Posted on: 3 November 2022
Senior UX Researcher
Improve Post-Pandemic UX Workspace Design with Experience Thinking
Q: What does your office design say about your company culture in 2022?
A: The foundation of Experience Thinking is understanding human needs and behaviours to design intentional experiences. Successful UX consulting firms understand that adapting to change is both difficult and crucial.
And in this effort, it is imperative to remember that employee experiences are just as important as the customer and user experiences we create. Designing an intentional employee experience requires the same effort and energy as it does for the users targeted by our paying clients.
The Changing and Growing UX industry
UX is a booming industry – it requires employees with various skills and abilities to collaborate on complex problems with evidence-based yet creative solutions to user problems. Yet in the wake of more than two years of a global COVID-19 pandemic, a reeling economy and changing social values have highlighted how managing the user experiences of office workers is important to rebuilding the economy.
As employers scramble to adjust to the changing needs of their workers with new perks, schedules, and remote opportunities, enticing office design has also been spotlighted as a potential way to attract sought-after talent back to the physical workplace in a predominantly remote or hybrid trend. For some employers enacting forced back-to-the-office policies in tandem with the lifting of pandemic work-from-home restrictions, the result has included some employee turnover to other remote or hybrid opportunities.
Designing intentional experiences for employees means doing so at every opportunity, not only when a global crisis like a pandemic causes shifts in employee behaviour.
An example: the Akendi Experience
At Akendi, a UX design firm in Toronto, Canada, where pandemic restrictions were among the tightest in the world, experience thinking has been at the heart of employee engagement since before the pandemic. When the company moved to a new address in 2019, the whole team was involved in the design process, including the president, office manager, and design and research teams. Experience design principles were applied to the physical workspace so that employees’ and business needs could be met throughout the workday.
When I joined the company remotely during the height of the pandemic in 2021, I was taken on an impromptu virtual tour of the office, with the president describing the UX design and research principles and methods meticulously applied to building a collaborative work environment. Pointing his smartphone camera outward so I could see the space, he took me virtually from room to room, describing the purpose and layout of each board room, workspace, and seating area that had been designed to accomplish (collaboration with some privacy).
This office design was reflective of the firm’s adaptation to change over the course of its 15 years. With a growing roster, they needed to expand, and so got a larger office with more space, moving workers from traditional cubicles and in-house corporate structure to a semi-divided workspace meant to foster collaboration through mixed pods of workers from different teams. The idea was to encourage collaboration and rapport-building by bringing people from visual design, research, and management physically closer together.
And Six Months Later
Despite the soundness and appeal of this approach to a new hire like myself, pandemic restrictions meant that I didn’t set foot in the office until six months after I started my role. When I finally got to see the space, like thousands of other workers in the city, it was on occasional summer bike rides into the workspace, trudging up the stairs to sit alone at a desk while connecting to meetings through zoom.
This conundrum highlighted another aspect of Experience Thinking when considering employee needs; it’s never a one-and-done project. Designing positive and exceptional experiences means constant adaptation and returning to user needs to ensure solutions are up-to-date and relevant.
Our Hybrid Working and Social Science
Over the past few months, as we’ve ridden wave after wave of pandemic restrictions and re-openings, experience thinking has been applied to both the physical and virtual aspects of the office. This has meant consistent attempts to keep office culture and values merged with both online and offline office design.
These principles are rooted in social science. As in any UX or experience research project, to really understand what employees need, it’s important to talk to them, build rapport, ask questions, gather evidence, find out what makes employees tick (before they leave), what makes them happy, and observe what they do to really get to the heart of where their desires and behaviours intersect and diverge.
During my time at Akendi, it’s become apparent that the needs of urban UX employees are deeply entwined with the global socio-economic upheavals of the past few years. For Experience Thinkers who are keen on designing the finest employee and user experiences, these macro forces cannot be ignored. Workspace design, whether offline, online, or hybrid, involves building an aesthetic that’s deeply connected to the wider social forces that impact employee needs.
Employee Experiences: what has changed?
So, what are the factors that affect employee work practices and needs today that weren’t quite so prominent even 3-5 years ago?
- A Changing Economy: The so-called Great Resignation empowered employees in underpaid or undervalued sectors to seek more favourable employment in the past year or two. With the pressures of low staffing in a reopening economy, Canadian workers have been able to negotiate work schedules and terms working better in their favour. Though this shift in employee advantages may be short-lived as we face growing inflation and an impending recession, it has made some employers reticent to force a return to the full five-day commute-to-work-week.
- New Technologies: The technologies we have been using to adapt to these economic pressures have contributed to office culture change. In Toronto, electronic scooters are multiplying exponentially as gas prices soar. Zoom/Team/Meet meetings are replacing expensive commutes to the office. And a rethinking of open office design that began in the years leading up to the pandemic (employees were already questioning the value of the open design for employees who found other ways to isolate themselves – with earphones, for example), has shifted to questions around what it means to be a service economy worker in a post-pandemic world.
Employees are now selecting roles based on factors that would have been considered a luxury less than five years ago: remote, hybrid, or in-office, and the ability to pursue hobbies outside of work (strict pandemic restrictions in Toronto and the GTA highlighted the value of non-work activities in a strongly work-oriented culture of live-to-work).
- Flexible Work Culture: The effects of the pandemic on contemporary workers, especially racialized women and mothers, and people with disabilities, have been well-documented. Rejoining the workforce after parental leave left me baffled as to how parents have managed work-life and commuting 5 days a week. “We just figured it out” was a colleague’s reply. Before the pandemic, there simply was no choice but to come into the office. And those who couldn’t often had to leave the workforce. Even hybrid online/offline or fully remote work accommodations continue to marginalize the same groups.
So how do we design better work experiences when existing solutions continue to exclude huge swathes of the workforce?
Designing a Great Experience
Experience thinkers apply their research and design principles to find out. Designing a great workspace means working with your users or employees to understand their needs. Ask people what works for them. Work with them so they can work for you.
- Reassess after trying out certain techniques or approaches for a while. Check-in, test, interview.
- Adjust: sometimes an idea that seemed great at first doesn’t work out when applied and tested. Try something else.
- Let go of old practices that never worked in the first place. Face-to-face social interactions are key for some employees, but for others, they are a burden and they limit their ability to contribute comfortably. Accommodate the different needs of different people.
From Office Design to Workspace Design
UX companies should take their own advice. Often our UX research projects lead to solutions that impact office culture: if you recommend to your HR clients that they focus on their corporate culture – make sure that’s the approach you also take – decide who you are as a group, and what type of culture and values you wish to espouse. If it’s flexibility and adaptation to modern needs, then offer flexibility. If it’s a more traditional model that requires a rigid return to the office, make that transparent during the hiring process.
What seems clear from experience and observation is that the ideal contemporary office design turns out to be about workspace design. Regardless of the employee’s physical location, what matters is including everyone on the team – online, in person, or both.
Senior UX Researcher
Jessika uses her qualitative research skills to provide nuanced human insights into user experiences. She has most recently applied these skills for university and government projects at the Innovation Hub and the Department of Justice Canada. Jessika is well versed in ethnographic methods, interviews, surveys, data analysis, and research design, and has years of experience conducting research in various cultural settings such as East Africa and Southeast Asia. Jessika has a Doctorate in Anthropology from the University of Toronto