To Dwell Is To Garden: An empathic approach to employee experience design
It has become increasingly important for customer-focused organizations to turn their lens on employee engagement or how employees connect with, think about, and process their work in meaningful ways.
Design researchers and practitioners—in addition to CEOs—have learned that in order to enable positive service experiences that yield increased customer satisfaction, organizations have to empower employees in authentic ways. In addition, employees who have a strong sense of shared purpose, the time and space to perform work appropriately, a synergistic work culture that aligns with their motivations and goals, and access to employee-centered resources (digital and otherwise) tend to collaborate seamlessly, develop innovative products, and deliver satisfying customer experiences.
Mutually beneficial work environments built around nurtured, reciprocal human relationships have the potential to increase an organization’s creative output and eventual profit margins but can also enhance people’s lives in the process. This is what success can look like.
The methods of experience design uniquely situate experience designers to address employee disengagement in textured ways. By uncovering the root behavioral causes and co-producing solutions with employees, experience designers can create the right kind of resources, which empower organizations to own their desired change over time.
As employee experience design is not a tidy activity, this article will focus less on concrete deliverables or step-by-step how-to-recommendations. Instead, a working framework is presented to assist experience designers in thinking through their own process-centric approaches and solutions.
Employee Disengagement: A high-level overview
Innovation-driven organizations that seek an employee-centered work culture tend to request the services of experience designers when employee engagement is compromised. The artifacts of those challenges might resemble the following:
- Employees do not readily collaborate with one another: Collaboration is seen as cumbersome and threatening and therefore, employees protect their accumulated expertise, which may be lost when they leave the organization.
- A belief in scarcity defines the work culture: Colleagues compete with one another for individual recognition and rewards, sometimes at the expense of others. Again, collaboration and mentorship are null.
- Poor levels of employee satisfaction propel unhappiness and ultimately lead to low motivation that can impact service-related interactions with customers.
Effective experience designers embed themselves in organizations in order to solve for the above artifacts through a systems approach, and therefore, dissect the root, behavioral causes of the employee engagement problem.
Root causes, which impact and define behavior and organizational culture, grow systemically from:
- Misaligned or outdated internal value propositions
- Non-existent or out-of-sync collaboration frameworks
- Ambiguous roles and responsibilities
- Overly hierarchical reporting structures
- Disingenuous carrot-and-stick programs
- Cultivated mistrust and miscommunication amongst employees
- Lack of autonomy or creative freedom
Causal outcomes can be perceived in tangible (space, process, tech, and tool related) and intangible (perceptual, emotional, and value-laden) ways. The result is disempowered employees and anxious leaders who do not feel heard or respected and therefore have no real sense of connection or loyalty to the organization or colleagues.
Martin Heidegger wrote: “To dwell is to garden.” This concept beautifully articulates the importance of investing in the right kind of process to shape the outcome. It is essential for design researchers and practitioners to employ empathic, thoughtful, and on-the-ground participatory research when facilitating the design of employee experiences within dysfunctional organizations.
Why? Designers are working within a complicated emotional landscape that is not quickly improved with polished deliverables and/or expertly bulleted recommendations. It is in the dwelling—the conversations and storytelling with and between colleagues—that key insights are gleaned. Also, it is in these conversations that employees across the organizational spectrum begin to repair their relationships as well as create, own, and nourish the kinds of experiences they desire from their work environs.
Dissembling Core Challenges
Regardless of their roles, people bring their stories to the table: their personal histories, biases, habits, influencers, social context, values, and emotions. While some of these stories are invisible at the surface, they are variables that shape the way people read, process, and interact with the world around them. Organizations are not impermeable to the realities of life. In fact, they are microcosms that reinforce similar social structures which people experience everyday. Personal histories influence the manner in which people negotiate themselves at work.
The problems with oppositional thinking
The continual re-inscription of absolute thinking in society has never served it well. Turn to history for examples. Categorizing groups of people is a reductionist activity and it is based on overly simplified assumptions of the self and of others through opposition to one another. Empathy, or the ability for someone to step outside oneself to truly understand another’s lived reality, can deconstruct problematic categorizations through its practice.
Language, whether flippant or purposeful, is revelatory. In certain circumstances, one might observe leaders who use words like “they” when discussing “those problematic” employees. Employees speak a similar language when referring to “those leaders.” The terms “them and us” map out who belongs to a group and who does not belong to a group, delineating lines of accountability and power or the lack thereof. As a result, groups are easily dismissed as the culprit of a problem. The “them and us” and “employee versus leadership” dichotomy is not a new phenomenon in the work place—however, it is clearly destructive to an organization which seeks to enable open, collaborative, and learning environments for all colleagues regardless of rank, salary, or experience.
Thinking and speaking in absolutes is problematic within an employee engagement context because:
- Where is the human face in the word “they” or “that group who is not me?” Distance is forced between people by this approach, making it easier to blame someone else for the challenges an organization faces together.
- It removes the speaker from sharing in the solution because she or he does not see herself or himself as part of the problem and is not held accountable for changing.
- Perspectives formed from tidy categories do not reflect the reality of experience, and thus, reinforce incomplete understandings of a situation.
- Solutions derived from dogmatic thinking miss the mark because the complexity of interactions has not been tackled in holistic ways.
- Because oppositional thinking keeps people in stagnant containers, there is limited capacity for change to occur in meaningful, tangible ways.
Moving forward, the term “employees” will refer to both leaders and employees because all are employees within an organization.
Building trust through thoughtful practice
Within a dysfunctional organization, employees feel a range of deep emotions based on past and current experiences. Navigating, being sensitive to, and designing for emotional landscapes in thoughtful and strategic ways is the call-to-action for experience designers. Experience designers should ensure that they are seen as trusted, neutral partners by behaving, speaking, and writing in a manner that does not re-inscribe divisiveness. If dwelling is gardening, then imbalanced language or actions included in project output or exchanged during official and unofficial conversations can be counter-productive. The design process is jeopardized when stakeholders sense partiality or hypocrisy.
Building trust with employees is key. Authentic forms of trust ensure that participants engage with the design process and are open to sharing the depths of their insight. While being an outsider or neutral member is beneficial, it also means that designers have to actively cultivate trust—participants should feel heard and respected as they attempt to repair trust within the organization.
Embedding oneself in an organization over a period of time and participating in or observing a breadth of employee-related activities (e.g. meetings, social gatherings, etc.) can help with propagating trust. It also affords the designer with context and history. All of which benefit the design process.
An empathic approach
An empathic approach to life complicates the oversimplification of oppositional thinking. Being curious or exposing oneself to another’s reality has profound effects on shifting one’s perspective (and related behavior). Previously unimagined knowledge reveals itself, and in the process, reductionist and oppositional views fall flat because their ground is no longer substantiated. Within this context, human relationships are re-oriented around connection and collaboration instead of opposition and perceived contrast.
Designing for empathy or seeking out others’ perspectives is what experience designers do well; it is at the heart of human-centered design praxis. Experience designers should facilitate situations where employees can practice empathy as well.
Co-Producing Meaningful Experiences with Employees
A pertinent quote by filmmaker and author Trinh T. Minh-Ha rings true: “The story depends upon every one of us to come into being. It needs us all, needs our remembering, understanding, creating what we have heard together to keep on coming into being. The story of us.”
A shared sense of purpose
Experience designers can guide constructive storytelling sessions where employees have the time and space to share their experiences one-on-one with the designer and/or with one another. Among other areas of inquiry, participants can discuss:
- What meaning does an employee derive from their work?
- What is motivating?
- What does success look like? Or, what is the desired state of change?
- What barriers interfere with the desired state? Why?
- How can the group and the individual overcome those barriers together?
These sessions rely on the practice of empathy to shift perspective and bridge differences between participants. A shared sense of purpose emerges from conversation. That purpose should animate the natural abilities, emotions, values and passions of employees, and can be translated into an organization’s internal value proposition or experience framework.
This purpose is the living directional focus of the group. It should balance reality and aspiration with organizational capacity and employee need. The internal shared purpose is “the story of us … coming into being.”
Meta-design as experience design
Shelley Evenson, a leading service design practitioner, has made reference to service design as meta-design. This concept will be borrowed roughly to explain how experience designers can imagine the co-production of experiences with employees.
Per a meta-design framework, experience design practitioners do not create, control, or even design work experiences for employees; designers in consultation with employees develop a living system of purpose-driven tools, resources, and infrastructure that guide the making of an experience. That experience is vitalized, lived, or designed by the person or people who actively participate in the exchange.
Through co-production, employees are allowed to be active problem solvers within their own experience of work, not passive consumers who are asked to unlearn who they are in order to fit into a design.
In a productive manner, meta-design provides the language, time, and space for experience designers to embrace and nurture the complex emotional landscape, which defines employees in the twenty-first century and humbles designers through its empathic potential. When experience designers intentionally or unintentionally design for control (i.e. a design that does not enable employees to be active participants) or ignore how employees read and process interactions (i.e. the personal stories that people bring to the table) the transformational components and effectiveness of employee-centered experience design can be compromised.
Conclusion: Ignite change over time
It is unrealistic to believe that employees or people in general can be cured quickly of what has ailed them for many, many years. Anyone who tells you otherwise is designing for symptoms instead of root causes. This does not mean that change cannot happen. What it does mean is that social and personal change is triggered when people see and feel its value in real ways. If employees have a personal stake in the change, then related behavior follows naturally through groundswell movements of support.
The below high-level tenets outline some of the key process points of co-producing experiences with employees
- In partnership with experience designers, employees actively design the infrastructure needed to generate their desired work experiences; those designed resources have the capacity to map to and support personal histories, motivations, and context.
- By listening to and engaging with each other through storytelling and empathic exchanges, employees begin to shift their perspectives, and a shared sense of purpose is built from collaboration instead of opposition or empty statements.
- Design processes and their output enable employees to be champions of sought after change in both tangible and intangible ways.
- Experiences should encourage the active participation of employees where employees are enabled to help themselves and others.
- Experience designers should create resources that are self-sustaining and allow for their continual iteration. After the experience designer leaves the organization, participants should have the tools needed to direct and evaluate their desired change over time.
Organizations, including the spectrum of leadership and employees, need to support, see value in, and practice the desired change; otherwise, the work does not have sustenance. Heidegger’s quote “to dwell is to garden” succinctly articulates the core of employee experience design. Thoughtful processes shape meaningful outcomes when all stakeholders engage and own the process in sustaining ways.
Image of garden peas courtesy Shutterstock.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)
Liana Dragoman is an experience designer and design researcher, multi-disciplinary artist, and university educator. She sees experience design practice as a vehicle for enabling positive, social change––change that is shaped through meaningful and sustaining designs built from the ground up. Liana has over eight years of design-related experience within academic and private sectors, partnering with clients such as GSK, Prostate Cancer Foundation, Honeywell, and DuPont. She has taught university coursework in emerging media studies on both a full- and part-time basis.