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Human-Centered Design for a Brave New Workforce
As a younger generation takes the reins of business leadership, can design thinking help ease the growing pains?
Last year, Tom Merrill, a Master Facilitator at ExperiencePoint (a leading innovation training company), began working with a new client. The small American logistics firm was struggling with a major transition inside their executive team; the baby boomers who had founded the company thirty-odd years ago were suddenly retiring en masse. A new generation was stepping in to replace them, but this younger crop of leaders had come of age in a vastly different world and had wildly divergent ideas about company priorities and culture.
When you have siloed structures in place, some of which have been in place for decades, they won’t reflect the values of your new employees.
Merrill knew that the challenges the firm faced epitomized what was happening in the workforce at large. “In a matter of a decade or two, you are totally replacing a workforce. Boomer expectations are supplanted by—you name it—Gen X, Gen Y, Gen Z and everything that’s important to them respectively. When you have siloed structures in place, some of which have been in place for decades, they won’t reflect the values of your new employees,” he explains.

The logistics firm enrolled in one of ExperiencePoint’s ExperienceInnovation™ workshops, which teaches creative problem-solving and innovation through human-centered design (HCD). The first crucial step of the HCD process is to figure out what exactly your problem is. That problem may seem self-evident, but Merrill argues that zeroing in on the real issue can mean letting go of a host of long-standing assumptions. Articulating the most essential challenge demands that employees take an unflinching look at the organization and their roles within it. For the logistics company, it led to a rethinking of their very identity.

“What ended up happening was a con- versation about ‘what kind of company are we?’” Merrill explains. “Do we want our employees to focus on trucks getting from A to B? Or do we want our employees to focus on helping customers have better control over their data?”

Not only did these questions reimagine the direction of the company, but they also created new priorities for recruitment. “By reframing the work around the benefit to the customer and the benefit to the employee, this company went, ‘oh, maybe we need to think less about logistics and hire some serious data people,’” Merrill says.

Construction Supervisor on Tablet
Construction Supervisor on Tablet
Female Worker looking on tablet
HUMAN-CENTERED DESIGN BUILDS EMPLOYEE SATISFACTION
These sorts of unforeseeable epiphanies are one of the reasons Merrill believes that HCD is uniquely suited to tack-ling employee problems. With the massive generational shift afoot in the workforce, Merrill is convinced that the method is doubly vital. “Every time an employee leaves — that’s a thirty-thousand-dollar hole to fill,” he points out, outlining the various costs of a typical hiring process, from advertising to recruitment to interview-ing to finalizing the contract. So when a company has to replace numerous employees simultaneously, ensuring that they retain these new hires is essential. But how can you ensure that?

Merrill thinks this is also a perfect problem for HCD. “The question to ask is: How might we help employees find meaningful work at this company so that they don’t want to work elsewhere?” he says. When human-centered approaches become a part of workplace culture, he believes employees feel empowered and lose a grass-is-always-greener perspective. He has defined three employee needs that are critical to retention:

Autonomy
Gives employees a degree of self-direction to direct their own work in a way that is rewarding.

Mastery
Rewards and empowers employees to get better at their work through ongoing learning.

Purpose
Connects the work of the employees to the work of the company.

If these qualities form the backbone of employee engagement, recruitment be-comes easier, too. A company that offers the most compelling workplace culture might gain a competitive advantage when it comes to securing the best candidates, even when they aren’t offering the highest salary or best benefits package.

“For me, the winning feature of HCD is the human element,” Merrill says. “If you’re designing anything to do with employees— be it a plan to help them engage with customers or any internal policy—human-centered design is the way to go because it focuses on the person. It focuses on what the benefit to that person is rather than looking at whatever traditional structures are in place.”

HUMAN-CENTERED DESIGN BUILDS EMPLOYEE SATISFACTION
These sorts of unforeseeable epiphanies are one of the reasons Merrill believes that HCD is uniquely suited to tack-ling employee problems. With the massive generational shift afoot in the workforce, Merrill is convinced that the method is doubly vital. “Every time an employee leaves — that’s a thirty-thousand-dollar hole to fill,” he points out, outlining the various costs of a typical hiring process, from advertising to recruitment to interview-ing to finalizing the contract. So when a company has to replace numerous employees simultaneously, ensuring that they retain these new hires is essential. But how can you ensure that?

Merrill thinks this is also a perfect problem for HCD. “The question to ask is: How might we help employees find meaningful work at this company so that they don’t want to work elsewhere?” he says. When human-centered approaches become a part of workplace culture, he believes employees feel empowered and lose a grass-is-always-greener perspective. He has defined three employee needs that are critical to retention:

Autonomy
Gives employees a degree of self-direction to direct their own work in a way that is rewarding.

Mastery
Rewards and empowers employees to get better at their work through ongoing learning.

Purpose
Connects the work of the employees to the work of the company.

If these qualities form the backbone of employee engagement, recruitment be-comes easier, too. A company that offers the most compelling workplace culture might gain a competitive advantage when it comes to securing the best candidates, even when they aren’t offering the highest salary or best benefits package.

“For me, the winning feature of HCD is the human element,” Merrill says. “If you’re designing anything to do with employees— be it a plan to help them engage with customers or any internal policy—human-centered design is the way to go because it focuses on the person. It focuses on what the benefit to that person is rather than looking at whatever traditional structures are in place.”

Construction Supervisor on Tablet
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ExperiencePoint is the world’s leading innovation training company and the exclusive learning and development partner of IDEO, the preeminent global design consultancy. Our live, digitally-driven workshops offer one-of-a-kind simulations in human-centered thinking, immersing companies in an approach that puts people, and their needs, at the heart of everything they do. We’ve spent the past 25 years helping organizations rethink conventions and blaze paths for record growth.

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