Applying Design Thinking to Employee Engagement


Design thinking is now taking center stage in improving Employee Engagement and Experience at the workplace. Marketers have long obsessed about the Customer Experience (CX) journey.  HR teams at leading companies are now adopting the same principles to better manage and improve the “Employee Experience”.

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Let’s get rid of all the managers! But then again…

Examination of a Witch (1853), You drag it around like a ball and chain/  You wallow in the guilt/ you wallow in the pain/ You wave it like a flag / You wear it like a crown/ …The more I think about it/ Old Billy was right /Let’s kill all the lawyers managers / kill ’em tonight : Get Over It, Eagles.

 ‘Get Over It’ was a song that Don Henley, lead singer of the Eagles wrote to vent his frustration over people blaming their failures, frustrations, mental breakdowns and financial problems on others, and believing that the world owes them a favour.  (Trivia: The song references Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part II. And the line that  I used with creative freedom  “Old Billy was right: let’s kill all the lawyers – kill ’em tonight”, echoes Shakespeare’s line “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”.)

If you read most of the popular literature on how to engage employees, you would most likely be tempted to conclude that managers seem to be the cause of all the employee engagement problems in organizations. It would almost seem the world is full of leaders who know what they want and depend on managers to communicate it down to the teams (read workers and engineers depending on which industry you are in), and then there are employees who know how to do things, but depend on managers to tell them what the leaders want them to do. Therefore there has to be a problem with the middle layer called managers, who are incompetent in bridging the gap between the leaders vision and employee action. As the foul tempered character from Alice in Wonderland, the Queen of Hearts is fond of saying: “Off with their heads!”

 And it’s not that companies haven’t tried or aren’t trying. Google is – as one of the engineers puts it – “a company built by engineers for engineers.” So understandably, the definition of “real” work in the organization focuses more on designing products and writing code rather than effective communication and supervising others. In 2002, Page and Brin actually experimented with a flat org-structure. They just got rid of all the engineering managers. Goodbye bureaucratic fools, hello perfect giant company that works like a start-up. Erm..not really. That experiment apparently lasted a few months and once Page was inundated with questions on expense reports, interpersonal conflicts and all those things that used to be taken care of auto-magically, the managers were brought right back in!

Managers typically act as bridges between the teams and the rest of the organization. Since the days of the Hawthorne studies, where Elton Mayo stated that the “industrial world at the beginning of the twentieth century was more technologically advanced than ever before while being more socially incompetent than ever (Bendix & Fisher, 1949)”, interpersonal relations and group structure have been a matter of much debate, study and now in the twenty-first century a matter of concern. Mayo noticed in his studies that managers who had an understanding of social factors like group solidarity among the workers, had a greater ability to control and influence worker behaviour.

“In God we trust: All others bring data!”

William Edwards Deming.

Google, being Google, had the ability and the inclination to use data to decide what works best for the company. The company set up a people analytics team to tackle questions on employee well-being and productivity. One question stood out among all the others – “Do Managers matter?”

Enter Project Oxygen ,a multiyear research initiative to find answers to the questions that Google was asking itself. Instead of ending up being the usual MIS spewing team, the researchers in project Oxygen were “hypothesis-driven and wanted to help solve the company’s problems and questions with data”. The team was looking for evidence that better management mattered when all managers seemed so similar. The solution, arrived at using sophisticated multivariate analysis, showed that even “the smallest incremental increases in manager quality were quite powerful”.

High-scoring managers in the organization in 2008, saw less attrition than the others. The retention was strongly related to manager-quality than seniority, performance, tenure or promotions. The data also seemed to suggest a strong correlation between manager quality and workers happiness. Employees, whose bosses scored high on the ranking, consistently reported greater satisfaction in areas like innovation, work-life balance and career development.

So what’s the “happily ever-after” story?

 They boiled down all the data and research into eight key behaviours demonstrated by Google’s most effective managers.

A good (Google) manager:

    1.  Is a good coach
    2. Empowers the team and does not micromanage
    3. Expresses interest in and concern for team members’ success and personal well-being
    4. Is productive and results-oriented
    5. Is a good communicator—listens and shares information
    6. Helps with career development
    7. Has a clear vision and strategy for the team
    8. Has key technical skills that help him or her advice the team

Remember these are managers who have to deal with extremely smart engineers who are out to change the world – not an easy task. The interesting part is that, the data corroborated “the obvious”. When one looks at the list there is a bit of disappointment, a “duh!” moment. All that data, research, advanced stats and this is it? No magical formula or maybe an insight that the most effective managers are, only the ones who attended Ivy League B-schools in the US?

Well, thank God for Occam’s Razor. Good managers who have to manage complex projects with smart team members have to achieve a balance between managing the day-to-day operations and supporting them with their personal needs, professional development and career planning (All areas of major concern when employee engagement surveys come in). It might be an overkill (or practically impossible) for most organizations to devote time and resources to do the kind of advanced research that Google has done but there is nothing to prevent them from taking advantage of the results and improving the quality of their managers.

Of course in lots of organizations, the appointment of managers is based on their excellent performance in other domains (brilliant engineer, star salesman, great accountant) – a recipe for disaster. This often leads to the rise of frustration and informal networks form, which bypasses the formal hierarchy in order to get things done.  There is considerable existing and evolving research in (Social) Network Analysis that studies this phenomenon. The key takeaway from studies like project Oxygen is that, managers can be trained to be better at their jobs and it’s not rocket science.

And then there is Zappos

Obviously not everyone agrees. Zappos, that customer-service and employee focussed company, which works very hard to keep both customers and employees happy is also doing it. The company, in Jan of 2014, decided to do away with the traditional managers and will “replace the traditional corporate with a series of overlapping, self-governing ‘circles.’” The reorganization is based on the concept of ‘holacracy’, developed by management consultant Brian Robertson.

 But the organization is careful to note that “while a holacracy may get rid of traditional managers there is still structure and employees’ work is still watched. Poor performers, Robertson says, stand out when they don’t have enough “roles” to fill their time, or when a group of employees charged with monitoring the company’s culture decide they’re not a good fit.””

Elizabeth Kampf, a consultant at Gallup has weighed in with her opinion on the topic that, Zappos might be better off replacing bad managers with great ones. (In the article, she does mention that Gallup hasn’t studied the holacracy model specifically)  The article mentions that “Only about one in 10 people naturally have the traits to be a truly great manager … contributing about 48% higher profits to his or her company than average managers do. Great managers create a substantial business advantage for their companies — one that Zappos and other like-minded businesses stand to lose, if they drastically cut back on the ranks of their managers instead of focusing on hiring and developing the right people for the job.”

Zappos’ John Bunch, the person leading the transition to the new way of working says “says that while people have latched on to the idea that Zappos is getting rid of managers, what the company is actually doing is “decoupling the professional development side of the business from the technical getting-the-work-done side.””

Whatever is the real modus operandi, the fact remains that Zappos is the largest organization that has attempted something as drastic as this (but then Zappos has always done things differently) and the world will be watching with much interest on what happens – indeed the future of how organizations perceive the value of managers, depends on it.

References for the post:

Zappos says goodbye to bosses, Jena McGregor, Washington Post; How Google sold its managers on management, David A. Garvin, Harvard Business Review; Google’s quest to build a better boss, Adam Bryant, The New York Times, Can you really manage engagement without managers?, Elizabeth Kampf, Gallup Business Journal; “Get Over It”, Trivia – source Wikipedia.

Image Acknowledgement:

 Examination of a Witch (1853), by T.H.Matteson, inspired by the Salem Trials, source: Wikimedia Commons. 

Remote Working and Employee (dis)Engagement?

Remote_Working_“WFH!” came the terse reply from an engineer I had asked for a time to meet up and go over a rather tricky problem. The engineer in question worked for a large telecom company and I was then working for an IT services firm where “working from home” was severely frowned upon. Today that large telecom company is defunct and the IT services firm is a giant in its space. The flexibility of working from anywhere is pretty high on employee’s opinion of perks that a company can give to engage with them better. But increasingly companies seem to be turning ‘off’ that option – what gives?

With a quick hat tip to the near mandatory mention of Merissa Meyer’s decision to drastically curb working from home privileges of employees at Yahoo!, with a nod to the decision of Best Buy to follow suit I point towards Unilever which has over 58% of its 171,000 workforce working from ‘where they want, when they want.’ and companies like Automattic Inc (of WordPress fame) and Basecamp (formerly 37 Signals) that have a heavily (near 100%) distributed workforce. In fact the founders of Basecamp wrote a book ‘REMOTE: office not required’.

Research is increasingly pointing towards two key aspects of remote working that drive (or dampen) employee engagement. (a) The kind of work that the employee is doing (b) The time duration for which the employee has been working remotely away from her team members. Gallup research, in its State of the American Workplace report finds that among employees who never work remotely only 28% are engaged whereas that number shoots to 35% among people who spend 20% of their time remotely. But the trend is one of diminishing returns with the percentage of engaged employees falling to 29% for the set that works more than 50% of their time remotely.

Let’s break that down by taking a closer look at the most commonly mentioned pros and cons of remote working.


  1. A high degree of flexibility: working from home (or close to home) allows the employee to plan in personal activities into what would otherwise be ‘office hours’. Taking a sick child or parent to the doctor, getting some repair work done, or dealing with some government agency tend to be most common activities employees do in ‘working hours’ when they are not at office.
  2. Better use of time (and less cost): when your travel is a few feet from the bedroom to the living room, savings in the time wasted in traffic jams and fuel cost savings are immediate and easily quantifiable.
  3. Fewer interruptions from co-workers: Employees who support working remotely point to the fact that it is easier for a co-worker to amble over to ones desk and interrupt than it is to interrupt on chat/email/phone. This, the supporters say, lets them work more efficiently and also plan their tasks better.


  1. Lack of work/life balance: One of the usual complaints from employees is that when they spend too much time working remotely, or are working remotely just because they don’t feel like driving to the office, the virtual wall between work and personal life breaks down quickly. Eventually there is a visible drain on productivity as family members/friends get used to seeing one around the whole day and personal tasks (like dusting, grocery shopping) start finding their way into working hours.
  2. Lack of face-to-face interactions (and aha! Moments): This is the most common argument against working remotely (and indeed the one that Merissa Meyers used). Many managers feel that creativity and camaraderie get affected when team members work remotely and hardly see each other. Vint Cerf (regarded as one of the fathers of the internet), now Google’s Vice President and chief Internet evangelist says “We had people participating in teams, [and] they would almost never see each other face to face. Often they were in different time zones, which meant they had to work harder to stay in sync…So we started recompiling groups to make them, if not co-located, at least within one or two time zones of one another so that it was more convenient to interact.”(Quote from reference a)
  3. Heavy dependency on technology: The tools that let teams collaborate remotely also seem to create a lock-in in terms of the investment and the privacy needed to function effectively. Try having a Skype conversation with your manager with your kids watching TV in the room and the slow ‘faux’ broadband connection that your service provider has given you.

So should we start writing eulogies about remote working?

Not yet. All the literature and anecdotes about remote working and its advantages and pitfalls bring us back to the two factors that seem to govern the utility (and efficacy) of working remotely.

Company Culture plays an important role: Distributed teams are effective only when the tasks each person needs to do has been planned well and communicated clearly. If the managers can assign tasks/goals effectively and get out the way then this format can definitely succeed (Automattic believes very strongly in this approach). Understandably the distributed approach will fail in companies where planning is poor and/or there is a centralized and bureaucratic approach to decision making.

It should be the employee’s decision: The first fact that a company should recognize when trying to engage with employees is to recognize that each one of them is unique! Some people prefer to have a physical separation between their home and workplace. Others like to come in a few days to connect and then work alone to meet deadlines. And still others are most efficient when they work alone only. This will then boil down to the kind of work she is doing, her discipline to separate work and personal tasks, self motivation and the time/cost benefits of working from home. The choice should be up to the employee and the sheer flexibility it offers in times of illness or other important work is a strong motivator for employees.

Vint Cerf sums it up best, “There’s a limit to the utility of remote work … You’re seeing a positive response up to a point because people see that flexibility as a benefit, and then beyond that, you start to have less utility. So it’s not a black-and-white situation.(Quote from reference a)

References and Acknowledgements:

Image courtesy of

(a) Can People Collaborate Effectively While Working Remotely?, Gallup Business Journal, (b) Telecommuting Likely to Grow, Despite High-Profile Defections, SHRM, (c) How WordPress Thrives with a 100% Remote Workforce, HBR Blog Network, (d) Remote Working: Who’s Right?, Forbes.

Sorry, but we are different!

Image courtesy of
Image courtesy of

‘Yes but… we are different’ is an excuse I hear quite often when managers are confronted with the challenge of making radical changes. (or sometimes even not so radical ones)

A typical conversation about focusing on increasing collaboration and lowering barriers revolves around these lines:

Yes, we know collaboration is key to innovation, but…

– We are different

– We are unique

– Our teams work differently

– We are in a different marketplace. In fact we are the market creators there is no-one else

– We recruit only the very best and you know they all have egos so they won’t collaborate.

– We are so large that anything remotely transformational is difficult to execute.

And the list goes on.

In my book there are three types of organizations when it comes to getting their employees working with each other: the ones that don’t know what works, those who know and don’t do anything about it, and then there are the IBM’s of the world.

IBM is large (huge actually), they hire some really smart people (arguably smart is an understatement) and they ‘get it’. With Employee engagement being the critical area of focus, IBM isn’t letting its size come in the way of building ‘a more egalitarian workplace where employees feel they have more control over decisions’.

The company’s “Corporate Crowdfunding” system is an excellent platform to stimulate innovation and get small impactful projects off the ground without having to deal with permissions and approvals. The platform is all about collaborative innovation, which lets its 430k+ workforce spread over 170 countries connect and collaborate on small projects.  (Read more about the project at the BBC Capital Story: Sparking Innovation from the Bottom Up)

For all the “Yes…But…” managers who feel they need a CEO approved grand strategy and mega budget to get collaboration and innovation going, it’s time for a re-think.

Building a high-energy work environment

_Workplace_Motivation_Usually when people think of an office buzzing with energy with everyone in the ‘zone’ they think of start-ups. Small office, people sitting where they can, cheap furniture, lots of wires criss-crossing the floor from all the machines lying helter-skelter all around. For the record, the first “office” ‘kwench had was a living room and we had one-plastic table and a plastic chair (for guests).

Large offices with cubicle farms, cafeterias, grand lobbies typically evoke mental images of power and a large process oriented machine at work rather than energy.
Good generalizations for stock photography and movie plots, but hardly the reality. The energy you feel in start-ups doesn’t come from sitting on the floor or having doors as desktops, it comes from the motivation levels of those working there. Similarly the fluorescent lighting in the swank offices of a large organization isn’t sucking out the creative energy of the workforce, something else is.

There is a default environment in a young start-up that larger organizations with hierarchies, departments and processes need to consciously implement. The magic-dust that transforms a workplace into a high-energy work environment is, engagement.

Component_Target_In the book Employee Engagement, W Macey et. al, write that there are there are four components (or aspects as some would prefer to call it) held with the glue of engagement, that need to come together – – to enable a creative and motivating work environment. What follows is a slightly modified list.

(a) Employees should have the liberty to engage: ‘But who is stopping them?’ you ask. The answer, is ‘most likely – everything.’ Companies have processes and set rules to ensure that things get delivered on time with the required accuracy and this definitely is a good thing. But it is not the best thing. Employees following set processes and delivering as promised drive customer satisfaction; engaged employees deliver customer delight. But they should have the liberty to do so. The organization should be tolerant of creative solutions and possible failure – a confidence that failure will be treated “fairly”. If deviation from processes is always punished, innovation is unlikely to ever happen in your workplace.

(b) Employees should have the capability to engage: So you set the ground rules in your workplace and encourage the team to go the extra mile. But nothing seems to happen. They seem to be just doing what they have been doing all along! What gives? In order for people to really make a difference they should also have access to the required knowledge/information. If all the information is locked away on a “need-to-know” basis chances are very few will actually “know”.  Once you provide your employees the liberty to engage, support it by creating an open environment where they have access to information, where they get timely and open feedback on their work, and have the confidence that the organization will provide full support with everything they need to meet their goals.

 (c) Employees should have the motivation to engage:  An average employee spends 10-12 of their waking hours at work, add a couple more for getting to work and back. That’s 12-14 hours, of the 18 hours they are awake, away from their family. It’s important that you give them a very good reason to do so. When you provide the liberty and set the ground for capability for employees to engage within the workplace, the onus largely lies on the employee to step up and capitalize on the freedom. To motivate them however, the onus lies on the organization. Multiple surveys have shown that employees are most disengaged because they lack clear and specific goals and timely recognition for work done. From the organization perspective the requirements are clear (and fairly simple). Match the employees to the right roles – provide clear achievable goals – provide an open environment where the information required to deliver results is available – provide timely feedback and recognition.  When people have a sense of belonging and recognition of incremental progress they are making towards a larger, complex goal – motivation levels go up automatically.

 (d) Establish a transparent way of working to enable engagement: Once you have set up the first three layers, you have to enable positive reinforcement through an open and transparent culture. Make recognition public – this has a strong element of positive feedback and also ensures that there is no feeling of favoritism. Enable Peer-recognition and evaluation systems – Peers are usually in the best position to know exactly what work has been done. When the goals are clear, the combined effect of mini-evaluations over a period of time is more powerful and accurate than any detailed annual-appraisal can ever hope to be.  Be tolerant of open networks within the organization – enable a free flow of conversation and be open to constructive criticism. Typically social networks formed for a purpose tend to be focused and self-regulating. Any deviations are usually dealt with by the group without the need for active monitoring by a ‘higher authority’.

Engagement is what enables your employees to “see the big picture” and align their goals with that of the organization. But on a day-to-day basis it’s the work environment that provides the impetus for your employees to engage (or in the other extreme – disengage).

It is tempting to conclude that the onus lies on the senior leadership of an organization to do everything from establishing organizational business targets to driving an open and engaging work-culture to make sure those goals get met. While they have a large role to play, in a dynamic marketplace, waiting for senior leadership to decide every small detail is suicidal. The best way is be open and involve employees’ right from the planning process for establishing the organizations goals/targets for the year and continue to engage them throughout.

At 3M, one the world’s most innovative companies, the HR team provides the tools and processes but it’s the individual managers and supervisors who are in charge of engagement at the employee level. Accountability for establishing a culture of engagement at the workplace is done by embedding engagement into the list of leadership competencies. The company provides managers with engagement scores on company-wide surveys making employee engagement a key strategy to establishing competitive advantage in the marketplace.

References and Acknowledgements:

The “What” and “Why” of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behavior, Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan Department of Psychology, University of Rochester; Work Redesign and Motivation, J.Richard Hackman, Driving Performance and Retention through Employee Engagement, Corporate Leadership Council, Employee Engagement, Macey et al, Wiley Blackwell; Creating an engaged workplace, CIPD Report, January 2010.

Image1 and Image2 used in this post courtesy of

Happiness: the ‘new’ productivity driver

_kwench_happiness_driver_blogPostThe latest topic of interest at B-schools interestingly has little to do with finance or advanced operations management and has more to do with the ‘well-being’ of the workforce in companies. ‘Human Flourishing’ or ‘Subjective Well-being’ as some of the Prof’s put it, but ‘Happiness’ to most of us.

Research is now showing that contrary to the popular belief – ‘pressure drives productivity’, it is happiness at the workplace that makes good business sense. Happy employees, it turns out, tend to be healthier, more creative at finding solutions to problems and generally more productive.
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Notes to the CEO: Transform your employee engagement strategy [Infographic]

_Kwench_Blog_NotesToTheCEO_30Apr2013_Thumbnail_You have tried everything – hiked salaries, given huge bonus payouts, taken the whole company on an all expenses paid trip, there’s free food in the refrigerator and even a yoga teacher who comes in every Friday to help the team relax.

And yet, you don’t see it. There is simply no energy. Products aren’t getting shipped on time or with the quality you expect. Your customers are slowly but surely taking their business elsewhere. The business plan you submitted to the board looks more like like a fairy tale now.

This scenario, every leader’s nightmare, unfortunately is playing out in thousands of corporates every single day in varying degrees. The chasm between what most companies do for engaging their workforce and what is expected is growing.

And you can blame it on the gizmos (if you don’t want to face reality).
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Social Intranets: Your key to a “Knowledge-Creating Company”


By 2016, 50 percent of large organizations will have internal Facebook-like social networks, and that 30 percent of these will be considered as essential as email and telephones are today. (Gartner Research)

Social networking sites are increasingly becoming the primary means of communication among people outside of their workplace. It should therefore come as no surprise that organizations are increasingly considering the option of deploying similar solutions internally to improve communication and collaboration among their employees. But the biggest hurdle senior management faces is in pinning down the ROI of a paradigm shift from emails, phones and traditional “secure” knowledge repositories to social intranets and real time collaboration platforms.

The problem is – most of them are looking for answers in the wrong place.
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The benefits of Non-Monetary Peer-to-Peer Recognition


“The deepest human need, is to be appreciated” – Willam James, Psychologist

In my previous post on what motivates people at the workplace, one of the major takeaways was how people have a need to feel appreciated by their peers. But does peer to peer recognition really have such a big impact? The short answer is a big resounding Yes!

But why is it so important, especially now?

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