The Era of Human Centered Design

Open work spaces. Flexible hours and locations. The waning of command and control hierarchy. More surveys, less evaluations.

These are so much more than engagement strategies; they are the future of work, thanks to all the heavy lifting from our forefathers and mothers. Each generation in the workforce has played a role in moving the needle on making organizations more humane, and more effectively empowering workers to be more efficient contributors. While the human centered workplace is by no means ubiquitous, it is undoubtedly gaining momentum.

Wait, what is human centered design? Human centered design is the trend of designing work, products and tools around the needs and realities of the user. Human centered design is a process that starts with the people you're designing for and ends with new solutions tailor-made to suit their needs. The result is more humane processes and structures that ultimately support the human at the center doing better work, in a more efficient environment and going home happier. Yes, engagement is also an output of this process, while beinga win-win-win for the company, worker and their communities. Let me give you some examples.


A Human Centered Approach to Office Design

Since the tech boom began, the world of tech followed Silicon Valley’s lead in creating open work environments. The cubicle went the way of the Dodo, and huge rooms were filled with tables, wires hanging from the ceiling and the buzz of energy, movement and blaring headphones. For many extroverts, this environment was liberating and furthered a culture of transparency and collaboration. For introverts, however,  these open floor plans ranged from distracting to disturbing.

Recently, AirBnB surveyed its employees to learn what worked and did not work about their open work environment. Some employees love it. Others, less so. So AirBnB made space for these people based on their feedback. Management did not design the “perfect” solution and push it onto their employees; they tested out a solution, got feedback and made changes.

By soliciting input from their stakeholders, and acting on it, AirBnB is demonstrating the power and empowering nature of human centered design.


A Human Centered Approach to Parental Leave

In late July,  Netflix told employees that they, “can now take unlimited paid parental leave.” You read that right. In the small text at the bottom of the policy it states that this policy is only in effect for the first year after the birth/adoption of a child. And yes, parental leave means mom and dad.

Why would Netflix offer such a cushy leave policy? Because, as Netflix CEO Reed Hastings says, “Netflix's continued success hinges on us competing for and keeping the most talented individuals in their field. Experience shows people perform better at work when they're not worrying about home.”

This is not just a feel-good gimmick; the data shows that generous leave policies directly affects an employer's ability to retain employees. This is the essence of human centered design. Build flexible structures wherein people have to be responsible for their outcomes and accountable to their partners. No more, no less. By loosening the reigns of management, employees become more committed, creative and comfortable within their work environments.


A Human Centered Approach to Management

On March 24th, Zappos CEO sent a message to his employees; one that would eventually make it’s way around the world. It was radical. He stated that Zappos was going to get rid of the traditional command and control management hierarchy to adopt a new social technology called Holacracy, where there are no managers or bosses. This radical management model is called Holacracy. The Holacracy Constitution states, “Holacracy is a new way of running an organization that removes power from a management hierarchy and distributes it across clear roles, which can then be executed autonomously.”

Since Zappos transformed into a Holacracy, hundreds of other organizations of all shapes and sizes from all over the world have followed suit. Holacracy works because it is flexible and supports people in being human. Power is more equitably distributed, and decisions are made in collaboration with the affected stakeholders.


The above stories all have one thing in common: they all turn the operating model given to us by the industrial revolution on its head. The only place in the modern life of a citizen of democracy that we have such rigid hierarchy is at work. Our society is fairly democratic, yet most  organizations are run like fiefdoms.


The companies above, and hundreds of others are asking, listening, implementing and iterating to empower their employees to be more effective by treating them as intelligent, responsible humans. Fortunately, these stories are becoming more and more prevalent, as the age of human centered design transitions from twilight to dawn.

Expelled from school, developmentally delayed, and rejected by the university of his choice, Nobel Peace Prize winner and science revolutionary, Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve problems at the same level at which we created them.” The top-down approach to management, decision-making and product design is outdated. The tools exist now to tap into the collective intelligence to improve your work, workflow and outputs. How might your work improve if you asked, instead of dictated to your employees? How can you tap into the collective intelligence to excite, engage and empower your workforce, and thus truly achieve sustainable organizational excellence?