Why We Need To Design Work To Feel Like An Experience And Not Like A Transaction

Do you or your employees show up at work expecting an experience or a transaction? You probably don’t think about it that way, but subconsciously it can have a big effect on your overall job satisfaction and performance. A transaction is simple: you pay either time or money in exchange for something else, like a new pair or shoes or a loaf of bread. With an experience, you offer something up but don’t get anything physical in return–what you purchase is something to do and feel, like skydiving, eating a great meal, or camping.

Psychologist Tom Gilovich, who I interviewed for my latest book on employee experience, did a study on how satisfaction changes over time when you spend money on a physical item versus an experience. He found that if you spend money on a tangible item, over time your satisfaction goes down. However, if you spend that money on an experience, over time your satisfaction goes up.

But how does this apply to the workplace? We can also view relationships like transactions or experiences. Often times, we fall into the trap of making everything transactional: I’ll do something for you if you give me something else. At work, that can translate to showing up and getting your work done just to secure a paycheck. It tends to be less authentic, personal, and sincere, with employees not really putting the effort in to build relationships because they are only there for the money. According to Dr. Gilovich’s study, this leads to job satisfaction going down over time. That makes sense–if work is a transaction, there isn’t a true connection between the employee and the organization and its culture, so that sense of belonging, purpose, and satisfaction isn’t there. This happens a lot with new employees at an organization who start with a high level of satisfaction that wanes over time. Employees likely end up with the same feeling they would get if they bought something from an anonymous user on eBay: happy with what they got from the transaction but not filled with a lasting relationship or happiness. Over time, it can lead to resentment towards the company and a lower quality of work produced.

On the flip side, viewing work as an experience tends to lead to high levels of satisfaction and much more engaged employees. If employees view their time with an organization as an experience, they will put more effort into their work and relationships. After all, if you purchase a trip around the world, you’ll want to show up to get the most out of it. Experiences grow and change over time and leave employees with changed feelings, growth opportunities, and new emotions over time. That leads to increased satisfaction over time as the employee grows in the organization and become more connected to the company. With an experience, both sides have to put in effort, and the results can last much longer. Experiences tend to stick around longer than transactions and can lead to more personal growth and development. While items purchased can break and go out of style, experiences tend to stick with us and can lead to more engagement, just like the feeling you get looking back at an experience like a trip or time with friends.

Consider how you view your time at work–is it a transaction where you show up for a paycheck, or is it an experience where you grow and learn? What can your organization do to foster an experiential attitude that facilitates growth instead of turning work into a transactional daily grind? Changing the attitude of the company and the employees can have a big impact.

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