I think most of us are looking for a calling, not a job. Most of us, like the assembly-line worker, have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people.
—Studs Terkel, Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do
When I worked in the world of consulting, I sold work that the firm had never done before. Heck, I sold work I’d never done before, which is part and parcel of consulting’s game. It works when you have rock-solid, experienced people running the show and staying with a client project instead of moving on to sell the next thing — as opposed to selling a great project and immediately allocating 20 freshly minted college graduates to run around doing what they, in all their lengthy work experience, think is best that day. Instead, I intended to follow through and do high quality work. (Yes, that was a dig on the consulting industry, and if you’ve ever hired one you know exactly what I’m talking about.)
I knew I could do this work well because I have a lot of faith in the process of human-centered design. I was (and am) certain that most problems in the world involving people and their environment can be worked on by talking to the people who have or are impacted by a challenge or problem. That is where I always start.
I’m going to dance around a lot of things in this piece, like who the company was and showing deliverables, but I learned a ton and got my first real taste of large-scale service design in an organizational context, so I’m including it anyway.
The team we worked with was a newly formed group called “Employee Experience” within HR. They were formed because there was a widespread undercurrent of low employee engagement that the current HR team couldn’t seem to get to the bottom of and address. This new team was formed to work on this problem and were in the process of trying to find their feet about what they would do. They knew employee engagement numbers were low, attrition was high, and some of the changes being made around remote office work were not going well - people missed the old culture. But what should they do about it? What did people need?
The people on the team were well respected, creative and innovative employees, but, oddly, the other employees we talked to at first were pretty sarcastic and pessimistic about what could be achieved. There was an atmosphere of “the company doesn’t care about its employees like it used to,” which puzzled me at first.
Part of the stated goal of the project was that what we did, we would also teach them to do, so that they could move forward on their own. I was so thrilled to get a chance to do that, because it meant that human centered design could really be used within HR to reshape what employees experience. So that was a pretty cool opportunity.
From a business perspective it was also great to have them trust us. It was risky to dig up old resentments and ask people to talk about their unhappiness, and what we found felt risky to tell them, at first, but they went all in with us once they saw how accurately we were reflecting the company’s culture back to them.
Oh, and halfway through our project the CEO of this thousands-of-employees company changed.
With the help of an organizational change consultant (who thought I was nuts at first to want to talk to so many people), I persuaded them that the first thing to do was understand the current experience at a deeper level than surveys would tell them, and to use those findings to drive experiments in improving the full employee experience. We asked their HR department to slice and dice their employee population by age, tenure, gender, title, performance rating and company function to ensure an even spread, so that we could get just over 100 people to talk to, which reflected 1% of the US employee population.
Two of us talked to 100 people, traveling to different offices to conduct interviews. We synthesized all of those transcripts. We built out results sets and worked on how to communicate them to the company’s executive leadership, which resulted in empathy maps covering 15 different key areas to work on. We shared and workshopped the maps, and built teams of employees to run experiments for improving things. All of this took 7 months, start to finish.
The human results of this work revealed that a traumatic layoff event that had happened three years prior was still having a disastrous effect. Apparently not many people handled it well, including senior management, who pretty much avoided talking about it. Trust had been broken, and the ‘survivors’ of the massive layoff were like walking wounded, wondering if it would happen to them next. And because no one would talk about it or admit it could have been handled better for the people left behind to pick up the pieces, people made up their own stories about what might happen to them.
One woman I spoke with packed her things up every day and took them home, because she was working in corporate communications and knew in advance who would be affected — and she knew just how much they weren’t expecting it.
I’ve never worked in a company where there were massive layoffs. I’ve always worked in technology, where we’re relatively safe from events like that. It was really hard to listen to. I understood why people didn’t want to address how it was handled.
Another big issue was the move toward people doing work remotely. Offices had moved to a hoteling model, and several of the smaller ones were being shut down in favor of saving money but keeping crucial employees. The hoteling had the effect of people feeling even more temporary than the layoffs did, because it wore on their psyche to feel like they didn’t have a “home” at work. They were told not to have any personal items on their desks, and were given small lockers for work-related stuff like staplers, which they had to go and get every day.
People were getting up at midnight to reserve the desk they wanted.
The way the whole thing was handled was an unfortunate pile-on to the feelings of being “disposable.” The march toward remote work felt like it was for the company, not employees. It was taking a deep toll on the sense of belonging and culture that people needed, in order to feel like they were “part” of the company.
This ran so counter to what I was expecting because I (personally) generally view remote work as a bonus, and don’t expect much “culture” from a place I work. But a great many people valued working there because of the network they created over time, moving around in a big company, and the opportunities they had because of that network. Now, with so much happening remotely, not only were people less productive because they were running 8 chats while trying to complete a to-do, but they’d lost the sense of team that they really enjoyed.
And the biggest result of all:
When you threaten people’s sense of safety and fail to appreciate them, new and risky ideas are not going to even be spoken, much less heard.
Also, a lot of the people I interviewed said that they felt better after just talking about their work life with me. They said it gave them a different perspective, to talk about it as a whole experience. And the power of feeling heard is strong medicine in what I ultimately decided was a healing process.
This was not your average design project - no end product, no screens, no user flows. On top of being in consulting, where powerpoint is one of your only friends and not a nice one, really, we weren’t delivering a project but micro-experiences, many of them physical. One of our first experiments was to design a first day package that came with a functioning laptop. Another was to design 1:1 conversation guides for managers and employees.
I would have liked to go further — particularly into the remote work culture space — but that wasn’t part of our work.
So, I don’t have a nice bunch of pretty images for this one, because I also can’t say who the work was for.
What did I learn?
About work in general, I learned that
The relationship of a company to its employees is more… human than I believed. Because ultimately humans make and execute the decisions, those decisions can feel very personal. The layoffs I heard about felt very much like people never saw it coming, even though senior leaders said things like “they should recognize it’s good for the business’ but … the human toll all of those decisions make is very real.
By way of extension, if you avoid the hard conversations, people will fill in the blanks with things that are the worst possible versions of a story they can create in their minds.
Remote work dissolves a company’s culture in ways that we have not figured out how to address yet. I still believe that’s where we’re headed, because the confluence of skills, experience, location, and willingness to commute is going to continue to become less and less reasonable, but we have to find ways to build culture. I know of a couple of organizations who have succeeded. They do it mostly through play and humor (showing off things they make or introducing pets as coworkers) and real-world metaphors (like setting up coffees with one another).
Second only to that is how people learn to do a new job. Without a guide in the first 6 months, it can feel very lonely if a person is remote all the time. Think about it. You’d feel like you’re in the dark not knowing what to do next, and you have no one to just turn around and ask. Or, at least, I haven’t seen that done well yet.
People remember their first day of a new job WAY more than I thought — no matter how long ago it was. They also highly value having someone to guide them through their first week. So much so that “highly value” isn’t a strong enough way to put it.
People need to feel appreciated in tangible, stated, clear ways, and if they do, they will be some of the best team members you’ll ever have.
About design in particular, I learned that
Talking to people is still the best way to gather data on the why behind the what of what people do, think and feel.
Training people to be empathic in a conversation is quite a bit harder than I ever thought it would be.
Design can be used to help solve problems in creative ways far beyond software (not like I needed to be taught this, but it was great to have it reinforced).
Designing something for thousands of people to have a positive experience with is actually not that hard if you’re human about it, understand the people you’re making it for really well, and consider all the impact you could/might and want to have.