Human-Centered Experiences are the New Reality for Work

This piece was originally published in the NEHRA’s publication “Insights.”

Have you ever had a bad experience with health insurance? Trying to follow the processes, filling out some paperwork, or attempting to get to the root of why you’re paying what you’re paying? Chances are, nearly everyone who read that sentence nodded yes. The language is dense and industry-specific, information is scattered among different 3rd-party partners, and options are unexplained — none of that helps us, the non-expert people trying to navigate the system. Why can we all relate to this? Because insurance transactions aren’t designed with the patient in mind.

Now think about this: Work has been structured and setup with similar disregard for people. In this case though, it’s the people doing the work who are often ignored. Traditionally, policies protect the company and rules serve the organization and its objectives. People are expected show up, put in a specific amount of time each day, and then leave. To be blunt, it has always been very transactional.

That is starting to change. Humans are demanding something better and organizations are taking note.

How did The Human Experience Become So Important?

Arguably, they should have always been important, but the rise of technology in the last 20 years has made it an undeniable priority for business. When I started my career as a technologist 22 years ago, engineers often decided how things should work, and then they built the things from the back-end forward. How the products appeared was given very low priority in the overall discussion.

The problem with doing things that way was that the engineers were rarely the target user or the end-user of the actual product. So the experience for the end-user failed on a variety of levels: perhaps it wasn’t intuitive or it required too much technical knowledge to figure out or it didn’t do what the user actually wanted it to do (just what the engineer wanted it to do). All of these things played into the ultimate failure of early technology products. In order to turn that around, technologists and the industry started paying more and more attention to improving, experimenting, researching, and testing. They paid attention to people to figure out how to deliver successful, functional experiences for the users of the products. And, slowly, the products got better.

User-centered design became a really important consideration as tech evolved. This way of thinking worked and products with amazing user experiences rose to the top. Take Apple, for example. People came to appreciate those design-driven experiences so much that now they’re demanding it throughout all aspects of their lives.

User-centered thinking proved to be so valuable that we applied it to other aspects of business, and it quickly became a critical part of how we work in today’s modern business climate.

A More Effective User Experience Means More Effective Business — Inside and Out

User-centered design means that the wants, needs, and limitations of the end user are given significant consideration in the development of a product or service.

All too often systems, software, and even organizations, are built with a focus on business goals only. And yet, those business goals will never be achieved if the actual people using the systems aren’t considered. Making customers happy should be the ultimate business goal. If they are happy, they will buy. If they are happy, they will engage. If they are happy, the product will succeed at influencing — even changing — behavior.

The same is true when it comes to work culture and the structure of work. Build for people, not businesses. Build for humans, not business goals.

A user-centered work culture means the wants, needs, and limitations of the people inside the organization are given significant consideration when thinking about how to grow and evolve. This is important because business goals can’t be put before humans. The humans have to feel a connection in order to achieve the business goals, so thinking about them first is important. But that’s a big shift in how we think.

Most organizations make business plans without any mention of the people who will make that plan a reality. Rarely do leaders sit down and create a thorough profile of the kinds of people they want working at and working for the organization they’re attempting to build. People’s investment in and connection to the work, the culture, and the end product itself isn’t factored into the plan. It isn’t designed. The people are actually an afterthought of the organizational planning. And that is the first failure of most organizations.

What is a people-centered workplace?

Writing a business plan without explicit consideration and planning for the kind of environment that’s being created for the people doing the work dehumanizes work. And, by extension, dehumanizes the products and services being offered to customers. It’s counter-productive, it’s counter-intuitive, and it’s counter to any business goals.

Employees are end ‘users’ of your organizational culture. They benefit from the health of it or suffer from a lack of thoughtfulness. They are the people who are more creative and engaged in a positive work environment and who don’t care and are disengaged in a negative or deflated environment. And more than anything, they are the ones who have to help sustain any culture you build.

Businesses want employees to show up and treat each other well, to offer customers and clients excellent service, and to produce work that’s reliable, high-quality, and upholds their reputations and values. But that can’t happen until employees’ humanness is prioritized and acknowledged.

Businesses want employees to show up and be vulnerable, respectful, open, thoughtful, critical, and collaborative. They want employees to have empathy for their customers and each other because when employees bring their absolute humanity to work, customers feel it. And it extends to everything they do and everything they deliver, including how customers feel while interacting.

People need to feel safe at work. Caroline Wanga, VP of Diversity & Inclusion at Target, talks about the need for “psychological safety” at work. She believes that we have to create spaces that allow people to be exactly who they are. People deserve that safety — and need it to deliver their best work.

Often times, when businesses assume what people want, they get caught up in perks and gimmicks. They offer half-day Fridays or free lunch twice a month. What people really want is connection with each other, a mission they can invest in, and a positive reputation they can contribute to meaningfully.

Companies don’t know how to do a lot of these things yet. They know they’re supposed to care, but they don’t know how to replace perks with authentic relationships. They don’t know how to talk or relate like humans when it comes to work. They are trying to stay an “it” when they should be thinking like a “they.”

The health and well-being of the people inside of the business equates to the health and well-being of the business itself. Thinking about both in a truly balanced and authentic way is what it means to create a human-centered work culture.