Leveraging design thinking principles for improving the employee experience 


Olivia Hosie says that, in an African context, everything has to start with empathy.

The very nature of change and progress dictates that people in the world of work seeking solutions to continuously improve business, identify and then name potentially impactful ideas – some of which, based on their either perceived or realised efficacy, become trends. 

A really good example of this is not new, but certainly still a hot topic on most platforms – is that of the Employee Experience

What appears to have been born out of the desire and need for organisations to become more purpose-driven – not to necessarily create unrealistic Disney-esque, dreamy or philanthropic organisations just because it is an apparent global theme, organisations are looking inward to impact outputs. 

It has been really interesting and exciting to be part of a journey, within Africa-based businesses, to take some of the principals of cultivating positive work environments applied in “first-world” economies and translating these into practical, fit-for-purpose solutions within organisations locally which have some very real differentiators impacted, by and large to the demographic, geographic, cultural and economic nuances associated with doing business in developing economies. 

Start with empathy

Having experienced some incredible results by adapting global best-practice principals to a model which is accessible and therefore extremely impactful, we thought it may be time to share some of these successes – with a view to enabling organisations seeking to achieve the same. 

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In this article, we have decided to isolate the first and most critical step in any journey an organisation embarks on to improve their employee experience – empathy. 

Why empathy? As leaders within a business where we have naturally accumulated assumptions through our observations. We develop a bias which can cause us to “name” the problems/gaps or opportunities for remediation – without having understood causality. In my experience, the work any company does to truly understand the as-is employee experience only serves to ensure that effort and resources applied for improving the requisite metrics are impactful. 

The ability to leverage any human-centred design solution to complex, multi-faceted problems starts with empathy. 

Firstly, let’s take the environment into consideration – and by this, I don’t mean the actual place of work, I mean the full physical and social realities of the vast majority of your workforce. If, like many of our clients, your organisation is representative of the typical African landscape, we need to be hyper-aware of the challenges most employees face on a day to day basis. 

Beware your own biases 

I see many well-meaning professionals diving into solution mode, without fully seeking to understand what the current gaps – and therefore opportunities – are to realise an impact. For example, if 80 percent of the workforce is impacted daily by the realities associated with residing some distance from their place of work, dependant on lengthy, often unsafe transport methods in addition to quite often being the sole breadwinner for  5 to 13 people, providing yoga and meditation classes before a shift starts will only create a more cavernous divide between the organisation and the practical realities of physiological needs. Provision of seasonal fruits for this stakeholder group upon arrival at their place of work preceding a shift would be infinitely more beneficial and instantly positively impact both the perceived and realised experience – and therefore aid productivity, reduce absenteeism and result in a marked improvement in quality assurance metrics. 

Where to start

Irrespective of industry or location, there are some fundamental pillars upon which employee engagement is built. Some examples of these are leadership, learning and development opportunities, communication, change navigation and enablement (which also speaks to agility/responsiveness and innovation), fair treatment with regards to equality, diversity and inclusion, and overall employee well-being

In any organisation the first step should be to craft a customised survey to understand the current status quo in relation to the experiences all emloyees are having in respect of these pillars. 

It is essential that not only does one take into consideration the accessibility of the language used in such surveys – specific to the demographic profile of the targeted stakeholder group, but also the means via which the opportunity to participate in the survey is delivered. Trust, safety, ease of use and availability are non-negotiable considerations. 

Once this data-set has been obtained, it is critical to convert otherwise fairly meaningless information into a visually appealing and easy to understand format with two key objectives in mind -  to provide feedback on findings to all participants, and enable business leaders to leverage the information for remediation purposes

This quantitative data will then inform the next phase in the process, which is to to gain a deep qualitative understanding of the current landscape reality. This can be undertaken via empathetic interviews, focus groups or workshops which are designed to understand the sentiment behind the perceptions of the participants. 




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