Using a Design Thinking Approach to improve Employee Engagement
This paper was submitted as an assignment in my Design Thinking for Learning Organizations class.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused an exponential increase in what was already being called The Great Resignation in the United States. During 2020 and 2021, the number of employees leaving their jobs rose to record levels. This paper approaches the staffing issues and declining employee engagement from a design thinking perspective. Through empathy, prototyping and iterative implementation of solutions, the goal is to quickly capture real-world options that can effectively improve employee engagement in large-scale work from home situations.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, companies around the world rushed to enable their employees to work from home as quickly as possible. New technologies were deployed to allow online meetings and collaboration across the United States and around the world. As the pandemic stretched out over the first year, the trend of employees leaving the workforce started to increase greatly. As employees and their families dealt with the pandemic, political differences and high-profile news stories like the Black Lives Matter movement, the pattern now known as The Great Resignation also became big news. This trend has seen an amazingly high percentage of employees leaving the workforce throughout 2021, with four million employees quitting their jobs in July 2021 alone (Cook, 2021, para. 1).
The primary problem addressed in this article is how organizations can handle large-scale work from home situations, whether temporary or permanent, and retain their talented employees.
Reframing the Question
Once a question is identified, the next step in the design thinking process is to reframe the question. Our original question in this case is “How do companies retain talented employees?” To reframe this question, we must ask ourselves, “why they are leaving?” By reducing employees’ desire to leave, we will retain them. There are numerous reasons why employees leave during a pandemic, including a fear of working in an environment where COVID could be contracted, a desire to find a position with more meaning that brings the employee more purpose and a lack of engagement in the workplace brought on by becoming distanced and working from home (Kerr et al, 2022). For this paper I am focused on the last topic, engagement in the workplace. This leads to the question, “Why are employees not engaged in the workplace?”
Employee Engagement Issues During a Pandemic
As it pertains to this use, the dictionary defines engaged as “involved in an activity… greatly interested” (Merriam Webster, 2022). Companies have struggled to keep employees engaged in the age of the COVID pandemic. According to one article that references a 2020 Ohio State University study, “The data showed that as the thoughts of employees turned to the pandemic more and more, their anxiety levels rose and they became less engaged in their work” (Gaskell, 2020, para. 7).
Working from home itself has become a contributing factor. “The downside of WFH include the loss of a sense of workplace belongingness leading to a reduction in productivity, blurred lines between work and home, increased care giving duties due to the closure of schools, and less than optimal time to set up communication infrastructures at home” (Mehta, 2021, para. 3).
As employees tried to take care of their loved ones and many had to teach their children who were also remote, they were forced to consider another aspect of the virus that impacted their morale and overall psychological wellbeing. “A global pandemic can lead some people to think about their own mortality, which will understandably make them more stressed and less engaged at work” (Gaskell, 2020, para. 3).
Empathy for the Employees
The next step in design thinking is to empathize with the user of the system, process or product. In this case that is the employee. How can we find out why the employees are disengaged? Research has shown that 2021 was the first year in over a decade that average employee engagement has dropped compared to the previous year (Harter, 2022). Factors causing this disengagement include a lack of face-to-face supervision, a lack of access to information, social isolation and distractions at home (Larson et al, 2020). Additional factors include the ongoing disagreements about masking and getting vaccinated, people being forced to get vaccines to keep their jobs, distance and lost connections with coworkers and hiring freezes during an uncertain economic time. These hiring freezes, paired with the Great Resignation, lead to more workload on those employees who choose to stay with an organization. The mental toll of the pandemic on people has also been well documented. People are dealing with psychological stresses such as concern for family members, teaching their kids while trying to work from home and fears of an unknown virus.
One CDC article discusses the increase in mental health conditions, substance use and suicidal ideation surveyed in 2020 versus previous years. The article notes that “symptoms of anxiety disorder was approximately three times those reported in the second quarter of 2019 (25.5% versus 8.1%), and prevalence of depressive disorder was approximately four times that reported in the second quarter of 2019 (24.3% versus 6.5%) … approximately twice as many respondents (10.7%) reported serious consideration of suicide in the previous 30 days than did adults in the United States in 2018” (Czeisler, 2020, para. 10). Overall, 40.9% of adults reported some form of mental health or substance abuse.
The Czeisler report further states that 13.3% of responders had either started or increased substance abuse in the previous year. A different CDC article was also published, focusing on opioid usage and overdose deaths in Cook County, Illinois before, during and after an 11 week stay at home order due to the pandemic.
A total of 3,843 opioid overdose deaths occurred in Cook County during January 1, 2018–October 6, 2020, with the weekly count of deaths ranging from 12 to 52 (Figure). The weekly mean of 22.6 deaths per week (95% CI = 21.5–23.7) was relatively stable during the initial 99-week period, with little apparent seasonal variation. However, during the subsequent 16 weeks, beginning in December 2019, the mean number of deaths increased to 35.1 per week (95% CI = 32.2–37.8), followed by a more pronounced increase during the 11-week stay-at-home order, with a mean of 43.4 weekly deaths (95% CI = 38.8–48.0). In the 18 weeks after the stay-at-home order was lifted, mean weekly deaths declined to 31.2 (95% CI = 28.6–33.9). (Mason, 2021, para. )
What we have learned from these articles and studies is the reason for stress and disengagement in employees as well as the psychological trauma and dependencies that can result. Employees already have as much stress as they can handle on their plate. They need their organizations to be understanding and provide solutions to help. Employee needs go well beyond a paycheck. If the employees do not find the solutions they need at their current job, they will turn elsewhere to find it.
Figure 1 – The Increase in Mental Health, Substance Use and Suicidal Ideation During COVID-19
Ideation, Iteration and Prototyping
The next step in the process involves ideation, iteration and prototyping. This means the designer comes up with ideas to put into practice and implements prototypes quickly. The design thinking process differs from other methods in that it does not wait until the solution is perfect to implement. Instead, design thinkers implement prototypes early and often, constantly analyzing successes and failures and making improvements based on that data.
Personal Life Improvements
People turn to their employers for medical benefits amongst others. To combat the psychological stress, dependency issues and even suicidal thoughts that have become too common during the pandemic, companies need to make sure they are meeting their employee needs with more than just medical, dental and vision insurance. Many benefit plans include psychological counseling, dependency/substance abuse programs, wellness programs, stress management and even paid gym memberships. Companies need to revisit their programs and ensure they are offering their employees a holistic program.
Connections to Peers and Supervisors
Improving the connections between people has been important to many businesses in the past two years. Companies need to ensure that the connections are not simply for the benefit of meetings to update status on a project or work on a deliverable. “Business leaders must rise to the challenge by upping their communication game and learning to read individual employees’ needs astutely” (Beheshti, 2020, para. 4).
The pandemic has taken much of the personal interaction out of our society. Creating opportunities for employees to interact regularly and on a more personal level will make them feel more in touch with the work environment and lead to greater engagement. “Frequency of communication is especially important when it comes to assessing and supporting your employees’ mental health. Social isolation has real consequences in a world where loneliness was a major issue before the pandemic. Physical distancing does not have to mean emotional distancing.” (Beheshti, 2020, para. 8).
Encouraging employees to talk on the phone or hold video calls instead of only using text-based instant messaging gives a greater connection between people. Having a daily chat room conversation is also useful, allowing team members to reach out quickly to get an answer now that they can’t simply walk over to a coworker’s cubicle. The team chat also allows people to have occasional casual discussions as well, whether discussing weekend plans, personal interests or what is going on with someone’s family. Pairing people up to work with others they haven’t usually interacted with helps build relationships and improve engagement as well. Any changes that lead to more personal interaction with remote coworkers leads to improved lines of communication, closer team members and improved engagement. Recognition of employees through email shout outs and rewards such as employee of the month awards also helps boost morale.
With the stress of leading school age children in daily lessons and taking care of other family members during a pandemic, it is critical for an organization to provide as much flexibility as possible to employees with respect to schedules. This does have to be a two-way street, however. Employees may need to go offline during the day to handle a family issue, logging in later in the evening to make up the lost time. That being said, much of the business in the United States happens during weekdays, so there will be meetings or tasks that need to occur during standard hours. Flexibility on the part of both the employee and the organization is needed.
Lastly, employers need to be sure to encourage employees to take their personal time. Working from home often leads to a more flexible end of the day, with the employee being more willing to work on a task a little longer since they don’t have to beat traffic. Also, working from home does not mean that an employee is “at home”. There needs to be a clear distinction of the end of the day, and employees need to be encouraged to log off work at a regular time and take their vacations and holidays.
Prototyping and Refining
Once the research has been performed and the ideas generated, the next step in the design thinking process is to build prototypes of solutions and get them into the real world. Many organizations want to ensure that the prototypes are well engineered before putting them into their ecosystem, but the design process prefers to get them into use as early as possible. As these prototypes are tested, they provide useful feedback that can be used to refine the next version of the prototype. This “wash, rinse, repeat” model allows almost real-time data on the successes and failures in the process and a constantly improving product.
Regarding employee engagement, an organization needs to evaluate which of the solutions are most important in their unique environment and focus on those first. There is a detailed list of solutions in the sections above. By categorizing and prioritizing, the organization can implement a small list of options as the first prototype and evaluate the feedback. For example, providing the employees with access to psychological counseling, a flexible work schedule and daily interactive communications are a strong first prototype. Alternatively, instead of choosing three benefits from different focus areas, an organization could prototype two different improvements in the employee/manager communication process, such as daily stand-up meetings and weekly recognition of employees for major accomplishments. The prototype can be implemented with a smaller test pool to evaluate how well it is received. Employees who receive the new benefits can give immediate feedback on how it improves their morale, engagement and overall work experience. As further iterations of prototypes are implemented, the organization can remove solutions that are not overly successful and add in new options.
An added benefit of this type of small group test pool is cost savings. Supplying a small group with a particular benefit, process or communication tool can save expenses if it is proven ineffective and they save the costs of a company-wide rollout.
Building the Final Product
After multiple iterations, the organization then has new options that have been proven successful in the smaller test groups and can now be rolled out to the larger population. The need to improve employee communication, offer flexibility and focus on the employee well-being is essential to employee engagement.
The stresses and increased responsibilities during a global pandemic can be constantly changing. In one month, employees may be focused on teaching their children who are learning from home and the next month dealing with an increased workload because multiple team members have moved on to other positions. While the process listed above explains how to get to solutions that have been well thought out and tested, the concept of employee engagement and associated issues is ever-changing. Companies and organizations need to continue to regularly poll their employees and keep eyes on their industry as well as society to be aware when the process needs repeating.
The Perspective of Multiple Frames
Considering the design thinking methodology above from the perspective of multiple frames is essential to its success. The most obviously related frame is the human resources frame. This perspective considers the good of the people and what is in their best interest. This servant leader perspective is obvious in that the focus of this exercise is to increase the quality of life of the employees and therefore their engagement. The symbolic frame has a strong focus on teamwork and motivates through symbolic means. This frame is a part of this engagement improvement process by building a sense of teamwork and common goals and values and even though benefits such as team member of the month acknowledgement. These build a sense of camaraderie in the team through intangible benefits.
The structural frame represents the roles and responsibilities of a given organization. In order to implement the solutions outlined above, multiple teams and individuals will need to be engaged. By assigning tasks to managers, human resources staff and the employees themselves, different functions will work together to accomplish these tasks. Lastly, the political frame is also critical to success. This frame involves working together with other areas of an organization, advocating for the cause to get access to an organization’s limited resources and getting buy-in from others. Only through successfully navigating the political landscape of an organization can these programs be implemented successfully.
The Great Resignation technically started before the COVID-19 pandemic, but many of the isolation issues led to psychological and personal stresses that increased the outflux of employees from organizations. Employee engagement has been lowered across the United States. Through providing employees solutions that meet their personal, professional and psychological needs, organizations will not only improve the quality of employee’s lives, but they will also be able to retain their talent.
The design solutions presented here are guidelines to promote employee engagement whether working from home or on premises. By adopting these suggestions as normal workplace behaviors for all employees, whether WFH or in the office, the organization will be prepared should there be another large-scale work from home situation in the future.
This was written as a case study towards my MA in Leadership Studies at Northern Vermont University.
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