Written by Katie Weber
Late this summer, our team decided to spend some time looking inwardly. We took stock of our work, our goals, our methods—who are we and where do we want to go together? In an ever changing world, we decided it was time to reflect on our work, decide how we want to evolve our services, and determine who we serve in this era of disruption.
Since we were essentially talking about redesigning our future, we decided that we must use a core part of the design thinking process: building empathy for those we serve. We knew that we had to talk to others—past clients, former partners, fellow practitioners—in order to better understand ourselves. Over the course of two weeks, members of the DTG team interviewed former clients at 12 different companies in order to understand what they are adapting to, how they are adapting, and why adapting is difficult. Here is what we learned.
In-Person to Online Work
As we all know, everyone is suddenly working from home. Offices are closed. Employees sit on couches or at desks in home offices. Families may be visible in the background of video calls, and the majority of knowledge workers have transitioned to being entirely online. Even now, months after the outbreak of COVID-19, many people are still working from home. The lines that used to separate home life and work life are forever blending.
What surfaced during our conversations surrounding the transition from in-person to online work? These key challenges:
Hiring. When organizations hire in the current environment, the hiring and onboarding process is being done entirely online. Learning how to work virtually with people whom you have never actually met, like almost everything else these days, is uncharted territory.
Employees’ health and safety. Health and safety of employees is a major priority—not to say that it was not a priority before, it has just reached a heightened level of emphasis in the workplace. Organizations are now working to address important questions like: Are people at home equipped to be effective at their work while balancing family responsibilities? What can companies do to help their employees stay safe? What new policies need to be put in place to keep people safe and adhere to health recommendations and mandates? When is it safe to bring people back into work, if ever?
Long meetings. Meetings that used to take an hour or two in person can span over multiple days or weeks now. Everything takes much more time online. People are using new technologies to varying degrees of effectiveness. While some meetings might actually be conducted more efficiently, most remote meetings are less effective, exhausting, and unsatisfying.
Connecting with others. People are learning how to interact with others in an entirely virtual setting. One of our interviewees remarked that it’s the sharing of “stupid little things” like learning a new shortcut on Microsoft Word, or a new function on Zoom that can help people share with each other and have moments of connection. As people get a peek into the lives of their colleagues, some deeper connections are being made among colleagues that weren’t there before.
Diversity and Inclusion
I cannot do the Black Lives Matter movement justice in this small patch of text. Instead, I encourage anyone reading this to also read my colleague Dr. Augusta Olaore’s June 2020 post—“I Can’t Breathe”: The Empathyscope for Social Justice—to learn more and think more about this civil rights movement through the lens of empathy. She provides a thoughtful and deep analysis of this moment in time in words I could not match.
I can relay some of the challenges that organizations are tackling concerning diversity and inclusion:
Change acceleration. The Black Lives Matter movement sparked conversations among leaders in many types of organizations. One common goal that emerged during our interviews is to create a more deliberate culture of inclusion. While not a permanent fix to a systemic issue, organizations are working to be better. Leaders of these companies stated that an inclusive culture will help them attract the best talent.
Belonging. Talent retention is a bigger challenge than recruitment. Without a sense of belonging—inclusion and diversity in the workplace—people will leave. In order to offer an enduring diverse and inclusive workplace, organizations must foster an environment of inclusivity.
Long-term commitment. How can we make sure that creating an environment of diversity and inclusion remains a priority? Organizational leaders are paying attention to this issue now, but some people we interviewed fear that the issue will fade if their organizations don’t make substantive changes now.
Agility in Adaptation
It’s tiring to work in a world of constant change and shifting priorities. That is why, when interviewing our clients and customers, we asked about agility in the workplace. How do we work in a rapidly changing world? Our interviewees said it’s essential for organizations to develop:
Speed. Working and adapting quickly is one of the top priorities right now. “Agility and nimbleness—everything else is driven based on that,” one person shared. Organizational leadersare looking toward their customers to understand unmet, rapidly evolving needs and desires within a landscape that is unclear and unpredictable. One of our interviewees described “The Shiniest Pen” problem. A company could make the shiniest pen and have tons of data that prove it is the shiniest, but people may not want the shiniest pen. We can only know what customers want by speaking with them.
An appetite for change. Some organizations have a higher demand for products and services than they can handle. This may include needs for consulting, crisis management, training, and more. These organizations have to become creative, resourceful and flexible in order to keep up with these requirements and adapt in a rapidly changing world. Some teams are experimenting with ways to be effective at remote work, while also developing and applying a human-centric lens to the way they operate. DTG is not the only company that is taking the time to look inward, and design thinking and innovation can be applicable and useful for all types of change.
Want to Learn More?
This short piece cannot adequately encompass the breadth and depth of information that we learned from our interviews. But from this, we learned that many organizations are trying to figure everything out, just like we are.
Author Katie Weber is a design thinker, biologist, and aspiring educator. She founded a student-led innovation program at Colgate University and taught design thinking methodology to students, staff, and faculty.