How to apply design thinking to the employee experience

Employee experience is too important to let it just happen.

Future of Work

For a long time, the employee experience wasn't so much designed as it just sort of... happened. The work tools, process, and conditions were dictated by the company's goals. How employees experienced it was their concern, not the company's. The very idea of something called the "employee experience" would have been baffling to the factory managers of yesteryear - and the office managers of just a decade or two ago.

Fortunately, savvy executives started hearing what their HR teams were telling them: that it's better for business to have happy employees who stick around, and that employee experience design is a key way to ensure that happiness. Known as EX design for short, it applies the design thinking process of CX and UX to the workplace to improve the employee experience. EX design was already one of the most influential new management ideas before the pandemic hit.

When companies suddenly found themselves dealing with new digital tools and remote workers, EX design really sprouted wings. From preventing burnout, to performance management, to how to boost engagement, the design thinking mindset provides clear, objective guideposts to solving some of the biggest challenges of the hybrid work age. But how does it work? How do all those buzzwords translate into action?

What exactly is "employee experience", anyway?

In its simplest terms, employee experience includes every aspect of the entire employee journey. That could cover anything and everything from the first job ad they see, to their swipe badge, to their annual reviews, to their insurance benefits, and every other detail of work life.

Those details can be broken down into three broad areas:

  • People
    Relationships with co-workers, managers, direct reports, customers, vendors, etc., and the overall culture and social atmosphere on the job.
  • Setting
    The virtual and physical environment where work gets done, and the tools and conditions under which that work gets done.
  • Work
    Tasks, processes, goals, and results, including the organization's strategy and mission and the employee's purpose in executing against it.

The discipline of employee experience design arose in recent years as a holistic practice of bringing the customer experience revolution to the workplace. Its focus is on the employee as the "customer" and the job as the "product". While it found its most receptive audience in HR departments, the process touches teams across the company, from Ops to Marketing. Now nearly 80% of executives rate employee experience as "important" or "very important". The evidence is clear: every team, every worker benefits from building a more positive employee experience.

Love the problem: the design thinking process explained

In design thinking, problem solving starts by discarding any preconceived notions of what the solution should look like. It's often summed up with the maxim "Love the problem, not your solution." The design thinking process is open to input, innovation, unexpected directions: even the realization that your problem isn't what you thought.

The founders of Netflix thought they were solving the problem "how can customers get a better DVD rental experience?" When design thinking told them the correct problem was "how can customers watch whatever they want most easily?", they made one of the greatest customer experience breakthroughs of all time.

Many organizations will have their own specific design thinking roadmap. Here's one way to break down the iterative process of design thinking:

  1. Empathize with the user
  2. Analyze the data
  3. Identify the opportunities
  4. Prototype a solution
  5. Experiment & iterate

We'll take you through each step in this process. Along the way, we'll also follow a hypothetical project so you can see what applying design thinking for employee experience might look like in practice.

The problem: burnout & turnover

A small-to-midsize company provides ecommerce services to independent wineries. Their seller services team has experienced a lot of turmoil over the past year. Many employees have left. New hires have not tended to last long. And employees who've stayed report much higher levels of stress and burnout than other teams in the company. This is despite the fact that not much has changed in the team's workload or processes.

1. Empathize with the user: engage employees and gather data

The design thinking process revolves around the user. So when designing the employee experience, it's absolutely essential to start with employees. This can be done through questionnaires, ethnographic surveys, focus groups, qualitative interviews, and other field research methods. From the different perspectives and challenges that each employee experiences, common pain points will emerge and help build employee personas. This stage of research can often be eye-opening for senior leaders.

Empirical data is also key to this stage of the process. Such information as time spent in meetings, deadlines hit or missed, hours worked at night or on weekends, and when messages are sent in a specific channel or app: these can all help bring objectivity to the process.

The data: stressed out and spread out

In interviews with the team, many people express feeling overwhelmed by work demands even though the workload itself doesn't seem excessive. They mention never being able to "shut off", and having to do a lot of work outside normal hours to meet deadlines. This is backed up by meeting data and messaging timestamps. It also comes out that the team members are split between two different timezones a few hours apart, and that a few employees now have school-age children.

2. Analyze the data: what can it tell us?

Next comes a process of analyzing and synthesizing all that data to find the story within. Subjective, qualitative employee experience and objective, quantitative data are equally important in design thinking. Where in the employee journey are employees most stressed? What else is happening in existing processes right before, or after, those moments? What does the company's performance data tell us? Conscious thinking about every influence on the workplace is the heart of employee experience design, so those correlations are often where the hidden story lies.

The story: time mismatch

The team has always had a weekly approval meeting on Monday afternoons. This seemed to make sense as a way to set priorities for the week, but messaging and performance data shows that there's always a rush to meet this deadline by working over the weekends. It's also rare that every stakeholder can make the meeting, leading to some delays in approvals. Also, Mondays tend to be heavy on other in-person meetings and video calls, so there's little opportunity to get things done in the hours before the approval meeting. And finally, for half of the team, that meeting is at the very end of the workday, when the level of energy and engagement are flagging.


3. Identify the opportunities for a more positive employee experience

By this stage in the employee experience design process, we're starting to see where the correct problem is. What starts as an investigation into some specific challenges often reveals bigger needs: to streamline existing processes, iron out wasteful pain points, and improve the employee experience for everyone. These "Eureka moments" can present momentous opportunities to uplevel the company as a whole.

The opportunity: fewer meetings, lower stress

Clearly, our hypothetical employees would benefit from not only a better time to have this big review meeting, but from fewer time spent in meetings altogether. Asynchronous or automated approval processes would eliminate the need for everyone to be in the same real or virtual workplace at the same time. It would also empower employees to handle their personal caring responsibilities without sacrificing work priorities.

4. Prototype a solution

Notice that we said a solution, not the solution. Since all the possible solutions involve tradeoffs, this is not the time to get attached to one single approach. The design thinking mindset is about exploring new ideas and different perspectives for addressing the opportunities identified in the previous step. Then, when you've brainstormed a galaxy of ideas, focus on one star that gives a strong, clear answer: what if we did it this way? That's your prototype.

The prototype: a 15-minute Wednesday check-in

One possibility would be to eliminate meetings completely and make the entire approval process asychronous, conducted in Slack messages. But the team values the ability to sometimes discuss things face-to-face, as well as the visibility into what other employees on the team are working on. So the prototype solution would be to have a focused 15-minute round-robin, at a time on Wednesdays that's before lunch in one time zone and after lunch in the other. (No more Monday deadlines to work over the weekend to meet!) Further discussions and approvals can happen one-on-one as needed, at times that suit the participants.

5. Experiment and iterate

Even the best ideas won't always go according to plan. And that's OK - in fact, the design thinking process thrives on it. Actual workplace usage will reveal insights that nobody could have anticipated. Then it's time to take what you've learned, apply it, and experiment again. Employee experience design should always be a living process, evolving with the company, the employees, and new digital tools. A firm anchoring in design thinking will keep HR leaders focused on what ultimately matters most: the employee.

The results: not enough time, and the wrong day

The team appreciated the streamlined approach. Weekend work went sharply down, and parents were able to deal with childcare duties much more easily. But they found that 15 minutes was never quite long enough to get through the discussion. And it turned out that since many of the company's sellers were very busy on Fridays, having the review on Wednesday didn't give the team enough time to implement changes. So now they're trying a 30-minute meeting on Tuesdays. Only time will tell if this is THE solution, but the team is already seeing positive results, and moving in the right direction.

Ready for the benefits of a better employee experience?

WNDYR has been at the intersection of humanity and technology since long before the remote-work revolution. And now we're in the thick of it, bringing digital transformation to companies around the world. If you're ready for your employees to join the hundreds of thousands who are living the future of right now thanks to WNDYR, reach out today.

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