Over the past couple of years, there’s been a lot of buzz around the term “design thinking”. Broadly speaking, the term refers to design-specific cognitive activities that help people understand and develop creative ways to solve a specific issue.
While the term originally applied to engineering, architecture, and urban planning, it has evolved into a formal method for practical, creative resolution of problems and creation of solutions, with the intent of an improved future result.
Moreover, it involves starting with a goal rather than identifying and trying to solve a specific problem.
Small wonder then that design thinking has found favour in the business world. But what implications does it have for the workplace and employee engagement?
Building better workplaces
Given that architecture was one of the earliest fields to apply itself to design thinking, it shouldn’t be all that surprising that the method’s most obvious application lies in the way workplaces are planned and built.
While companies have built their headquarters with specific goals, such as serendipitous encounters, in mind for many years now, we’re only just starting to grasp how big an impact office design can have on employee happiness.
One of the best examples of this is the gradual change in the way we think about open-plan offices. While they’re incredibly efficient from a space point of view, they can actually be detrimental to worker productivity and wellbeing.
There are a couple of reasons for that. As Professor John Medina explains in Architect Magazine, any time environmental noise rises above 55 decibels, your stress levels soar. Even someone raising their voice above that level can break your concentration.
Then, writes Medina, “there’s something called a ‘halfalogue”—or half a conversation—which is the single most distracting element in all our audio space”.
“Even if you’re focused elsewhere,” he writes, “if you hear only half of a conversation you start filling in what the other side might be saying”.
Add in the theory that people prefer spaces where they can survey the environment around them and then retreat to safety.
The typical open plan office space only has half of that equation; you also need a “cave”, where you can return to the privacy of your own thoughts.
Knowing those things and using them to build a better office is just one example of the impact design thinking can have on the workplace.
Thing is, design thinking shouldn’t just be limited to office architecture and layout.
Design thinking in employee engagement
In fact, design thinking could well be critical to the future of employee experience in the workplace. As Josh Bersin, Marc Solow and Nicky Wakefield write in a Deloitte University Press article, today’s employees are overwhelmed with technology, applications, and a constant flood of information.
Using design thinking, they say, HR departments can help manage that complexity and focus on creating productive and meaningful employee experiences that are “compelling, enjoyable, and simple”.
Where HR departments have traditionally focused on processes, formal training, or classroom events, design thinking mandates that they focus on “the employee and the experience, not the process”.
In order to do that, the authors write, HR departments have to ask themselves several questions:
“What does a great employee experience look like from end to end? How can we facilitate collaboration and learning in everything we do? How can we take advantage of location-aware mobile devices to make people more productive? How can we give employees a few easy-to-understand choices so they can make decisions faster?”
Embracing those questions in everything from hiring, to immersive learning experiences and employer branding can significantly improve the quality of the employee experience. That in turn can have a dramatic impact on the business’ bottom line.
According to the Deloitte University Press article, “companies growing by 10 percent or more per year are more than twice as likely to report they are ready to incorporate design thinking, compared to their counterparts that are experiencing stagnant levels of growth”.
As Jacob Morgan notes on Forbes however, “employee experience is not a static thing, it’s a moving target and in fact there is no single experience for every employee.”
That can add a layer of complexity when it comes to applying design thinking to employee engagement. Interestingly, while technology has increased complexity for employees, it can help alleviate some of that complexity. New digital tools employing design thinking can also make routine HR tasks more efficient and easy, while improving the employee experience.
One example of this is the Australia and New Zealand Banking Group, which developed a mobile app which allows employees to manage their time and attendance, benefits, and vacation schedule, while also enabling them to collaborate with colleagues.
The group wouldn’t have been able to do that if it was trying to fix individual problems rather than working towards the wider goal of empowering its employees.
Ultimately, applying design thinking allows companies to approach employee engagement in a way that really matters. That is, it puts people first and integrates understandings of human behaviour into the workplace.
By asking people what motivates them, how they see themselves, and what they value, companies give themselves a solid base to work from when it comes to employee engagement. Moreover, they allow themselves to find inspiration from within the company, rather than trying to copy/paste solutions from elsewhere.