I’ve listened to hundreds of executives describe how they designed their company’s remote working and hybrid working strategies. The range of responses was alarming. Some described basing their strategies on what their competitors are doing. Others told how they made decisions based on their own personal preferences, such as not wanting to give up their comfortable desks. Perhaps most disturbingly, others have announced their new “remote first” strategies, while implementing invasive employee monitoring software.
Obviously, these are the wrong approaches. But what is the right approach?
Experimentation. Experts like the Harvard professor Tsedal Neeley and Adam Grant say companies should iterate and experiment when designing their remote and hybrid work environments. As a grant said“Don’t say ‘it will never work’… Launch the experiment, test it.”
Integrate design thinking into hybrid working.
But how do you decide which experiments to run? This is where design thinking comes in. Design thinking involves the idea, prototyping and testing of different solutions. At its core, it is a human-centered approach to experimentation.
Design thinking is at its best when applied to thorny problems – problems that are ill-defined, complex, and for which there is no blueprint. It is particularly well-suited to multi-dimensional issues – issues such as developing a hybrid work strategy that balances workers’ need for flexibility with responsibility, relationship building and productivity at work. Design thinking can yield great results, even with minimal resources.
Stanford Professor Melissa Valentine and I, along with our collaborators, Emily Hu and Michael Bernstein, investigated how organizations can effectively infuse design thinking when developing hybrid work environments. In one of our studies, we helped an organization of over 1,500 people implement design thinking for 18 months to guide their transition to hybrid working.
Valentine and I recently applied design thinking in collaboration with Asana Labs, a think tank at my company, Asana, that develops actionable research related to the future of work. Our goal was to apply design thinking to understand how hybrid work environments should be designed for Generation Z (born between 1997 and 2012) – the future of your workforce.
We conducted two data collection activities – one as part of a “future of work” course at Stanford and the other at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford. We asked participants (mostly Gen Zers) to reflect on their hybrid work experiences and apply design thinking to create more effective hybrid environments.
Our findings highlight the importance of embracing design thinking to better meet the needs of your future workforce.
For Gen Z, hybrid work is about making connections, especially with leaders.
When we asked participants in our study to apply design thinking to hybrid work environments, they overwhelmingly focused on the problem of making connections in remote and hybrid environments. They wanted to design environments that would allow them to forge stronger bonds, especially with leaders. They wanted leaders to connect with them more, communicate with them more, and be more approachable. A participant wondered what would happen if the leaders were really part of their team.
Participants also wanted leaders to engage in open and honest communication with them. One participant wondered what would happen if leaders shared life updates with them and communicated with them on a more “human” level. This kind of leadership that Gen Z needs in a hybrid environment is especially important in tough times and potential layoff threats, as the spotlight is even more on leaders, as Bob Sutton has. describe.
Designing better hybrid working technology is a priority for Gen Z.
Participants also wanted to design better technology for hybrid working. They imagined potential solutions to simulate virtual desktop settings. One group proposed setting up a system “where people can work together in a virtual environment with or without a camera/audio at any time”.
For Gen Z, today’s hybrid work technology won’t be enough. One participant wondered about the possibility of having a “cool AI algorithm that contacted my boss when I was having a hard time”. Another pondered the potential for more predictive technology, asking “what if my workflow was better designed so I could see my future tasks?” And another mentioned the work of Katherine Isbisterl, whose research focuses on “superhuman” technology. Unlike isolating or individualistic technology, superhuman technology is aiming to “bringing people together and honoring the human experience” through clothing and other technologies.
Experimentation and the future of work.
Our participants embraced experimentation and illustrated what it means to experiment in a hybrid work environment. One group wanted to test the idea of banning video conferencing until team members had met in person. Other groups wanted to conduct experiments to test different hybrid working modalities – in our research we discovered that there are over a dozen different hybrid structures!
If you want to design your organization for Gen Z, try to think of hybrid working as an exercise in design thinking. This can be one of the most effective ways to design your hybrid working strategy with limited resources. Plus, demonstrating a commitment to experimentation shows your employees — past, present, and, most importantly, future — that you guide your decisions through research — not instinct and not fear of change.