How design thinking can reframe the future of work
From tremors felt from The Great Resignation to the buzz around Airbnb’s newly announced hybrid work policy, discussions around the future of work have been front and centre for a few years now. With employees poised to fly at the first sign of policies they don’t agree with, leaders are under a lot of pressure to deliver decisions ASAP.
Leaders looking for a quick fix to save their hybrid problems won’t find it here – or anywhere really. Shaping the future of work isn’t something that can be done in a single survey or found in a book, because it’s both highly personal and fluid.
Your future of work depends on your people, customers, and co-workers alike, and ensuring that your strategies work for them from the ground up. It requires you to know them inside out and understand what hinders or motivates them, through time. Whether it’s tomorrow or 2045, the ‘future’ always encompasses the unknown and how we dynamically respond to it. Why should our work be any different?
How can design thinking reframe the future of work?
Sam Barber, Partner at design thinking consultancy Well Thought and Design Thinking lecturer at UAL believes it's time for a new approach. "Developing the future of work as a dynamic shifting entity isn’t just a headache for leaders; it’s also a challenge for design thinking to pull apart and reframe,” says Sam. “Design thinking is, in everyday terms, a high-level framework for effective problem solving. And let’s face it, we’ve had more than our fair share of those recently.
“As a framework it’s uniquely equipped to take apart these problems due to its hands-on iterative approach. Each of the stages require different ways of thinking and tools to unlock that thinking, which inform the next section of the process."
Organisations’ return-to-work thinking has focused on the issue of what to do rather than how to make decisions and engage teams in the answers. Microsoft’s recent Work Trend Index for 2022 shows that just 28% of leaders have created team agreements on hybrid work and 38% of employees' challenge is knowing when and why to come into the office.
Guidance and conversations appear to have vacillated between mandating days, returning to pre-pandemic, or placing corporate fingers in ears as the conversations were moved to the too-hard box. The answer has to lie in engaging with teams and leading in a different way.
Taking a human-centred approach to design thinking
The magic of design thinking is its human-centric core. Design thinking relies on diversity of thought and perspectives to drive ideas forward and is inherently participatory in nature. Engaging with stakeholders every step of the way ensures that the design process and ensuing solutions are made with people, for people. This is crucial for future of work strategies, where people are actively invested in co-creating their new normal. Using inclusive design methods shows leadership is listening and driven to develop informed policies employees resonate with.
As return-to-work planning gained pace towards the end of 2021 Penguin Random House UK wanted to move the conversation on from just ‘where do we work’ to ‘how do we do our Best Work’, encouraging future-focused conversations and also time to reflect on what had been learnt over the last two years. Ensuring that where people worked supported the actual work to be done. This is a unique moment to shape new ways of working and to take a considered path towards the future.
“At Penguin Random House UK, we feel that the organisations who best answer the challenge of how to modernise work will be those who recognise and embrace that there may be no fixed end point,” says Val Garside, HR Director. “This is a challenging mindset for individuals, teams, and organisations. We are giving direction and clarity where we have either feedback from teams or an evidence base that it’s the best course of action, but design thinking is at its heart about iteration and improvement.”
Penguin Random House has pursued this somewhat different path and is partnering with design thinking consultancy Well Thought to bring a more creative mindset to the problem and move from a moment-in-time approach on ‘return to work’ to adopting a longer-term view on what Best Work will look like for their departments and divisions as the new world of work evolves.
Five reasons to use a design thinking framework
Barber says that design thinking has traditionally applied to service design, product design and innovation and has often been seen as the preserve of creative agencies and companies. However she explains that its framework is now finding fresh relevance in designing future of work thinking for a number of reasons.
1. It’s iterative
The shake-up felt by the pandemic has taught us a key lesson – organisations need to be adaptable to prepare for and overcome periods of instability. Being adaptable means living in a constant stage of change and experimentation…and being comfortable with it. What we needed for best work design 10 months ago will not be the same 10 months from now. This means constantly looking at the processes at play and being ready to reframe or replace when necessary. The cyclical nature of design thinking helps to find the comfort in discomfort. The process thrives through learning and testing in a structured flow to ensure needs are always being met.
2. It’s inclusive
Whether it be in person, remote, or hybrid, we know a single working style doesn’t benefit everyone equally. The challenge is to create harmony where each person’s work style aligns within their organisation’s structure. As a human-centric process design thinking thrives on diversity of thought – and everyone has a perspective to bring to the table when designing the future of work. And no, this isn’t done through a single company-wide survey followed by a predetermined C-suite response. It means constructing a thoughtful process that provides stakeholders with a platform to speak, feel heard, and see concrete actions formed as a result.
3. It’s personal
There’s no one-size-fits-all model when it comes to future of work design. This may seem like a barrier, or obstacle – but it’s not. It’s an opportunity to tailor your work design to uniquely fit your organisation; the design tools stay the same, but the outcomes vary greatly due to the unique combination of people and perspectives within. Design thinking enables you to look at your organisation through a different lens, while stakeholder engagement drives you to create a work environment that reflects your purpose, mission, and culture.
4. It’s scalable
Design thinking has the capacity for a wide range of uses, from designing a single product to entire complex systems. This is due to its simplicity; design thinking relies on asking the right people the right questions, and testing until solutions and answers align. The key is to start small enough to have a workable scope that can be easily tested, before expanding to meet all areas of the problem. This is crucial for future work design in large corporations, where there can be departments, offices, and cultures spread globally. Test design thinking within a pilot department or two before easily replicating the process to the larger organisation.
5. It’s creative
All organisations have the capacity to be creative – some are just more outwardly creative than others. Creativity is an essential skill for individuals and organisations to cultivate, as it paves the way to innovation. Design thinking helps unlock that creativity by asking you to think outside the box, be open to ideas, and be unafraid of failure. These are all ingredients to a creative mindset that foster experimentation through prototyping. Something to remember while prototyping is no one knows what the best future work design looks like – it must be discovered, tested, taken apart, and retested a number of times before arriving at what future of work design looks like to you and your people. You might as well test the limits and get creative with it – you never know what might work.
At Penguin Random House, teams have been supported to develop their own playbooks for how they will work, and the process they have been through encourages them to recognise that ‘how they work’ will be an ongoing conversation and workstream for the foreseeable future. Grounding their preferred ways of working in a playbook provides direction and clear guidance whilst recognising that plans need to be open to iteration and change.
As Garside says, “no-one has the answers yet, but what we do have is the opportunity to learn and adapt to ensure that where we work fits with what we have to do and connect our teams with the purpose of their work”.
The pandemic created kneejerk adaption to home working but the real transition to modern working is actually happening now. As with many successful projects, the future of work will not just be defined by what organisations do, but how they do it.
Embracing inclusive, design-led thinking can deliver results and create strong moments of realisation. Done well, it will build a strong employer brand, improve retention, drive higher levels of ownership and engagement.
About Sam Barber, partner at Well Thought consultancy
Sam Barber is a partner at Well Thought, a design thinking consultancy that combines commercial and creative thinking to solve human-centric problems. She has an extensive background in innovative brand and proposition development across the UK and Asia and teaches design thinking for MA Design Management at the University of the Arts London.
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