How the working experience has changed in recent years: Q+A with Sarah Marrs from Qualtrics

In an exclusive interview with Business Leader, we spoke to Sarah Marrs, Employee Experience Product Science Team Lead at Qualtrics, who discussed why more female than male managers look set to leave their roles in 2022 and how the working experience has changed in recent years.

What is your background and what were you doing before working at Qualtrics?

My background has always been in HR. Whilst my German degree may not be the most conventional route, I started my career in recruitment before moving into HR consulting, specialising in employee engagement surveys. I worked in consulting for six years before joining Qualtrics in early 2015. I completed a Masters degree in Work and Organisational Behaviour in 2019 and consider myself both an organisational behaviour scientist and HR practitioner.

Why do more female than male managers look set to leave their roles in 2022 and what needs to be done to prevent the loss of female talent in the workplace?

It’s a really interesting finding from our Employee Experience Trends research, and whichever way you look at it, the difference is stark for female middle managers. In terms of intent to stay, women went from being seven percentage points above males to five points below in the last year.

Why the rapid decline? Well there will be plenty of factors and no one size fits all solution, but when we looked at the drivers of intent to stay, we found the one factor that spiked for female middle managers – that didn’t spike for middle managers or females in general – was recognition.

It really got me thinking about the glass ceiling effect and the barriers women face in career advancement. We know from previous research that women tend to do more unseen value-add work for the team than males. I wonder whether women are feeling unappreciated in the workplace, and maybe there’s even a heightened sense of empowerment for women now given the increased focus on inclusion in organisations.

It should also be considered that, for females, flexible working is increasingly important and they are moving their careers towards companies that offer them that flexibility.

Has the workplace experience for women improved or worsened in recent years?

This is such a good question. I don’t know if I can answer this from a data perspective, but I can answer it based on what I’ve seen as an employee experience expert.

It has improved… however, it’s far from where it needs to be. Back when I started my career, the industry was very much a boys’ club. Inappropriate and demeaning behaviour, meetings that revolved around football, being the only female in the room over and over, and so on. Some of that is behind us, thankfully.

Yet, I still have too many conversations with women about the glass ceiling and sub-par behaviour and performance from men which is continually excused. There’s a fascinating book on my reading list from one of my Org Psych heroes, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, called “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?”. That title alone really resonates with my personal experience.

One thing I am very sure of, however, is that bias in the workplace is perpetuated by all of us – male and female. This is not just a men problem, this is a society problem, which we all are susceptible to.

Do you think employees are becoming less tolerant of a poor working experience?

100% yes. The balance of power is shifting. Unfulfilling working experiences are a huge driver of the current wave of people leaving employment for new opportunities, branded ‘The Great Resignation’. The pandemic gave employees time to reassess their working priorities, causing employee expectations to heighten and tolerance of pressure and tough workloads to drop.

The same Qualtrics Employee Experience Trends research highlights a clear gap between what organisations think they are delivering and what employees actually want. Therefore, IT and HR leaders need to work together to take informed action on the experience data they collect and produce a hybrid workplace experience that works for everyone.

Have the priorities of employees changed in recent years?

The relationship that employees expect with their employers has really changed – they are looking for a company that stimulates their minds but also pays enough to improve their wellbeing outside of work. It seems that it is a lot less transactional than it used to be.

We are seeing a rise in employee expectations around wellbeing (i.e. not being prepared to put up with working all hours anymore!), inclusion (expecting to work for a company which has a diverse executive team) and sustainability (working for a company that has an executed mission to reduce their environmental impact). In the past, frankly, companies often got away with simply stating these three pillars on their mission statements, but this is all changing, and for the better.

Do you expect employee expectations to change in the years ahead, and if so, in what ways?

There are two ways that jump out to me. The first is flexibility. I think the companies that will win out are those that give employees the best of both worlds – a great office space to use when they want, combined with the ability to work from wherever they want, at times that it’s convenient. It’s a concept that scares a lot of leaders because it requires giving up control, but personally I think this is a one-way door and learning to lead without control (but rather through influence) is the only way forward, and a skill all leaders need to get better at.

The second is authenticity. I remember, not all that long ago, a colleague of mine came into work with a beard and one of the partners quietly told him it would be better if he shaved it off before coming in tomorrow. A beard! I wore suits every day for the first eight years of my career and while I still like to do so occasionally, I couldn’t imagine going back to corporate wear because it doesn’t reflect who I am.  I remember the relief of when lockdown started and not feeling like I had to paint my eyebrows on every day to go to work (now I still do, but only when I feel like it).

In the last few years, I’ve seen more tattoos on display, more piercings, different hair styles – I think people really expect to be able to express themselves much more at work, and I for one am all for it.