Designing Human-Centered Corporate Cultures

“Great design is a multi-layered relationship between human life and its environment.” –Naoto Fukasawa

Many people believe culture is intangible and cannot be intentionally altered, but in fact, policies and practices can be deliberately designed, tested, and tweaked. As the designer, Robert L. Peters has said, “Design creates culture. Culture shapes values. Values determine the future.” Today some of the most forward-looking companies are engaging employees by designing policies and practices that address four core human needs—physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual—the same factors used in human-centered product design. Here are some quick examples of how this human-centered design methodology works for both products and cultures.

Physical

Products: The product should fit a broad range of users in the best way possible. Products designed with the human form in mind can increase comfort for users and reduce or eradicate repetitive-stress injuries caused by poor fit. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration estimates that the current cost of repetitive stress injuries in the US is $80 billion dollars. Ergonomic products can offset much of this cost.

Culture: Likewise, company policies and practices should be used to promote employees’ health. For instance, we all know that sitting at a desk for hours on end can cause a multitude of life-threatening illnesses, including cancer, yet many companies have cultures that support this type of behavior. What policies and practices are in place to encourage people to move? What practices encourage people to sit longer than they should? Answering questions like these can reduce health care costs and sick leave while improving the health of employees.

Emotional

Products: Our feelings have a strong influence on our behavior. For instance, if you felt a website was untrustworthy, you wouldn’t purchase from them. Slack, a team communication and collaboration tool, has used this principle to their advantage. By giving their platform a personality, warm, quirky, and inviting, people feel more emotionally connected to the service.

Culture: Likewise, policies and practices should make employees feel valued. Being valued is one of the key adjectives associated with the highest levels of performance. In fact, employees that agree with the statement, “My manager genuinely cares about my well-being,” are 84% more likely to stay at their current company, 86% more engaged, and 66% more focused than those that disagreed.*

Mental

Products: Products should be easy to understand and use. In fact, products can be designed to complement our natural mental processes, such as perception, memory, reasoning, and motor response. When designed with our cognitive processes in mind products become less confusing and more useful. One classic example is the Apple computer. The Apple computer was originally a text-based machine that required users to enter in commands with their keyboards. However, once Xerox PARC computer created a graphical interface and mouse for their computers, it became the gold standard because the user experience was much more intuitive.

Culture: Likewise, our cultures should be designed to improve or complement our natural cognitive processes. For instance, studies show that multitasking increases errors and the time required for each task, yet employees are often asked to be more responsive than ever. When we work with leaders, we often ask, “What policies and practices could be altered to help people focus on one thing at a time?”

Spiritual

Products: When products we use or purchase have an impact that aligns with our deepest held values, we feel better about using them. In fact, consumers are often willing to pay more for products that align with their values. Some examples of this include reusable items that reduce waste and Fair Trade products that give workers better wages. Cage free eggs are another great example of this “values” effect. Consumers are willing to absorb the increased cost of production of these eggs, often paying up to five dollars per dozen for Grade A eggs, even though taste remains the same.

Culture: Many Millennials have certainly put values before money when looking for jobs. A PWC study recently found that one out of every two Millennials actively seeks companies with values similar to their own, and is more likely to leave when their values are not aligned. Does your organization have an inspiring vision or mission that helps people find greater meaning in their work?

The Energy Project’s findings show that the best corporate cultures actively assess how they are meeting people’s core needs, and then adjust their practices accordingly. Just as in product design, when companies do this, they see outsized results; people are more committed, more engaged, and more likely to stay at their organization. Beyond that, the financial gains appear to follow; the top-ranked companies on Glassdoor and in Fortune’s “100 Best Places to Work For” continue, year after year, to outperform the S&P 500. It is clear— human-centered cultures will be one of the greatest competitive advantages in the age of knowledge work.

* May, 2016 Zogby International & The Energy Project (n=1,100)

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