Employee experience design: how to put your people first

The design of an optimal employee experience can boost productivity and staff retention. This makes it a priority for HR and facilities teams. Find out how you can use ‘Design Thinking’ to understand your people and introduce solutions that make their working lives better.

I listened to a great podcast the other day. It featured Damon Deaner, Director of Employee Experience & HR Design at IBM. There was a quote in it I thought was worth sharing:

“Even as HR professionals, we’re not our users. We’re not representative of how employees will use or consume our offerings. I think what’s exciting about now is these practices and mental models and frameworks, like Design Thinking, that require us to look through the lens of the user, and the experiences that they have… I can’t think of a better place to take advantage of the benefits of Design Thinking and Agile Practices than HR. There’s no better place to apply it.”

If you’re curious to hear how forward-thinking HR teams are taking methodologies like Agile and Design Thinking and applying them to workplace challenges, set aside 30 minutes or so and give it a listen.

Of course, if you’re wondering what Design Thinking is and how it can be applied to the employee experience, then read on.

image of employees walking down the stairs in a modern office

What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is a five-step problem-solving and idea generation methodology. These are the five stages:


Gain a better understanding of the problem that you’re trying to solve by speaking to people who are struggling with the issue themselves. The goal is to gather as much information as possible and challenge your own assumptions about what is or isn’t important. In an HR context, this means speaking to staff.


Take everything you’ve heard and learned from your conversations and reduce it down to a single concise problem statement. An example of a workplace project might be:

We’ve introduced hot-desking but some staff feel like they no longer have any personal space in the office. How can we encourage flexible working while making employees feel like they still have an area which is theirs?


This the fun bit. The goal is to come up with as many ideas as possible to solve your problem statement. You can do this on your own or as part of a group session or brainstorm. The only thing that matters is that you finish with a whole bunch of potential solutions to your problem statement.


Whittle your suggestions down to the ones that are the most plausible or likely to succeed. Once you’ve got a few strong candidates, try to imagine a low-cost, low-risk prototype that you could deliver to your users and ask for their feedback. The goal here is to test the effectiveness of your solution and fine-tune the idea before committing to launch.


The best ideas are usually iterative, they change and evolve over time. After your solution has been launched, keep testing it and asking for feedback from your users. People’s needs change over time and regularly inviting feedback is a good way to make sure you’re still adding value.

In many situations, HR and facilities teams might struggle to follow the process from beginning to end. We’re all busy people and we have busy schedules. But even if you have to skip or hurry some sections, the underlying thinking remains the same: prioritise the user.

Speak to them, understand their challenges and pain points, take what you’ve learned and built solutions that meet genuine user needs, instead of doing things you hope will be effective.

How to apply Design Thinking to the employee experience?

Overall, employee experience is a very broad term. Therefore in order to tackle specific user challenges, you may need to break it up into more manageable areas.

In his book, The Employee Experience Advantage, Jacob Morgan breaks the employee experience down into three areas:


The actual space where people work. This includes functional aspects of the workplace such as seating, desks and meeting rooms. But also less obvious aspects such as the amount of daylight that gets into the office, the social spaces that are provided and whether or not the workplace creates a general sense of safety or belonging.


Culture can be hard to put your finger on. It’s often more of a feeling than a physical thing. It can be thought of as the sum total of a range of subjective and often intangible things, including how people interact, how leaders behave, how people are rewarded or recognised for their work and general morale.


Technological relates to the tools that are required to do your job. For most people, these days, this is a device of some sort that can connect to the internet and a range of software. It also includes the digital infrastructure (such as collaboration tools) required for people to interact and the physical infrastructure (such as routers and network equipment).

Design Thinking can be applied to each of these areas to enhance the end-user experience. In each instance, begin by talking to your people and seeing what challenges they’re facing in that area.

Examples may include:


“The car park is always full on Mondays so I have to park down the street and walk which sometimes makes me late to my first meetings.”


“The company has grown quickly and I feel like I know fewer people here than I used to.”


“Clients want to have video calls but our internet is too slow and unreliable.”

When you set aside your assumptions and make time to speak to people, you get a better feel for the real problems that they face. In most cases, people don’t want flashy Instagrammable workplaces. In short, they just want workplaces that work for them.

How Cisco applied Design Thinking to enhance the employee experience

Cisco applied Design Thinking methods in a hackathon environment in order to, as they put it, ‘Break HR’. The goal was to come up with as many totally new HR solutions from across the business as possible. But to also ensure that all the ideas were totally focussed on the end-user and making their lives better or easier. Click here to hear more about how the hackathon was organised and executed.

Creating outstanding workplaces may seem like a daunting challenge, but by adopting ideas from outside of the HR and facilities world and thinking systematically about the employee experience, facilities teams can find new ways to add value for employees.

If you’ve got questions on anything mentioned above, feel free to drop me a line on LinkedIn to carry on the conversation. And you can click here for advice on creating end-user personas for your staff to help tailor solutions for different user groups.

Simone Fenton-Jarvis

Workplace Consultancy Development Director at Ricoh UK & Ireland

Read all articles by Simone Fenton-Jarvis