In June 2023, I attended Qualtrics’ X4 event in London. It was an exciting day of product demos, panel discussions, keynote speeches, and even ended on an entertainment slot by Irish comedian Dara O’Briain!

In amongst the busy day, I interviewed Qualtrics’ Director of EX Strategy Execution, Sarah Marrs. Coming from her direct experience and passion for employee experience and how your people are at the heart of business, I’m glad to present her insights.

In one of the keynote panel sessions earlier today at X4, you said something that stood out to me, “people are a business – focus there”. Can you expand on that?

This is all about helping leaders – it’s a conversation and it is feedback. We must help our customers through the way that we surface that feedback, and through how we analyse it. We have to get them to listen to it, understand how it’s important to their business, and then get them to do something about it.

And we’re trying to make all of those processes happen. But what is going to happen is it’s going to be more and more tech driven. And if we can just unlock a little bit of that, the potential could be really huge.

One of my colleagues said last week, that companies always talk about people, and say that they are the best assets. But actually, they’re not just an asset and they’re not only yours. They are your business. Even with the dawn of AI, there will always be people who are at the foundations of a company. The ability to guide, direct, and motivate people is, in my opinion, the ability to get work done, to do business, to create things, and to create economies.

What would you say is the biggest change you’ve seen to EX strategies and attitudes? Especially over the last 3 years with that key change that shifted the entire world.

Right now is a very loaded time for this loaded question. Much like the last few years, I feel like anything I say now is going to be outdated in a month. It’s just all changing so fast.

Qualtrics' Director of EX Strategy Execution, Sarah Marrs

Today’s big change is technology coming along to such an extent that people can get feedback more often. When I started, feedback meant a paper survey you physically filled in. We’ve come a long way since then, but that was just how we did it. All those barriers have now broken down, which means that you can get feedback more often. That’s a very physical and tactical example, but also a quick change that’s come about.

But the reason I say that now is a really loaded time is because of all of the movement that we’re seeing. Specifically, I’m thinking of OpenAI, ChatGPT, large language models, etc. At the start, I knew about 20% of how these work. And a few days later, I know so much more. We’re starting to formulate a plan as a business, and then probably a week later, I’m going to feel like I know nothing.

We all need to get our heads around how much our products, and how people interact with surveys and data, is going to change. This AI is changing the way we do business. It’s changing the work that our teams do, either in how much work they have now, or in how it improves their work.

We now need products that leverage language models where you’re not getting numbers on a dashboard, you’re getting a little paragraph written out for you that’s summarising all of that. And that’s the minimum, most basic thing that we have to do. That’s just going to become the new normal really, really quickly.

Employee expectations also skyrocketed during the pandemic. But they got so high, and haven’t yet fallen back down. Despite the job market being a little bit challenging, those expectations from employees are still there.

Society has just changed, and I don’t see it going back. It may pull back a little bit, but I don’t think it’s going to go to a full revert back to what we had before.

In a year’s time, everything going to be completely different again. And we can’t afford to ignore the changes.

What would you say is always going to remain a core principle and priority for EX? No matter the times changing around it.

Behaviour change. Human behaviour is a complicated thing. It’s a science. 

I believe that the EX industry has been okay in this area. It still happens a lot that people look at the results, put them in a drawer somewhere because they’re not really seen as integral to the business. Like truly as integral to the business as your stock price or your revenue for this quarter. What’s happening is the tech barriers.

And the ability to get this information to leaders in a way that feels very connected to the problems that they’re trying to solve. And it’s just very plain language, plain-spoken, that potential has never been there before. This will help us crack the goal of behaviour change, but the goal is still the same.

The cost of living crisis and even automation in AI are causing layoffs and job instability – how do you think employees can trust in their job security during this fragile time?

Interview Ellie Thornton and Sarah Marrs

At the moment, the job market is tough and money is top of mind for the majority. So a lot of people are going to make conservative choices. I personally don’t think people are going to be leaving their job for the next thing. People are thinking really, really carefully about their moves, and the boundaries that they can control.

Employees will always try and control their boundaries, and the things that became more important to them during the pandemic are still there. It’s just a question of waiting until that job market changes that those things will become levers and drivers again.

Likewise, how do you think managers can trust in the loyalty of their employees? What actions can they put in place at this time to ensure a secure working environment?

The first thing for managers to understand is that the idea that an employee will be loyal just for the sake of it, or just because they’ve been there a long time is absolutely gone. And managers have to earn that loyalty and continue to earn that loyalty throughout the tenure.

It’s a time-old system of career progression, understanding what people want and making sure you find ways to make that available to them. And this can only happen through listening and trust on both sides. I’m a big believer in showing loyalty to get loyalty back in the workplace. 

The security part is a tough one because a lot of managers will have been in a position where they have had to make redundancies. And once that happens it shakes everything – the team especially.

This brings back the fact that work is many things in our lives. It’s a sense of purpose, it’s achievement. It builds our personal capital. It builds our worth through our careers, everything. But it’s also an economic necessity and an economic relationship. And once it makes no less sense for the company to keep that relationship, they will end that, and they’re within the rights to do so. And sometimes that’s an uncomfortable thing for us to hold together.

I honestly don’t know that I have a good answer other than through my experience – which is just to be as honest and fair as possible, which is sometimes the only way you can really approach it.

Any final advice to companies when it comes to their EX strategies?

I think employees’ bullsh*t radar is very high.

That has gone up exponentially, especially in the younger employees. So just steer away from any kind of lip service. Go into it with the right intention of listening. Truly listening is basically your job in this whole thing. Don’t dismiss your employees. You don’t necessarily have to change anything, but people care about their job, they care about the company, and they’re entitled to.

Make yourself aware of their feedback. Maybe you don’t have to fix everything or act on anything that you did. But it’s always your job to listen and acknowledge.

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