Photo of a benefits manager holding a design thinking session over videoconferencePhoto of a benefits manager holding a design thinking session over videoconference

How design thinking can improve your employee experience

December 9, 2020
Heidi Pearson

Design thinking principles can help your HR team take an empathetic approach to developing people-centered programs in 2021 and beyond.

There seems to be a buzzworthy new process improvement methodology every few months in the business world. Six Sigma, lean management, Kaizen, and reengineering have all had their moments in the spotlight. Design thinking is an approach that’s received renewed attention in recent years. How is it different and worthy of your consideration as an HR professional? The quick answer: it focuses on humans. Design thinking is a fresh way to approach HR initiatives and goals that’s rooted in your company’s most important asset—its people.

The Society of Human Resource Managers (SHRM) defines design thinking as “developing an in-depth understanding of people for whom solutions are being designed and [involving] them in the process so as to come up with out-of-the-box ideas to enhance their workplace experience.” And an improved workplace experience can help your company retain the best-and-brightest talent.

As you look ahead to 2021, here’s how you can tap into the power of design thinking for—and more importantly, with—your employees.

Design thinking principles

The design thinking methodology originated in the 1960s, when it was primarily used in manufacturing. Companies realized that employees were the best way to identify existing problems and come up with creative solutions to those problems. This powerful, employee-focused approach has been harnessed by countless other sectors and industries in the decades since. It became popular again in corporate settings with creative agency IDEO’s reintroduction of the concept in 2008.

The great news for HR pros? Implementing design thinking principles doesn’t require a complicated, time-intensive new process. Employees are already at the heart of your daily practice, so leading your company in adopting a design thinking mindset will feel like a natural extension of the work you’re already doing. And the impact on your employees and HR programs can be huge.

Design thinking can help you:

  • understand how your employees currently perceive their work life.
  • envision how your employees want to experience their work life.
  • design and implement changes that manifest that vision in a way that is feasible for your company.

Design thinking process

Putting design thinking into practice typically involves five key steps. Throughout all the steps, it’s essential to stay focused on your employees and their needs. Make it clear that design thinking isn’t a methodology being applied to them; it’s a methodology being applied through them. Their involvement is not only welcomed and encouraged—it’s 100 percent essential for success. Design thinking should feel intriguing, inviting, inclusive, and exciting for employees.

Here’s an example of how your HR team might lead your organization through a design-thinking exercise to address a challenge affecting many companies today: transitioning to fully remote-working conditions.

Step 1: Empathize

The goal of this phase is to capture a clear picture of the challenges your employees face. Conduct research to develop an understanding of employees’ experience. Depending on your company’s size and other factors, this might include surveys, anonymous feedback loops, small-group discussions, and one-on-one or small group interviews to capture the challenges employees are facing while working remotely. “The focus is on achieving connection,” according to the Harvard Business Review (HBR).

Step 2: Define

Synthesize your research and share common themes gleaned from employee perceptions and insights about their workplace experience, both positive and negative. Define one clear problem statement to pursue for the remaining steps. For example, “Our employees lack a sense of connection to one another while working remotely.”

Step 3: Ideate

Involve employees in generating a range of ideas and solutions—the more creative and unusual, the better. Make it easy and fun for your employees to share their ideas. Virtual brainstorming sessions, emails, and instant messaging channels can do the job, but also an anonymous feedback loop may be a good alternative for employees who might prefer to creatively ideate without their name attached. For example, Poll Everywhere is an online tool that allows real-time, anonymous responses and lets you generate idea clouds and other helpful reports.

Step 4: Prototype

Implement at least two (or more, if your company’s circumstances allow) of the ideated solutions. HBR calls this try storming—it’s like brainstorming but goes beyond thinking up ideas to actually testing them out, which gives employees a chance to give feedback that’s more detailed, concrete, and useful instead of commenting on a hypothetical solution.

For example, let’s say one of the ideas that came up during the ideation phase was to organize a company-wide, virtual culinary class. You can try storm the idea by hiring a Tex-Mex chef, delivering necessary groceries to each employee along with a few fun decorations, and holding a cooking class for employees and their families.

Step 5: Test

Return to employees for feedback on your prototypes. What worked? What didn’t? Did the experiments solve the defined problem, and were they worth repeating? If not, what idea or ideas should your team try prototyping next?

As with any process improvement methodology, it may take some time for your company to hit its design thinking stride. The more your employees participate and experience positive changes aligned with their feedback, the more they’ll embrace the process.

Ultimately, design thinking can make a profound impact on your HR program and your company. By tapping into the creative power of your employees, you’ll make them feel valued and invested. Along the way, you’ll successfully tease out innovative solutions that enhance their workplace experience, cultivating trust and loyalty to your company in 2021 and beyond.

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