Work experience design: who's driving?

EX design is picking up steam every day. Now let's figure out who should be at the wheel.

Future of Work

If you were on the web in the 1990s or early 2000s, you probably remember feeling wonder at the new possibilities this technology opened up... and feeling disappointed at how clunky those technologies were to use. Back then, you might have scoffed at the idea of doing your banking, buying all your event tickets, booking hotels, even grocery shopping online. Wrestling with those awkward, aggravating Web 1.0 interfaces was more hassle than picking up a phone or driving to a store.

So what happened? Forward-thinking businesses realized that great engineering wasn't enough. For people to actually use that technology, the entire context and process had to be re-thought from the user's perspective. In short, the experience had to be designed, as surely as a car or a running shoe. The whole discipline of user experience design was born. And it shapes the lives we live today.

Unfortunately, one part of life has been mostly left out: work. We spend more waking hours working than doing any other single activity. But the employee experience hasn't been approached as a "product" with "customers" whose needs should come first, a la UX design. It hasn't been looked at as a system, whose element influences every other. It certainly hasn't been treated as a vital factor in every employer's bottom line.

EX design: what the future of work looks like

Now that's starting to change. The emerging field of employee experience design brings the empathetic lens, data-driven process, and systems thinking of UX design to the world of work.

So what exactly is "employee experience"? While it includes the physical workspace, it doesn't stop there, especially in the age of remote and hybrid working. The full work experience includes getting to work, hours of work, tools (virtual and physical), and the people you work with. It covers the social relationships people have at work and the way they feel about their work. And EX design can range from granular details like a benefits presentation to broad values like sense of purpose.

It's one of the top trends transforming workplaces right now. And not a moment too soon. In a tight talent market, with restless employees reevaluating their priorities after a traumatic global pandemic, work satisfaction is more important than ever to retention and productivity. A global study of 23,000 employees in 45 countries found that employees who report higher satisfaction are almost twice as likely to put extra effort into their work, and half as likely to be looking for a new job.

As the future of remote working takes shape, EX design will be THE crucial ingredient that makes an organization's digital transformation a success or a failure.

All aboard the EX Express... but who's driving?

EX design as a concept is still very new to almost all companies, so it doesn't have an obvious departmental home. Some companies tag it as strictly the responsibility of HR, or maybe Marketing. For others, it's seen as an Operations thing, or it winds up in IT's slate of digital transformation initiatives. Sometimes it's even left up to individual managers to work out for their specific teams.

Needless to say, these kinds of ad hoc, siloed solutions are doomed to fall short. They're contrary to one of the central insights of EX design: that no part of the work experience exists in isolation. Getting serious about EX design requires a full-court press across the entire organization.

OK, sure, you might say, but somebody has to drive this thing, right? Sweeping changes don't just initiate and organize and implement themselves across a complex organization. And you'd be right. Work experience design in the context of modern workplace transformation requires a close relationship between two departments that haven't always been joined at the hip: Human Resources and Operations.

HR + Ops, together at last

The industrial-age organizational mindset defined Human Resources as the ultimate "soft" domain and Operations as a "hard" one: birthday parties and health insurance vs. trucks and tools. The digital age started blurring those lines long before COVID. Soft tasks have been increasingly carried out with technological tools, and the human factor has become more and more important as workplace processes have gotten more sophisticated.

But the pandemic finally shoved these two wary partners into each other's arms, and HR and Ops are only going to need to get closer in coming years. Here's why:

EX design crosses disciplines. Capability-focused divisions like IT, Marketing, Sales, and Finance are inherently not well-positioned to take an organization-wide perspective. HR and Operations, for all their differences, span the divides between all the various disciplines in the company. They have wider insight into the two key pillars of EX design: how things get done, and who does them.

The C-suite has to be all-in. Because of their unique position outside the usual tussles between departments for priority and resources, HR and Ops can make a more credible case for the shift toward EX design thinking. A discipline-based team like Marketing or IT, on the other hand, will bring their own particular lens (and sometimes, let's be honest, baggage) into the room with them. Executives are already used to thinking of HR and Ops as enabling and optimizing the organization's deployment of talent. So spearheading work experience design is a natural evolution of what they've been doing all along.

EX design exploration is a dynamic interplay of tools, systems, contexts, and people. Bringing design thinking to the employee experience is a process of testing and iterating. And every potential variable in that testing is important, whether it's the workers, the platforms, the procedures, the workplace, or the communications around it. If only Operations were running tests, for example, their traditional bias might miss some key factors and reach the wrong conclusions. The story's the same if HR is running solo. Only a full-spectrum team can capture the entirety of those factors.

People-work data is crucial. And HR and Ops have a head start working with the data that's most relevant to EX design. From task timelines and resource allocation to engagement surveys and employee turnover, those two departments already collect and analyze the data that matters most to getting started with a digital transformation. As the strategy gets refined, deepening that people-analytics expertise won't require a major leap from either HR or Ops. It's right in their wheelhouse.

The tech stack must be tamed. Remember the hasty adoption of all those apps and virtual platforms when we were all suddenly forced to reckon with how remote work gets done? Stringing together whatever tools were close at hand may have worked for the moment, but at a high price in both efficiency and wasted money. It's time to revisit, reset, and rationalize. HR and Ops have to put their heads together to come up with solutions that integrate with each other, and with the unique work culture of every business.

AI and automation will transform management. Even now, the routine administrative tasks that take up the bulk of a manager's time are automated more and more often. The growing presence of AI in remote management solutions will demand a rethinking of both admin procedures and the manager's role. The manager of the future will spend more time managing people, not managing work. This could have a massive upside for businesses that are prepared to support this shift. Ops and HR, that's where you come in.

But every other department has a stake in EX design, too

We've all seen how even the most well-intentioned efficiency improvement ideas can come to nothing without widespread, full-hearted buy-in across the organization. That would go double for an initiative as fundamental and transformational as EX design. Every team in the building, every executive has something to contribute to the process, and will reap the benefits.

Which is another reason HR and Ops are perfectly positioned to lead the change. They've already got relationships with the many diverse groups that make any company function. If anyone could bring together an accountant, a graphic designer, an account exec, a software developer, and a maintenance tech to participate in the same process, it's Human Resources and Operations. Over the last 20 years, UX design has changed how we live as friends, as consumers, as citizens. Now, with HR and Ops side-by-side, the next 20 years are set to see EX design do the same for our lives as workers.

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