Using design thinking to improve employee experience

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The last couple of years has seen a shift in HR from running the simplistic staff engagement and culture surveys towards improving the broader idea of the ‘employee experience’, which incorporate factors such as employee satisfaction, training and development, positive work environment, supportive management and a clear purpose.

One of the most important ideas in business over the past two decades has been design thinking. It now influences every part of running an organisation from production to service delivery and organisational design. For an HR professional, it has become one of the most important foundations for improving employee experience.

The basic theory of design thinking is that it’s possible to create continuous improvement by adopting a cycle of research, prototyping and testing. The process was first systematized in the design industry to make physical products, but it has come to be equally relevant in every other field, including HR.

In our experience, whenever we see design thinking baked into an organisation’s HR processes, their employee experience measures always start to improve.

Design thinking begins with research, talking to the users of your product or service and discovering what they need. In the case of HR, that means undertaking regular anonymous employee surveys that give you a pulse check of how your people think you could improve your processes. Importantly, it also creates a channel to identify any destructive workplace factors such as bullying.

After research, the design thinking process takes you into a prototyping phase – building a test solution for the problem you’ve identified in your research. In the case of HR, they might be action plans for reorganising the processes within your teams. It’s critical at this phase to ensure all team members are aware that the changes are being made as a direct result of the feedback they provided in the research phase.

Once the prototype solution is reached, the process takes you back to the research phase to measure the effectiveness of the prototype. In the case of HR, it’s a re-run of your employee survey, perhaps three to six months after the previous one. This will allow you to directly and immediately measure if your prototype solution was effective or not, and the impact it has had on overall employee experience.

After your second round of research, you’re back into the process of refining your prototype solution, implementing it and testing the results again. And hey presto, you’ve achieved a virtuous cycle of continuous improvement.

In 2019, design thinking should be a part of every workplace. But we also need to be careful not to overstate it as a revolution – in fact, it’s what progressive HR people and senior leaders have been doing for years without realising it had a label. That this way of working has been systematised and given a snappy name means that it has now become mainstream.

The burning question for HR people in 2019 isn’t: “Do you use design thinking?” The question we need to answer is: “How are you using design thinking to improve your employee experience?”


Written by Chris O’Reilly, CEO, AskYourTeam