There’s a battle raging for the future of HR, even the future of business, and the battleground lies between Employee Engagement and Employee Experience.

Which is more important? Are they the same thing given different names? Which will make the biggest impact on your bottom line? What is employee experience anyway? We’re going to answer all of these questions, as unbiasedly as possible.

What are employee experience and employee engagement?

Employee Experience is gaining ground as a new ‘buzz phrase’ in business circles, encroaching on the buzz that’s been surrounding employee engagement for the past several years.

Is it different than Employee Engagement? Well… that depends on who you ask. For us, employee experience and employee engagement are players on the same team. You’re not doing your best work if you try to have one without the other. We build employee experience into our approach to engagement because they’re so integral. This isn’t true for every Employee Engagement service or product, or for every business owner, or for every HR department. Some try to separate the two, and this is how they do it.

Employee Engagement is a program designed to get the employee emotionally invested in the work and well-being of the company, so they have a higher quality output, are more productive, and have higher retention rates.

This isn’t our definition of Employee Engagement, but it’s part of it.

The problem with the definition of Employee Engagement above is that it’s too one-sided. It’s about what the employer wants from the employee, rather than including how the employer can support the employee. We believe employers have to be as invested in the whole-person well-being of their employees as they want their employees to be invested in their work.

Employee Experience is gaining ground because the phrase approaches employee well-being and happiness from the employee’s perspective. It’s billed as “the next evolution of the workplace” by author Jacob Morgan. In his book The Employee Experience Advantage, and other research publications, employee experience is described in exactly the same way as we describe Employee Engagement. There’s no defining line. Just different terms for the same thing.

However, most definitions of Employee Experience focus on employee enjoyment of their work (ie. employee happiness), instead of employees connecting to a sense of deeper meaning in their work (employee engagement). We think this is the key difference.

You can create a workplace where employees enjoy coming to work relatively easily. Install a snack room and foosball table, Google-style. Hire a yoga instructor to teach a pre-workday class. These things give employees a “personalized experience” (what this article in Entrepreneur magazine recommends), but they don’t generate the heart-driven motivation to bring your best self to work every day.

Happiness is fleeting. It’s a moving target. Meaning is powerful, deep, steady, and emotionally resonant without emotion’s volatility.

Do employees need to be happy at work? Yes. Humans need joy in their lives, and we spend most of our lives at work. But to do their best work, it’s not happiness that motivates people. It’s meaning. And that is the difference between Employee Experience (happiness) and Employee Engagement (meaning), in our opinion.

It’s also why Employee Engagement will more positively impact your bottom line, as productivity and retention rates rise.

How to Improve Engagement and Experience at the Same Time

As we said, you need both. Engagement won’t have much impact if the working environment doesn’t also provide moments of joy and camaraderie. Here are a few ways to start bringing meaning and enjoyment together in your workspace.

Create Opportunities to Build Connections: Human connection is integral to both Engagement and positive Experience, so it’s important to foster connections among colleagues, leadership, and the wider community. Much of this can be done by improving communication and responding to what your employees say they need, earning their trust and goodwill.

Strengthen the Sense of Purpose: We recommend business leaders have an internally stated “Engaged Purpose” that connects the work employees do to a larger, impactful vision. How does your company make people’s lives, or the world, better? Aligning everyone behind your purpose is the first step towards embedding meaning and engagement into your company culture.

Show Appreciation: Showing appreciation to employees and colleagues in day-to-day interactions and in more formal meetings goes a long way toward building positive, meaningful relationships, and a more enthusiastic work environment.

Act on Employee Feedback: One thing that many “Experience”-centric books and articles miss is actually asking your employees what they think would improve their experiences. Don’t assume, and don’t act based solely on what a self-appointed expert tells you – ask your employees. Would they enjoy a pre-work yoga session or mindfulness meditation? Or would they like healthier options in the cafeteria? Maybe lunchtime collaboration walks. Ask them to brainstorm, show appreciation for their input, and incorporate the ideas that you reasonably can. This builds engagement at the same time, as employees see that their ideas matter and affect real change.