How design thinking helps put the ‘human’ in HR

Is design thinking an important discipline for HR leaders to master?

In short, yes. That’s according to Ben Waber, president and co-founder of Humanyze. “It’s really thinking about people first and putting them at the center of whatever it is you’re trying to do,” he says.

Humanyze is a Boston-based start-up that uses data to find out how people really interact within the workplace. Its clients have used Humanyze’s findings to redesign their offices and change their work processes in order to foster greater employee collaboration.

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Design thinking can help HR determine “what workers are trying to do at the organization and how can we make that better,” says Waber. Too often, HR finds itself chasing after so-called “best practices” that may not actually improve the organization, he says.

“It’s ‘Google’s doing this, Facebook’s doing that–if we do the same, we’ll be successful,’ ” he says. But it’s debatable whether such practices are right for your organization or even if they’re truly effective in the first place, he adds. “Do those companies succeed because of those practices, or in spite of them?”

HR can’t create a positive employee experience by simply copying what other companies have done, says Waber.

Instead, this comes about by looking at the data within your own organization and parsing them to determine whether, for example, the company would be better served by a more comprehensive remote-work policy or a different office layout.

One of Humanyze’s clients, a European bank, wanted to find out why some of its branch offices were significantly outperforming others.

Humanyze helped it assemble data pertaining to physical movement within the offices and employee-communication patterns to come up with some answers. As part of the process, employees wore sensor-equipped Humanyze badges to track their movements within the office.

The team ultimately discovered that, at the highest-performing branches, employees interacted with each other and shared ideas much more often than at the lowest-performing branches. As a result, the bank redesigned its office layouts to encourage more employee interaction, introduced bonuses to encourage knowledge sharing and allocated funds for team-building activities. Ultimately, sales at the low-performing branches increased by 11% to $1 billion during the following year.

Waber says his firm takes steps to address concerns that this sort of approach may be too intrusive.

“Employees have to consent to wearing the badges, and they sign forms that legally bind us from sharing individual data with the company,” he says. “We make it explicit that we don’t share information at the individual level.”

By compiling data on how employees move about the workplace and interact with each other, HR will have “hard metrics” that will make it easier to obtain the necessary funding for designing a better employee experience, says Waber.

“It helps you make a more compelling business case,” he says.

Andrew R. McIlvaine
Andrew R. McIlvaine is former senior editor with Human Resource Executive®.