8 Ways to Redesign the Workplace

8 Ways to Redesign the Workplace

We asked IDEO designers how they’d improve work life
Heather Kathryn Ross
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Our dream for the future of work that companies become more flexible, human-centered, and purpose-driven—in other words, better places to work. But rethinking accepted ways of doing business isn’t easy (BTW, we’ve got some help on hand if you’re interested in learning the tools of organizational change). Our designers have a long wish list and some ideas for how to get started: What if we could reframe maternity leave as a time for personal enrichment? Or make navigating enterprise software less miserable?

Here are a few of the many ways IDEOers want to help reinvigorate the modern workplace:

1. Increase employee feedback

Research in education shows that the best way to help students grow is to give them constant feedback on their performance. How can professionals be expected to grow if they only get feedback once every three, six, or twelve months?

Research by Harvard psychologist Teresa Amabile shows that a sense of progress at work stokes joy, creativity, and engagement. How could we adjust our meetings, our daily routines, and our cultures to make feedback an everyday activity? How much more trust could we create and conflict could we resolve if we created safe ways to help one another grow? It seems pollyannaish to say it, but I’d love to redesign feedback mechanisms to make us all better at what we do. —Joe Brown, IDEO San Francisco

2. Rebrand maternity leave

I want to redesign maternity leave—the brand, the experience, and the expectations.

Maternity leave is viewed as a pause or a step back in a woman's career, but I experienced it as a time of greater perspective and personal growth. I largely credit my mom, who asked me before my leave, "What are you going to do with your sabbatical?" Rather than correct her, I embraced the idea that this was time for me, too. As a result, I’m coming out of it more energized and inspired to lead, which is better for me and for IDEO. —Ashlea Powell Sommer, IDEO New York

3. Rethink retirement

I'd love to redesign the way the financial system, employers, and society think about retirement. Most of us know that retirement in its traditional, as-seen-in-a-401k-brochure form is either undesirable or unfeasible.

Instead of continuing to think and talk about retirement as a phase of life, what if we thought about retirement and the money we set aside for it as a modality that we dip into and out of as we change careers, take care of loved ones, take time off to travel, or work part-time? Instead of worrying about building up our net worth in order to have enough, we could all focus on something much more enriching—designing creative ways to amplify our net freedom throughout life. —Hailey Brewer, IDEO New York

4. Explode the org chart

Organizations are comprised of relatively mobile individuals with multidimensional capabilities who are responding to constantly changing contexts. But the prevailing “boxes and lines” org charts tell the stories of specialized, formal, and static machines. They really don't reflect the fluid way people work today. Let’s redesign the org chart to represent the modern worker who wants to learn, grow, and flex new muscles. —Mathew Chow, IDEO San Francisco

5. Make company cultures transparent

Company cultures can be opaque from the outside, and yet anybody who has experienced a good vs. mediocre vs. bad culture can tell you that it makes all the difference. How might we help more people understand the cultures of the companies they’re joining?

I’ve resorted to asking for one day to one week with the company, working side-by-side, before making a decision to join, which helps a ton but is not always an option. Trial runs like these can also sometimes be discriminatory; for instance, Harvard Business School used to require all potential professors to spend a year teaching, but found that this policy accidentally discriminated against women, who had more trouble spending a year away from family than men. There must be better ways. —Wendy Lin, IDEO Palo Alto

6. Bring UX design to enterprise tools

The tools that so many people use everyday to get things done are ugly and unfriendly and make them miserable—particularly in B2B settings, where employees have to deal with systems that are outdated, painful, and frustrating. I’ve noticed this in particular during work IDEO has done with diplomats at the Department of State—brilliant minds who have to spend a substantial amount of their time dealing with these tools and figuring out workarounds to trick the software. —David Boardman, IDEO New York

7. Flip sales incentives

We know that when sales is about the push, instead of the pull, it can have disastrous long-term effects on customers, communities, and sometimes the business itself. Too many folks in sales and account management positions work in conditions that encourage transactional, short-term, and business-centric behaviors and outcomes.

How might we move all sales—particularly in industries where there's an information and confidence asymmetry between buyers and sellers—away from a “fee for service” model and toward a “fee for value” setup? —Hailey Brewer, IDEO New York

8. Create 21st-century unions

Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures recently wrote what I thought was a provocative piece asking, “What is the union of today?” Especially with so many gig economy workers and the rise of freelancing in Gen Z, how do individuals balance the power of the large organizations that pay them?

There are a lot of both positive and negative opinions—all strong and politicized, it seems!—about unions, but I think taking a closer look at the fundamental goal of unions, which is to give labor an equal seat at the table, can open up new opportunities in today’s labor context, maybe with the help of blockchain and other emerging technologies. —Wendy Lin, IDEO Palo Alto

Want to rework the workplace with us? Contact Maggie Howekamp (mhowekamp@ideo.com) at IDEO’s San Francisco studio.

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Heather Kathryn Ross
As a lifelong storyteller, Heather has crafted articles about the legacy of civil rights abuse on North Carolina factory farms, the trillions of helpful microbes living in the human body, the wild art of Japanese butoh, and the ancient history of cheese. A jewelry maker, photographer, and amateur archaeologist, Heather can often be found on the lam with her camera or biking through San Francisco en route to the California Academy of Sciences.
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