The use of design thinking in HR is growing, and Australia Post are one of the larger Australian corporates leading the way. In response to ongoing industry disruption they have recently used design thinking to renew their workforce transition program. This increased the support for employees to pro-actively progress their careers and build new skills for the future.
Australia Post (AP) is no stranger to disruption and transformation. With the rapid growth of e-commerce and continual decline of paper based mail, it continues to transform its business of more than 34,000 employees and the nation’s largest retail network. To continually move a corporate ship at this scale is a formidable task and so I recently spoke with Fiona Wright, the Head of Workforce Transition about their approach to managing major skill shifts across their workforce. Her team have focused on the employee experience in these transitions, using design thinking to understand how best to support employees and the organisation to pave the way for the future.
Putting employees at the centre
Design thinking, is a problem-solving tool used to find innovative solutions that are centred on addressing the needs of people. It involves empathy to understand needs, collaborative ideation and finally testing to ensure the solutions works. Many organisations hesitate before delving into the employee perspective on sensitive and complex topics such as redundancy or workforce transition. These fears are often driven by the belief that company and employee perspectives are misaligned. Fiona takes a different perspective:
“We chose to use design thinking to better understand our employees needs when it came to be managing their careers given the increasing scale of change across our organisation. We wanted to take a step back and put our people at the heart of our approach rather than impose a ‘top down’ solution.”
A new perspective, a new solution
Employee empathy interviews, conducted as part of the first stages of design thinking triggered an important turning point for the AP project team. Fiona’s team began exploring employee views on: “How might AP better support people during times of change?” They discovered that employees sought greater control in re-directing their careers based on emerging workforce trends. So, they redefined their opportunity to: “How might AP help our people be more pro-active in their career decision-making?”.
“We needed to shift our perspective and flip it on its head. Ultimately, it’s not about us, it’s about our people. The empathy interviews were so powerful and achieved exactly this.” says Fiona.
Redefining your opportunity, though the eyes of your employees is a key step in design thinking for HR. This opens opportunities to solve it differently putting employee needs and emotions at the centre.
Quick wins and big ideas
This change of perspective shifted their focus to ensuring people can make more informed and proactive career decisions. Ideation and testing of several 'quick-wins' to 'big ideas' followed. The team gathered organisational-wide support for the re-direction of resources to support several changes which included:
Systemic use of job trials, shadowing and back-filling in future skill areas.
Broader support at the very start of a change program through early expressions of interest.
Freedom for employees to select redeployment rather than prescribing suitability.
Re-writing employee communications, to focus on what was important to employees (not the process
Taking stock of the learnings is a critical measure of progress in design thinking. Fiona shared two learnings from her experience. Firstly, the importance of carrying the employee stories throughout the entire process. She explains:
“When moving from ideation to experimentation there is a huge hole. We needed to get much smarter about mobilising what we learnt in the early on throughout every stage of design thinking process. Building and testing solutions is different work, it’s more resource intensive and more execution focused, and we needed to make sure initial messages didn’t get diluted.”
Storytelling can keep these perspectives alive. Purposeful and emotional stories are more easily recalled and repeated at scale.
Fiona also reflected on the resources engaged in the process. While it was important to involve leaders and decision-makers it was better to involve them at specific milestones and engage resources with less experience in the day to day work. Fiona elaborates on this:
“Having new minds on the challenge means you can ask the obvious questions and avoid skewing the perspectives early in the process. Furthermore, having experts involved means there’s more of a risk of imposing known solutions.”
Design for engagement
When HR teams adopt design thinking they shift their perspective from ‘the process we need’ to ‘what will engage employees’. It is a proven way of understanding and designing for needs and emotions, which ultimately drives behaviour. Like this example at Australia Post, design thinking is best applied to complex challenges that employees care about. When you successfully understand and design for the employee experience you generate greater active engagement for change that is critical to the future.
Thank you to Fiona Wright and Fiona Wynn from Australia Post for allowing us to tell their story.
Jennifer Pangas is the founder of HRHack.com.au - Design thinking and HR Expertise to position HR for the future.