Design thinking

Employee Experience – 4 principles for humanizing the future of work

Malin Orebäck

Imagine two companies. The first wants to move its teams to an activity-based, open plan office. They invest in interior design, internal information and transition management. But somehow, they’re still stuck in a loop of complaints, lost productivity and low employee engagement.


The second company maps out what their teams care about, how they do their best work and, most importantly, why they work the way they do – digging deeper to understand what truly drives them. They co-create concepts across functions and run “learning experiments” to figure out the best new environment. Employees enthusiastically support the process, contribute new ideas and continue to build new ways of working and learning. Productivity increases, the company becomes more attractive as an employer and people enjoy working together.

According to recent research, companies that create and sustain a culture where employees thrive are three times more productive than those that do not. Research also suggests that staff turnover may cost a company as much as 50 to 400 percent of an employee’s annual salary (depending on skill level) in lost productivity and re-recruitment alone.

As it turns out, that second company focused on employee experience – a key tool that helps companies deliver better engagement, performance and growth capabilities. In the past, operational principles whipped industrial organizations into shape to drive productivity. Currently, leaders are focusing on digitization to create competitive advantage. We believe that humanization, or a focus on people and re-imagining how we want to work in the future, is the next frontier.

By tapping into a design mindset, organizations can find new ways to humanize – to unlock the human dimension and uncover a sense of meaning and shared values that drive motivation, well being and growth.

By tapping into a design mindset, organizations can find new ways to humanize – to unlock the human dimension and uncover a sense of meaning and shared values that drive motivation, well-being and growth.

We see companies like Airbnb introducing a Chief Employee Experience Officer function. We see new employee experience teams being formed that combine several existing functions like HR, digital and facility management. What these ideas have in common is a push to figure out the future of work. They often go beyond the physical and the digital to center on the human aspect of employees. Whist Chief Digital Officer is the C-suite position that gets a lot of attention these days, the HR function could be stepping up to lead the next wave of corporate innovation, especially in service and “people businesses” that rely on employees for customer relationships and innovation.

Four principles that humanize work


In Sweden, Experio Lab is embedding a design unit in a county council. Over a ten-week period, we helped bring together healthcare professionals across various functions and roles for three hours every Friday. The goal was to gain a deeper understanding and empathy for the patient experience, as well as employee activities along the journey. It was a simple idea that had great impact; by re-enacting three real patient journeys, the team uncovered profound insights and new perspectives. The empathy that was generated directly resulted in major improvements, with the Lab format scaled to six counties with great success.


Empowering employees to act is a key responsibility of organizational leaders and critical in contextualizing employee experience. When we helped PepsiCo understand breakfast as an occasion globally, we truly witnessed leadership empowerment in action. The program’s goal was to develop a new line of offerings under the umbrella of the Global Nutrition Group. We set up innovation labs in eight countries, working with cross-functional teams and every layer of management. We spent lots of time with consumers to truly understand their needs and breakfast habits, and how they varied across markets. We’re sure this type of work sounds familiar, but one thing we did differently in this engagement was to invite key organizational stakeholders to each in-depth ethnography and co-creation session. Although they were there to check in and be introduced, they were also tasked with taking notes, gathering insights, and sharing and debating their point of view. One of the biggest takeaways was the empowerment and ability to act infused into middle management. Since they had gained an understanding of customer needs and concerns alongside the senior management team, these mid-level managers felt they had the remit to be proactive and drive change.

Personality and Diversity

Proper customer segmentation is a pretty common practice today. And companies are getting better at understanding customer needs and building empathy. But how many organizations do the same type of exercise with employees? To understand employee diversity, one size does not fit all. Staff needs vary based on personality, lifestyle choice, culture and context. We notice that many organizations profile employees by competency and skill set. Even if some do screen for personality type, it is focused on skills, how they communicate or collaborate in a team. Recently we completed a study to uncover employee expectations at a global tech company. As part of the study we profiled participants by personality. Combining personality and qualitative insights allowed us to create four distinct behavior and need profiles. These turned out to be different in many areas, such as how employees liked to have lunch, how they worked best in meetings, how to better influence their work environment, etc. We found that personality is a very effective and stable filter to better understand human preferences and needs. We can better understand expectations of the whole employee journey – from head hunting, candidate experience, everyday work in the office or mobile all the way to personal development, internal role transitions, exiting an organization and beyond: the whole human experience of work.


Most large global companies understand the value of workplace design by investing in audits, ergonomic seating reviews, architects, interior designers, and health and safety experts to create environments for improved performance. But how often do employees get to be part of creating the vision of an optimal work experience? In a series of co-creation sessions, our design team engaged with researchers and scientists at a global pharma company to identify new, more efficient ways of working in their science lab. We co-created with Lego using stop-motion video to identify where collaboration really happened (and it wasn’t where everyone initially thought). We combined this knowledge with the insight that structured meetings were often seen as heavy and did not always yield engaging or meaningful conversations. The biggest “aha” moments often came in smaller meetings or side conversations before or after larger meetings. This led to the transformation of walkways and intersections from means of transit to spaces for lingering, where spontaneous meetings and ideas could happen. Ultimately, the co-creation process lead to completely overhauled floorplans and a new lab building that enabled true collaboration in previously unimagined ways.

The new role of design

In the age of automation, artificial intelligence and robotics, we are at risk of losing the human dimension. In this new reality, empathy will become an important skillset. Some argue it will be more important than knowing how to code. Designers, behavioral psychologists and human factor specialists spend a lot of time with consumers to deeply understand their realities and needs. This people-driven innovation approach is also very applicable to genuinely understand the motivations of employees. People have an amazing ability to empathize, to be creative and collaborate toward a better future. We believe that organizations sit on a goldmine of suppressed employee engagement. And design can help unlock it.