and connect, whether physically or virtually. And it’s up to us to solve the riddle and create the experience. Here are some thoughts:

·  Inside out and outside in. As Byrne Mulrooney, the leader of our RPO and Digital businesses, told me this week, in a world in which almost nine out of ten jobs are going digital, three things remain the most important in determining what people experience in the workplace—culture, customers, and connections. If we focus on nothing else, we have to get these “3Cs” right. Culture is all about how work gets done—digitally, flexibly, or physically. That’s why we need “inside out” thinking, gathering continuous forward feedback from “world-class observers” throughout an organization. Customers require an “outside in” focus, gleaning insights into their experience as they interact with the organization. Ultimately—whether outside in, or inside out—it comes down to making connections. After all, experiences can only be created and shared where a real and human connection exists.

·  Heard, seen and happy. Disconnected, isolated, overwhelmed. Too often, this is the experience some people are having these days. The near-constant pace and deafening volume of the personal and professional colliding are exhausting. The “future of work” (whatever that means) is not simply about our left brain, technical skills. Given what many have been through, it takes the right brain—our ability to collaborate and connect. And that collaboration needs to be more horizontal and less vertical, bringing together teams and colleagues across the organization. We have to be intentional—tapping our right brains to inspire, influence, and motivate others. After all, it’s not only how we relate, it’s how we resonate.

·  Radically human. What lies ahead? It’s the question on everyone’s mind. As one executive told me recently, “The post-Covid world looms for many as a blank slate—uncharted territory. If we begin with what’s been learned these past months about trust, empathy, transparency, listening, service, connecting, honesty and individuality, we will successfully create a new roadmap for inclusion, personalization, and growth.” Said another way—a radically human workplace.

A final but important thought. While our focus is always ahead, we remember and reflect on the past—particularly this Memorial Day weekend in the United States, when we honor the men and women who died while serving in the military. We commemorate those who have left us, the empathy that unites us, and the resilience that has carried us. Indeed, these are truly the experiences that define us.