Simple, Rewarding Employee Experiences for Heightened Enterprise Profitability: An Introduction to Design Thinking in HR

From the purpose and effectiveness of Design Thinking in HR to how businesses can go about embracing this concept, here’s an in-depth look at the revolution that is prioritizing human experiences for business profitability

I have been working with the popular franchise of a gold standard productivity paradigm for the past three years now.

Chances are, if you have ever wanted to boost how much you “get things done”, you have stumbled upon this framework and experimented with it.

Why am I bringing up this apparently unrelated bit of information here?

Because in serving as the marketing manager and campaign creator for the business, I am privy to exactly how stressed the corporate knowledge workers of today are.

70% of the people who come to the workshops admit that they feel both exhausted and overwhelmed. And they can trace most of the upheaval back to their office.

Don’t be afraid to prioritise!

About a decade ago employees were expected to be diligent and responsible.

They had set tasks to execute and competence was demonstrated if they could complete everything on their plate on time, in budget and without reinventing the proverbial wheel too many times.

But fast forward to 2017 and the scenario has changed – drastically.

Today workers are expected to first define what their tasks and projects are and then find ways to execute the to-dos in an increasingly productive manner for optimal utilization of the available resources.

That is a very tall order indeed.

There is no dearth of studies on the mounting stress in the workplace. And though the approaches are different, a few common findings emerge.

  • 8 out of 10 Americans are stressed at work. Positive stress or tension is a good thing but negative stress – where the employees feel powerless and ill equipped to handle the situation they are in is detrimental to health and well-being and this is the kind of stress that is on the rise.
  • Employees receive around 121 emails every day. They also get their fair share of instant messages and attend multiple meetings that do not yield conclusive results around who is to take charge of what. This results in a massive input of chaotic information from which they are expected to sieve their tasks or projects, a bona fide recipe for overwhelm.
  • Productivity increases of 10% to 25% a year are required across the workforce if a company is to hold on to its market share in the face of stiff competition. However, because of dysfunctional HR dynamics, information overload and negative stress, employees end up losing productivity and spiral into chronic disengagement making the demands of the C suite and the achievement of their goals and objectives more difficult than ever.

The Well-Intentioned Mistake

It is not that enterprises and businesses are turning a blind eye to the challenges of overwhelm – one of 12 critical HR issues – and disengagement assaulting the workforce.

They do wish to provide a meaningful career, freedom and creativity to employees. They do want talent to feel empowered.

CEOs and HR leaders see talent as a major challenge to growth.

The rise of organizational paradigms like Holacracy (adopted by Zappos and being followed with great interest by Human Resource departments the world over) are all about letting those in charge of a role understand their accountabilities and take independent decisions for the sustained and meaningful progress of the company as well as the individual.

Unfortunately, empowerment and independence often come at the cost of analysis paralysis and the situation is worsened by misalignment of perspectives.

Companies focus on processes, documentation and evaluation. They firmly believe that more choices and data make the lives of the workers easier. On the employees, they do not want a career – they want an experience through which prioritization is simple, decisions are streamlined and the bulk of cognitive power and time can de dedicated not to organizational processes but to obtaining an outcome or output through the effective use of resources.

This dissonance is a well-intentioned mistake on part of companies.

But a mistake nevertheless and it costs them:

  • Employee productivity
  • Employee peace of mind
  • Employee engagement
  • Employee focus and attention

Design Thinking to the Rescue: What is Design Thinking in HR and Why is it Needed?

Design Thinking puts simplification at the heart of HR practices.

Its power comes from the fact that through Design Thinking companies can craft situations which not only empower employees with the right to take pivotal decisions but also streamline the process of decision making, eliminating needless complexities that arise from organizational bureaucracy and information overload.

It turns the HR department into an “experience architect”. The organizations that embrace Design Thinking in HR:

  • Study employee segments for insights into their work preferences, the challenges they face in the present setting and the company goals they strive towards.
  • Generate ideas and test prototype solutions in rapid iterations to eliminate roadblocks and create experiences that assist these segments in achieving their objectives while making work more enjoyable, rewarding and simple.

Design Thinking does leverage tools, processes and documentation to find answers. But the focus is not on these organizational assets. It is squarely on the employees and how the use of tools and processes can benefit the workers.

In short when Design Thinking is incorporated in the HR department of a company, talent is put first.

Everything else is secondary and a means to the end of a happier, more productive workforce.

Having said that, it is important to ask the baseline question: “Does this shift from process to people reduce overwhelm, improve productivity and boost engagement?”

According to a survey by Deloitte:

  1. The more importance a company places on Design Thinking and the more it is ready to put the principles in practice, the more it grows.
  2. Companies that steadily grow by 10% or more every year are twice as likely to embrace Design Thinking than their competitors and peers with stagnant growth.

There is a definite and direct relationship between the incorporation of Design Thinking in HR and other aspects of the company.

Since HR is the division that interacts the most with the organizational talent and talent is the biggest company differentiator in the market, the positive impact of Design Thinking is the strongest when applied to the domain of Human Resources.

Creating Rewarding Employee Experiences with Design Thinking

Design Thinking advocates simplicity.

But that doesn’t mean organizations and companies should refrain from investing in sophisticated tools and business process automations which require fairly complex set-ups.

The interactions that people have with these technological solutions or organizational processes should be simple and intuitive. That is what Design Thinking helps achieve.

Examples and precedents abound for companies that want to go down the path of Design Thinking.

Holacracy does not tell you how to run your company

Zappos with its Holacracy structure understands that fresh talent is key to expansion and profitability.

It has employed Design Thinking to come up with a candidate friendly application process that not only delights the hopefuls but also expedites recruitment.

Nestle and Qualcomm have used Design Thinking with experiential learning to attack the problem of employee churn.

They offer worker focused, interactive, need based learning that makes talent feel valued and gives individuals the skills they lack to ascend to the next level in the hierarchy within the companies.

Air BnB has officially appointed a Chief Employee Experience Officer whose job entails having meaningful conversations with workers, identifying the resistances they face in their roles or positions and backing the show of concern up with tangible actions – like offering trainings, consultations or specific benefits – that actually contribute to rewarding employee experiences.

Though each organization is unique and will interpret the mandates of Design Thinking differently, asking the following questions is a good starting point to formulate a Design Thinking in HR strategy:

  • What are the values and the vision of the company?
  • Maintaining alignment with these values and the vision, what does the ideal employee experience look like for the company?
  • What are the constraints and restrictions – in technology or policy – that are keeping workers from having this experience?
  • How can these restrictions be removed? What are the solutions that might be leveraged?
  • Are these solutions intuitive and simple?

The answers may come from general employee surveys, focus groups or brainstorming sessions with consultants and in-house experts who possess domain specific insights or legacy company knowledge.

The restrictions identified can originate from multiple departments. The employee portal may be giving talent a hard time with its clunky interface and poor customizations.

The process to request leaves might result in employee frustration. Performance evaluation may be biased leading to worker resentment. Wage hikes may be far below industry standards or Learning Management (LM) can be outdated.

Keeping in mind the fact that all remedial measures and actions initiated will ultimately improve employee experiences provides a common end goal to strive towards and puts Design Thinking into context.

Trends That Support Incorporation of Design Thinking in HR

Design Thinking is simplicity. It is intuitiveness. It is innovation and enhanced employee experiences.

But as a rule of thumb, the more we move towards simplification of complexity, the more challenging is the road ahead in terms of conceptualization, implementation and refinement.

Before a company can begin to work on the principles of Design Thinking in the HR arena, it needs to polish its skills pool.

A comprehensive understanding of:

  • Big Data and how data driven business intelligence through predictive and prescriptive analytics can improve selection of solutions that facilitate rewarding worker experiences
  • Machine learning and automation for streamlining of repetitive tasks
  • UX centric mobile and web application design
  • Personalization of UX and content in response to user behaviour
  • Behavioural analysis or the science of applying known cognitive biases and psychological principles to explain decision making

Will stand any organization in good stead and is highly recommended.

The following are four key trends adding fuel to the fire of Design Thinking, making it possible for companies to translate on-paper solutions into reality and in some cases reinforcing the change being ushered in by Design Thinking.

1. Organizational Design

Rigid hierarchy is a thing of the past. As economic conditions become increasingly tumultuous and buyers grow more conscious every day, it is essential that businesses take immediate advantage of trends that promise “first action” payoffs to those who make calculated, strategic moves.

In order to do this agility is required. An agile enterprise is one in which employees have the freedom and the authority to take game changing decisions.

Fast-moving global markets and digital disruption have forced companies to innovate rapidly

When innovation has to await approval from the upper echelons, it loses momentum and can rarely ever be impactful.

This is the reason why more and more companies are decentralizing power.

The traditional chain of command is being replaced by networks of teams with qualified candidates or experts who hold ultimate authority when it comes to their roles and their assigned domains.

The focus on planning, strategy, vision, values, cross-functional communication and talent activation that is characteristic of organizational restructuring through design is often the perfect solution to the problems identified by Design Thinking.

As already discussed, paradigms like Holacracy are essentially talent centric.

The purpose of the company is fulfilled by giving individuals the permission to fulfil their individual purposes according to value imbued guidelines.

The result is increased transparency and trust for a more rewarding work culture.

2. Engagement

Engagement is a simple word. But where talent retention and utilization is concerned, it is an immensely profound concept.

An engaged workforce is one where the employees: 

  • Understand what their job is and the end goal they are working towards.
  • Are genuinely interested in achieving this goal because it satisfies a burning desire in them and this want isn’t restricted to “monetary incentives”.
  • Have the power to take decisions that move them forward on the path to the achievement of the overarching company goal and thus by association their own goals.

Many of the principles of Design Thinking lead to spontaneous and sustained engagement. Here’s how:

  • Engagement stems from participation. Decisions that involve all employees and have the scope of including their inputs are accepted by workers with open arms. Projects resulting from these decisions interest talent and people automatically give the undertakings their best because they are accountable for the decisions which generated the tasks. Equal opportunity participation is an essential aspect of Design Thinking as well. It propagates employee satisfaction.
  • Engagement stems from acknowledgement. It isn’t possible to take action on the inputs of all employees. But the simple act of acknowledging their presence and allowing them to share ideas in a safe and non-threatening environment can work wonders for a company. If the efforts are genuine, people feel valued. Design Thinking in HR believes in meeting the needs of enterprise talent. An employee whose contributions don’t stay stuck in the administrative cogs of the business is a happy worker who is less susceptible to churn and more productive than peers.

3. Customized Learning

Workers enjoy the hours they spend in their cubicles or willingly sacrifice weekends if they can:

  • See how their contributions add value to the organization
  • Be confident in the fact that their hard work will reap rewards

Fortunately, customized learning can assist with both.

Through tailored instructions in disciplines and subjects that are the stepping stones to the next level of employee growth, development and competence workers get an idea of how their puzzle pieces fit within the big picture of the organization’s vision and they also have the satisfaction of picking up skills that enrich their portfolios, giving them a better shot at the next promotion or leadership position.

Telling your employees that you want them to learn is different than asking them to promote that culture themselves

Recent innovations in corporate LM like:

  • Adaptive learning where self-paced courses adjust the medium of content delivery based on the learning style of the employee, shifting from text to audio to video depending on the level of learner engagement. These are psychologically proven to be more effective.
  • Peer-to-Peer learning embraced by companies like Google where 2000 peer learners have created a fluid ecosystem of exchange of thoughts, ideas and domain specific knowledge for better retention and the natural plugging of incipient skill gaps.
  • Manager mentoring where performance reviews aren’t just a disapproving and hostile overview of metrics but include helpful coaching from the managers who attempt to better understand employees and assist in boosting their productivity.

Prove invaluable in the quest to adopt Design Thinking and eliminate factors undermining employee engagement.

4. Analytics

Analytics and Business Intelligence tools naturally support the Design Thinking efforts of a company.

  • Descriptive Analytics is capable of visualizing data associated with a situation so that possible solutions can be hypothesized.
  • Predictive Analytics can take the past performance of similar courses of action and “predict” or estimate the success of the various solutions given resource constraints.
  • Prescriptive Analytics goes one step further. It can analyse a problem and recommend strategies to eliminate it. Of course, these suggestions must be refined by experts. But Prescriptive Analytics does a decent job of laying the foundation.

* * *

The aim of Design Thinking in HR is to make employees happier and more productive.

This is often accomplished through policy changes and often through the practice of Digital HR where custom solutions are created by leveraging automations or by helping discrete platforms like payroll management and performance review modules “communicate” with each other.

At the end of the day it all comes down to how willing a business is to let go of the obsession with processes and how easily it can take to becoming an architect of enjoyable, simple and rewarding human experiences – both inside the company (employees) and outside it (consumers).


Written By

Trina Moitra

Trina is a part of the CakeHR content team. She is a marketing funnel creator who has worked with 5 reputed HR SaaS startups and established ventures over the past several years. She has experience understanding how HR software should be sold and uses persuasion based strategies to generate results.