How to use design thinking to improve employee retention

We speak regularly with business leaders about the biggest challenges they’re facing – from leading through digital transformations, leveraging disruptive technologies like Artificial Intelligence, and redesigning approaches to work in response to the hybrid challenge, to name a few.

A topic that comes up a lot right now is hiring, upskilling and retaining top talent to meet the demands of the current environment.

More leaders are telling us that employee needs and expectations are evolving at a rate that is hard to keep up with. Not only that, but there’s more variation in those needs across the organization when it comes to things like remote/hybrid working preferences, the need for alignment on social values, and expectations around progression and tenure. Add this to greater competition from other employers and tumultuous economic conditions, and you have a uniquely challenging environment for talent leaders.

Grappling with this problem costs organizations time and money. Recruitment processes are long and expensive, and businesses often then struggle to deliver the conditions that result in high engagement and, ultimately, retention.

So, what can businesses do to retain great staff? What should their employee retention strategies include? In this blog, we’ll share how leaders can use some of the innovative methods most often deployed to create new products and services, to design an employee experience your people will really value.

Why does the employee experience matter?

The benefits to organizations of having happy employees are undeniable. According to McKinsey & Company, “Research shows that people who report having a positive employee experience have 16 times the engagement level of employees with a negative experience, and that they are eight times more likely to want to stay at a company.”

The Thrive XM Index, a ranking of companies with the best employee wellbeing, found that companies with happier employees outperform their peers, and deliver greater profits, too.

So, I think we’re all agreed – employee experience matters. Now let’s look at how you can use human-centered design to create experiences that lead to more happy employees!

Design for your employees like you would your customers

We’ve noticed a marked difference in the way organizations design customer experiences, and the way they design employee experiences. Many will put the time and effort into designing in partnership with their customers, but fewer will apply the same rigor to employee experience.

As McKinsey & Company said in this article, “Providing top-notch EX (employee experience) is not just lip service; it requires a profound reorientation away from a traditional top-down model to one based on the fundamentals of design thinking.”

Here’s how to do it.

Discover what your people really care about

The first mistake so many leaders make is they assume they know what their employees want.

Design thinking requires you to put aside your assumptions and take the time to deeply understand what the people you’re designing for think, feel and value. Allowing people to share their views and experiences with candor will unearth needs you didn’t even know were there.

By taking a deep listening approach, you’ll gain real insight into what it’s like for people to work in your business, and what needs to change.

Hear from your extreme users

A great place to start is with your extreme users – that’s people with an ‘extreme’ or ‘distinct’ experience of working for the business. This could be people who have just joined, people who have been at the company for years, or people who work in a team with very high or low turnover. These conversations will give you unique insights and ideas that will help improve the employee experience for everybody.

For example, when you speak to somebody who has just joined the business, you learn a lot about the first impression you’re really making. We spoke to a law firm recently that’s working with a company to redesign its employee contract after they discovered that new starters were finding its current tone and content daunting and off-putting, and in no way reflective of the warm and engaging recruitment process they’d just been through. Nobody realized – until they had this conversation – that this first step in the EX journey was having such a negative impact.

At the other end of the spectrum, when you talk to people who have been with your business for a long time, you hear about all the bad habits and the informal power structures that exist, and how people work around them to get things done.

For example, we worked with an organization that had regular ‘all hands’ meetings for the entire team, but then leaders would get together informally afterwards for the real discussion over drinks about what was going on. This created a dynamic where employees invited to the informal chat knew more about what was going on in the business, and everybody else felt left out.

Until this was recognized by the HR team, they were totally unaware that the ‘all hands’ meetings, which were intended to bring people together, were inadvertently having toxic cultural side-effects, and making some people feel like outsiders.

Lateral hires are also great extreme users to speak to. You can find out what attracted them, how the business compares, and what their previous employer did and didn’t do well. Exit interviews are a great source of insight here too, so be sure to bring your genuine empathy and curiosity to uncover insights that might prevent the next departure, or misaligned recruitment. And where you have done an employee survey, take a look at your highest and lowest results, and engage those people in this process.

Plan out how you’re going to engage your extreme users using this template (also available on our remote innovation platform Sprintbase).

Map the employee journey and spot the moments that matter

When you’ve spoken to a broad range of people across your business, you can start to map out the employee journey – just as you would for your customers.

Bring a diverse group of employees together to do this with you, and map out all the pain points along the way.

By plotting each stage of the journey, you’ll see what people really care about. For example, do they want more opportunities to connect with their peers and teams? Or greater access to leadership? Are they frustrated by the extent to which they’re involved in decision making? Or the transparency in the organization? Or how they were on-boarded? Do they dislike the way change is communicated?

When you have everything mapped out, you’ll be able to see what’s working, what’s not, and where there’s real potential for change.

Looking for a great user journey map template? Take a look at this one on Sprintbase

Whenever you bring people together like this – whether it’s to form insights, generate ideas or test prototypes – make sure you do it somewhere visible. This enables colleagues throughout the business to see the time and investment being put into the employee experience, and reinforces the message that this really matters. Sometimes having a third party facilitate these conversations allows people to more freely share their genuine experiences. If you’d like some support, let us know.

Let people co-create their future

So now that you really understand different employee journeys, you can start co-creating what the future might look like.

This starts by taking all the great insights you got from your journey map, and forming some ‘ ‘How might we…?’ questions you can use to frame your challenge and start brainstorming.

For example, a large tech business we worked with found that their onboarding process felt a bit soulless, and was making people feel like a ‘cog in the machine’, which was not their desired outcome. To address this insight, they crafted the HMW: ‘How might we create an onboarding experience that makes new starters feel like they’re part of a family?’ and invited people from across the business to contribute ideas.

Let people choose the challenge that matters most to them and invite them to a brainstorm to start coming up with ideas.

Here’s a template (which is also available on Sprintbase) to help you generate a lot of ideas in a quick and dynamic way.

Keep people involved – and manage their expectations

During any kind of design thinking work, it’s so important that you keep people engaged after the flurry of post-it notes (both physical and digital) has settled. There’s nothing worse than being invited into a brainstorm, and then never hearing anything about it again. They need to see that it is meaningful and going somewhere. Diarise it as you go, to make sure you keep people posted about how the project’s going, and how valuable their contributions were.

And when you’re running these sessions, make sure you’re managing expectations, as well as stoking enthusiasm for the process. Be sure participants understand that while their input is absolutely essential (and it is!) not every idea can be implemented. Again, transparency on how decisions are made and maintaining a drumbeat of regular updates helps a lot here.

Great employee experience is a journey, just like great customer experience…

…so start with some quick wins. Implement the things that your insights tell you will make a difference, and fix the things you can change easily.

And then when you’re testing out new ideas, do so iteratively and responsively. Don’t spend time building a one/two/three year plan, but instead test something out for a short time, learn, and make changes as you go. Keep those touch points with people going so feedback remains a constant part of the process.

For example, imagine you’ve discovered the need for more cross-functional teamwork to break down some unhelpful silos that have sprung up, making employees feel isolated in their roles. Before rolling this idea out to the business as a whole, start by experimenting with a small group of people. Ask yourself, “What assumptions are we making?”.

Use this small group to find out if people will actually turn up and prioritize the cross-functional meeting, or if the support was easier to give verbally before real life pressures came into play. Learn about how such a meeting needs to function, how leadership and accountability are managed, and then work to fix all the little imperfections that are present in any new idea before going big.

Based on the feedback, impact and other learnings, you may choose to significantly alter the approach, or scrap it altogether. But just as with the development of new products and services, it’s best to ‘fail fast’ in order to gather those learnings that ultimately get you to successful solutions sooner.

And don’t forget…

Before you start, engage your leadership

Before you begin any design project, make sure you have leadership buy-in first. Some of the methods we’ve described will probably mean a departure from the status quo – and may be met with resistance from some well-meaning, but perhaps change-averse colleagues. Having senior leadership ‘air cover’ is essential for reducing risk and safe-guarding the success of your innovative EX initiative.

Make sure that leadership knows that it’s not about just saying yes, but recognising what it takes to build a great employee experience. They need to understand that it’s going to mean trying out new methods, testing out new ideas, and iterating until you find the right solutions.

We’ve talked to Boards and CEOs for organizations around the world to help secure this kind of buy-in and communicate the value of taking a human-centered approach to designing employee experience. So if you’d like some support having that conversation, we can help.

Never underestimate the diversity within your business

Throughout all your experiments, never assume that one person’s response will be the same as someone else’s. Keep testing your assumptions and speaking to people with a broad range of experiences. What might work for one team or individual may not work for another, so test things across roles and functions to make sure you land on a solution that reflects the diversity in your team before you roll it out.

To run a great business, you need great people, so designing a fantastic employee experience in partnership with your teams should be a top priority for every leader right now. But undertaking this kind of design thinking work can feel daunting, so we’re here to help.

We work with organizations big and small to help them use design thinking to transform their cultures and redesign EX for their teams. Check out the work we did with Sky to reimagine their employee experience. If you’d like to find out more about how we could work together, email or contact us today.

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