Design thinking for a better employee experience: Part 2, High-performing cultures

Recently, I wrote about the opportunity for HR to adopt employee- or worker-centric design, applying concepts from consumer research, product development and design thinking. Here, I provide a framework (illustrated above) for how those concepts relate to strategy, values, culture, purpose and the employee value proposition (EVP), and share practices used by high-performing companies, based on insights from our employee survey database.

Our framework: The ins and outs

Culture, which is rooted in a set of beliefs and values, is at the heart of our framework. High-performing companies integrate their values with the purpose of their business. So culture includes values, beliefs, purpose, and core business principles. As is often cited, leadership has the largest impact on culture.

Yet, culture also includes other formal aspects of the organisation and how it functions, such as structure and practices, as these strongly impact behavior and the employee experience. Many of these can be core HR programs, such as how behaviours and performance are managed and rewarded.

It’s the outer practices where design thinking is most easily applied to creating a compelling employee experience

The inner core elements tend to be relatively enduring, the hardest to change and often take the longest to transform. This is why we often hear statements like “it takes a long time to change culture,” “culture change is hard,” and “culture trumps strategy” when competition, market changes or a new business model forces a company to transform, but the culture doesn’t align to the new model. These elements are also difficult to imitate or replicate, and hence are often a true source of competitive advantage in high-performing organisations.

The outer elements reflect current practices and tend to evolve or be adapted over time. They’re typically easier to change, and it’s possible to change them relatively quickly. As such, it’s the outer practices where design thinking is most easily applied to creating a compelling employee experience.

For example, the way work is designed and sourced can be shaped through design thinking. Or the way an HR program is designed, such as an on-boarding process. The physical environment is also an example where design principles are used to shape culture. Some of the best known examples of this are companies that design for collaboration and innovation through use of shared spaces and activity-based work.

We regularly hear about tech companies that design their campus spaces to promote specific ways of working. These same companies often design the other programmatic elements such as their “employee benefits” (e.g., free cafes, campus transport) to further re-enforce the desired behaviours and culture.

The outer elements in the model are important, but not sufficient, to deliver a truly great employee experience and competitive advantage. High-performing organisations offer an experience that’s based on the more enduring characteristics at least as much, if not more than, the programmatic elements and practices.

Design is focused on the human experiences in the organisation, linking back to purpose and strategy and designing with the impact of behaviour in mind

For example, leaders in high-performing organisations use the core values and principles to guide decision-making, and instill the appropriate structures, processes and practices to support the behaviours and culture that deliver business strategy. Although these elements tend to be more enduring, the concepts of design thinking can still apply. In this context, it’s designing with the behaviors in mind that will be enabled or generated from that design.

This design can follow the same process outlined in my first blog – prototyping, testing, iterating and scaling. In this case, design is focused on the human experiences in the organisation, linking back to purpose and strategy and designing with the impact of behaviour in mind.

As Damian Madray writes “culture-thinking is behavior-centered. It focuses on the actions around our designs and assessing, at scale, its impact, i.e, culture-generated. To think about behaviors a design generates is to carefully study where we’re putting the attention of a user.”

Madray uses Facebook as an example. The way friends are defined, social connections made, and individuals interact has changed the behavior of millions and the culture of our societies. Design thinking, in this context, encourages us to think about design through the lens of the social and emotional experiences and the accompanying behaviours and culture.

Understanding behavior is key to unlocking cultural change

High-performing organisations build employee alignment to purpose, and an emotional engagement to the organisation. We often see this is through a leadership commitment to sustainability – whether through social, environmental, or community, or to company brand or other programs – that generate a strong emotional attachment to the organisation. Another example is through inclusion and diversity. For employees, younger generations specifically, these are often key to their decision to join and stay with an organisation.

This gets us to the concept of EVP, the experience of working for an organisation. It’s often implicit or unstated, although companies increasingly are managing or designing this brand as they do their product or service brand. The EVP includes:

  • A position – What makes us a unique employer?
  • A proposition – What is our core offer to employees?
  • Attributes – What supports our core offer to employees?
  • Substantiators – What makes our offer credible?

In high-performing companies, EVP is aligned to the product or service brand, differentiates the employment experience from competitors and is built on a foundation of enduring values, culture and leadership.

In summary, design thinking can be used across the spectrum of organisational elements and associated employee experiences, from simple interactions to the fundamental aspects of what makes performance sustainable – values, culture, and leadership that’s aligned to strategy and purpose.

High-performing organisations offer an employee experience that’s based on both these more fundamental and enduring characteristics, as well as the more programmatic initiatives. Design thinking can be applied across all of these elements to enrich the employee experience, support the desired culture and deliver on business strategy.

About Hamish Deery

As Managing Director, Talent & Rewards, Asia and Australia & New Zealand, Hamish Deery leads Willis Towers …
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