Employee Engagement

Heard of design thinking but not sure how it applies to the HR world? Read on to learn why you need design thinking for employee engagement.

Picture this: Your employee engagement survey has closed and the results are in. You scroll through the responses. You keep scrolling. And scrolling. There’s endless amounts of feedback. Your job is to analyse the results and build an action plan. Where do you start? 

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. In a study of over 3,000 HR executives, less than half said they’d take action on every engagement survey question. 

And it’s no wonder, especially when some traditional employee engagement surveys contain up to eighty questions (survey fatigue, anyone?). 

But there is good news: Creating an employee engagement action plan doesn’t have to be painful. You can use some simple hacks from design thinking to easily organise a plan. And you can do it all without elaborate initiative launches or big budgets. 

What is Design Thinking? 

Design thinking might be a new concept for HR, but it’s been around a long time, with early origins dating back to 1935. Global design company IDEO made the phrase popular in the 1990s. They define it as ‘a process for creative problem solving.’

Why do HR leaders need an injection of creativity into their problem solving, you might ask? There’s a simple answer: The war on talent. We’re at near full employment, so candidates can now demand more when it comes to where they’d like to work.

As a result, HR leaders are being stretched to the limit. They now have to be able to think of better ways to attract, recruit and retain incredible employees. Design thinking makes all this much easier. 

Why Design Thinking Beats ‘Project Managing’ Engagement

Engagement projects can take months to get off the ground. Before you know it, next year’s survey has come around. And that big initiative everyone’s been hearing about? It hasn’t even launched. This erodes trust.

Employees start to wonder why they bothered completing the survey in the first place. Do you blame them?

In contrast, the design thinking approach is far more agile. You’ll quickly learn what solutions actually work for employees. Instead of sitting in a boardroom or at your desk, you’ll ask employees to test ideas along the way.

The 5 stages of Design Thinking:

The most challenging part of design thinking is changing your team’s – and stakeholders’ – attitudes. Your job will be to educate your team about design thinking and how it will help.

Design thinking has five stages: Empathy, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test. Let’s go through these one by one, so you can learn how to put them in place.  

Stage 1 – Use Empathy to Understand your Employees

Let’s start with stage one: empathy. Design thinking starts by listening to the most important person – and no, that’s not the CEO or the HR Director.

Instead, it’s that person who’ll be consuming your products: the humble, yet demanding, end user. For HR managers, that’s your employees.

Instead of jumping to engagement solutions (free fruit, anyone?), you’ll start by empathising. Empathy is about observing the facts and feelings from your employees’ point of view.

The best way to do this at scale is through an anonymous Engagement, Pulse or Exit survey.

Include a mix of question types: Allow for open-ended answers as well as likert scales. Collating the data is much easier if you have a single survey tool where all the result are in one dashboard.

Check out Talivest’s Insights tool if you’re looking for a way to manage all your employee surveys in one place. 

Stage 2 – Define the Problem

Now you’ve got all your data together, you’ll need to map it all out. Grab your team, a whiteboard and post-it notes.

On each post-it, write an employee response from the survey. Include both positive and negative attitudes. Focus on one response or theme per post-it.

Next, look patterns. Cluster your post-its together into categories. In design thinking, this is called ‘affinity mapping.’

A quicker way to do this is by using sentiment analysis in your employee survey tool. You’ll be able to easily see employee responses in a word cloud. Put those responses onto your post-its.

Now, stand back from your whiteboard. What problems do you see? What are employees’ pains or frustrations and what are their gains, i.e. their goals, needs and wants?

You can go one step further by creating ‘personas’ of your employees. Personas are semi-fictional representations of your employees.

For example, ‘Niall the Newbie’ could represent a new hire who’s enthusiastic about the company. ‘Burnt-out Barbara’ could stand for employees who are stressed and have no work-life balance.

An easy way to identify these personas is by filtering responses in a survey tool. Filter by seniority, location or tenure to understand different employee experiences.

Create a Point of View Statement

Your final goal in the ‘Define’ stage is to come up with a ‘point of view statement’. You can do this for each persona or your employees as a whole. There’s a formula you can use for this:

(Employee persona) needs a way to (verb) because (surprising insight).

Here’s an example. New hires need a way to easily access training materials because they don’t know where to find them.’

Stage 3 – Ideation

Now that you’ve identified the problem, you may be tempted to skip to a solution. Please, hold off for now!

Stage 3, Ideation, is all about coming up with as many ideas as possible. Go for volume and think big.

This is most effective if done in a group. Don’t go it solo. Your group can include the HR team, or, even better, employees nominated as Engagement or Culture Champions.

Make sure everyone’s voice is heard. Try ‘brainwriting’ instead of brainstorming. Ask your group to spend 5 – 10 minutes writing ideas on post-its and then share them on a whiteboard for discussion. This makes sure one person in the group doesn’t take over.

Encourage wild ideas. Don’t think about budget, approvals or what other people might think yet. Come up with at least two blue sky ideas and two grounded ones.

Defer judgement. If someone suggests a swimming pool on their post-it, give them a chance to speak about it! At this stage, shooting down another person’s idea is not allowed. Build upon ideas together as a team.

Finally, go through all the ideas and together pick the one you feel will work best. Make sure the loudest or most senior leader in the group isn’t the sole person deciding on the idea. Use voting if needed.

Create a Solution Statement

After discussing the ideas, your goal is to come up with a solution statement. There’s a handy formula for this too:

Our (employee initiative) helps (employee persona) who wants to (jobs to be done) by (verb e.g. reducing, avoiding) (pain) and (verb e.g. increasing, enabling) (gain).

Here’s an example: Our HealthyYou programme helps employees who want to be mentally and physically fit, by reducing stress and increasing wellbeing.

Stage 4 – Build a Prototype

This is the fun part! Now that you’ve come up with an employee initiative, build or draw what it could look like. There are many ways you can prototype.

You can use flip charts with your team to come up with an idea for the design. If it’s an app, why not sketch out what the app might look like using wire-frames? If it’s a product, why not have a go at making it using felt, cardboard and tinfoil!

Give your initiative a name and logo and put its benefits into a slogan. Remember, this is not a final design. Done is better than perfect here.

Even if you have a design team, don’t get them involved just yet. This is more about building a rough and ready prototype together. Don’t be tempted to skip this stage. It’ll help you visualise your initiative and pitch your idea.

Stage 5 – Testing

Last but not least, test your prototype!

Design thinking is built on collaboration so start with a small pilot group of employees and gather their feedback. Include employees from all levels, locations and departments.

Invite them into working groups. You could even ask for their feedback through your employee engagement platform.

Build upon your idea based on their feedback. Test early and fail often. Doing this will give your initiative a tried and tested approach before you launch.

And that’s if it’s launched at all. Be prepared for the idea not to work. And that’s okay! Better to work fast and test quickly rather than roll out a flop to the entire organisation, right? 

What’s next? 

Now that you’ve learned how to use design thinking for employee engagement, why not give it a go? Be that person who shakes things up in HR.

Now you know there’s a smarter, more innovative way to create engagement initiatives. Put it into practice for your next employee engagement survey. Remember, it’s okay to fail and learn: that’s the essence of design thinking!

Keen to learn more? Check out the UCD Innovation Academy, which runs courses on innovation and design thinking.


Laura Belyea