man wearing a t shirt working on laptop
PHOTO: Matt Wildbore

This system is so bad, I might as well not use it.

Sound familiar? If you’re an employee who works with any kind of software to get work done, I’m sure it does. Your company’s intranet is so cluttered, inefficient, spotty and disorganized that it’s not worth the hassle of actually using it. Your organization’s digital collaboration tools sap your productivity and create cognitive overload because the experiences they deliver are so fragmented. The result is that email traffic — and calls to the IT team — increase dramatically. So does your level of frustration.

Today, as workplace demographics shift, chances are your employees want more engagement, more purpose and more personalization at work. And they have every right to ask for it. After all, the competition for talent is fierce and highly engaged business units produce 21% greater profitability. Yet still only 7 to 18% of organizations possess the digital dexterity to adapt to these new collaborative, mobile and technology-driven ways of working.

The key to an effective digital workplace stems not from your IT team rolling out a new project or making quick fixes to your intranet. Rather, human-centered design — bottom-up, feedback-oriented, outcome-oriented methods that put the employee’s experience at the center — is the best way for businesses to keep pace in an evolving marketplace.

According to a Forrester report commissioned by IBM, design thinking has doubled project teams’ design and execution speed and more than 80 percent of business leaders using design thinking also reported their teams were more aligned and focused. According to a study by the Design Management Institute, design-centric companies have maintained significant stock market advantage, outperforming the S&P by an extraordinary 211 percent.

Don’t you want the same at your workplace?

Related Article: Customer-Centric? Employee-Centric? How About a People-Centric Culture?

3 Ways to Jumpstart Your Digital Workplace With Human-Centered Design

1. Empathize, and listen to the voice of your employee

“Empathy” gets thrown around a lot, but true empathy doesn’t just mean listening. It means hearing someone for the individual they are, gathering insights in doing so, and having a structure and process in place to actually apply those insights.

When leaders of a large non-profit medical association sought to update their intranet, for instance, they didn’t just thrust new technology onto their workforce. Instead, they began by surveying employees to help define the challenges they faced. They then did extensive interviews and workshops with a diverse cross-section of employees to create four user personas, highlighting the motivations, behaviors, interactions, needs, and goals of typical employees engaging with the intranet. Doing this at the outset ensured that these very human needs were embedded into the development of the ultimate product. 

2. Collaborate, co-create and prototype — continually

Despite the obvious benefits of a digital workplace, many organizations still see it as simply something to get done: The powers that be set aside a budget for a new tech rollout, the IT team takes the lead, and that’s that.

But design thinking isn’t a one-off, top-down process. And success isn’t simply “getting it done.” With the project goals, employee personas, and feedback in hand, the medical association could begin a collaborative, iterative process of redesigning their intranet. They held design sprints with various stakeholders (e.g., members of the marketing, design, and product teams, as well as firm leaders) to sketch out what the experiences might look like for various personas; they then developed an interactive prototype using rapid iteration that could allow employees to provide feedback in real time. Throughout, they nurtured a build-fast, fail-fast environment that let them work out kinks — and connect with a wide range of employees.

Related Article: Employee-Driven Design: Creating an Engaging Workplace

3. Collect and incorporate feedback throughout implementation and beyond

Human-centered design does not mean just creating assumptive user personas (i.e., personas that stakeholders devise in a boardroom without undergoing validation research). It also doesn’t mean just collecting feedback from validated personas groups during the upfront design process. A human-centered design approach means remaining committed to gathering and incorporating user feedback throughout the inception and life of the digital workplace. If (and preferably so) a team is engaging in an agile development process, taking a human-centered design approach means that user groups are continuously engaged during the implementation lifecycle.

Transforming your organization into a functional digital workplace with consistent iteration is a balancing act — of agility, value, complexity, effort — and once you start the process, the sheer number of program objectives can be overwhelming. One way to prioritize is to use your persona outputs to establish “product backlogs” that map features and content to their respective personas and objectives. This ensures that you’re linking each product or feature with a specific user need and allows you to prioritize the ones you absolutely need to achieve a minimum viable product and set of features — in other words, enough to let you continue with the rapid prototyping process. For organizations without enormous budgets, such processes can save time and money without sacrificing the outcome-oriented principles of design thinking. 

Making a Business Case for Human-Centered Design

These three human-centered design methods should help engage employees in a digital workplace — but the organization-wide buy-in that these methods require won’t get off the ground unless the business case is made for them. Unfortunately, it may not be as simple as saying that a more engaged digital workplace will lead to X percent in increased revenue. 

So how do you justify the value of such methods within your organization? Of course, it’s important to define KPIs on the outset (e.g., digital workplace tools adoption, employee satisfaction, consumer experience gap, training investment) and then put strict feedback processes in place to go back six months after the rollout and compare.

But also think bigger picture: This isn’t just an IT initiative. With unemployment at all-time lows, businesses must be able to retain and acquire talent. If the digital workplace is the primary way these employees interact, engage and work, then it’s pretty important to your organization that they have the tools to do their jobs effectively.

Related Article: Avoid These 3 Common Causes of Digital Workplace Failure