It’s the little things…

Sally Spinks
IDEO Stories
Published in
8 min readDec 1, 2014


How locking up the biscuits reminded us that designing your employee experience is just as important as designing your customer experience

By lunchtime on April 25th, a notice posted on the padlocked fridge at IDEO’s London office asked people to join an IDEO designers union. Someone broke open the cable ties on the cupboard housing our sweet stash because they “needed the sugar”. People whistled Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” — pity our actual hours are 9am to 6pm.

How did IDEO, a company famous for its culture, end up here? An experiment. For one day we told the studio we wanted them to understand the experience our clients have in the workplace in order for us to serve them better. We went in believing it would help our staff be more empathic with our clients. What we actually learned went way beyond what we were expecting.

How did the Client Empathy Day work? We mixed up the employee practices of some of our clients and applied them to our studio. On the day, changes ranged from: no free tea/coffee, no free breakfast, sweets or biscuits, no headphones or music playing in the studio, no access to Facebook or other social media sites, no personal calls. We asked everyone to dress smartly, keep regular work hours and placed our leadership team in a meeting room only accessible by appointment.

A bit of context. At IDEO we have a culture we’re rightly proud of. In 25 years of working in other corporate environments, both private and public sector, I’ve never worked anywhere where the culture is so positive, inclusive and generous. It’s a culture we deliberately encourage because it’s really important to us that we help our people be their best to serve our clients. We provide the small things that make their day run smoothly so they can focus on great work.

But having such a great culture and employee experience can, of course, have its downsides. Some of our designers have only ever worked at IDEO or other small agencies, yet a good deal of our clients are large multi-national corporations — with all the cultural issues these organisations drag around. So to help our newer designers understand what it’s like to work in a more corporate environment we wanted to practice what we preach (we’re incredibly human centred in our approach) by putting ourselves in our client’s shoes.

Many companies use a human centred design approach to think about their customers’ experience, but rarely apply that to their employees. At IDEO, our Organisation Design practice works with clients (including large banks, top four consultancies and FMCG organisations) to make sure they can attract and retain the right kind of talent able to deliver their desired customer experience. And designing the employee experience doesn’t just mean employee surveys. For us it means using the same human centred design process we use to design customer facing products and services to create an employee experience that is totally aligned with the customer experience.

Employee satisfaction doesn’t just matter for IDEO. Research from Warwick University from earlier this year has shown that happier people are approximately 12% more productive than their counterparts. And other research by workplace consultancy Happiness Works (based on a model of wellbeing developed for the UK Government) showed a direct correlation between happy employees and 10% less absenteeism as well as a 10% reduction in staff turnover.

Because of all this, getting your employee experience right provides tangible business results. Happiness Works reports that an investment in 1998 in a company listed as a ‘Great Place to Work’ compared to a company that didn’t make the list, yielded a 2.1x higher return by 2008.

Years ago, having a new or different product in the market, was good enough. Now, customer experience and satisfaction are often the only differentiator in the provision of products and services. But they are only as good as the people who work for you. So treat them right.

But, back to April 25th. The day started calmly enough. People brought in their own coffees and breakfasts rather than helping themselves. A few staff were late. Some apologised, some just giggled. Most had dressed smartly. Then when someone was asked not to use headphones, they rebelliously played music loudly in the studio for a few minutes before being asked to turn it off. A few people were asked to stop looking at social media sites which produced a weird, sombre atmosphere in the studio, reducing collaboration — one of our core behaviours that achieves the best design and innovation. Despite being told there would be no towels provided for the shower (when people cycle in), somebody had hidden a few towels the evening before so they could get round the system. Somebody organised a last minute meeting off site just to get away. Some staff even started being rude to our studio experience team. Something strange was happening to our normally relaxed and congenial atmosphere.

The ripples of the atmosphere were felt by some of our staff working over 3,000 miles away, who were on the phone asking what was happening in the studio as they’d heard people were unhappy. And so the day went on. Not only a client empathy day but one that helped us truly understand the enormous value of the little things we do in the studio to help our staff perform at their best.

After Client Empathy Day, we asked for feedback from the studio. As people reflected on their own and others’ behaviour, five key points emerged. Unsurprisingly, they align closely with behaviours we observe in some of our client organisations and that some of you may also find familiar: 1. The effect of having little control over their environment left people feeling disempowered. They switched from ‘getting it done’ (the work) to ‘getting through it’ (the day). 2. Expectations of employees have changed over the years. Millennials in particular have expectations that the workplace shouldn’t be like a school system but instead employers trust individuals to do the right thing, for example managing their own time. 3. Some people’s objective became how to beat the system. Tons of energy was consequently diverted away from doing great work. 4. The leadership group lacked visibility and connection to the team. As a result they were unable to deal with the unhappiness brewing across the studio. 5. Small things that really support our values have a disproportionate effect on culture. Free coffee, tea and breakfast; the freedom to play music, and to come and go as long as the work gets done, access to leadership. All are hugely valuable in enabling the values we hold dear in IDEO.

Client Empathy Day may have been an exercise, but it’s made us more determined to help our client organisations consider how they design their employee experience. We understand that containing costs is always a business pressure, but it’s important to consider the right balance between money saved and the goodwill engendered by certain staff perks.

Balancing up a heavy focus on cost with the goodwill it produces

We believe that if organisations really want to attract and retain the right people, they need to design an environment that matches their business ambitions, not just pay lip service to the talent question. So for example the investment we make in providing breakfast is not just about being ‘nice’, it’s about enabling people to live one of our core values, spending time with each other outside project work and sharing ideas.

Getting the balance right is tricky. What works for IDEO, of course, may not work for others, which is why we use our human-centred design approach to understanding what makes our clients’ employees tick and designing workplace experiences around that. What employees say they want, isn’t always the answer. Instead, watch their behaviours. Observe them as they go about their business and really understand the workarounds they make to certain “rules” or “policies” — this is what works for people. And once you’ve found out what makes them tick, come up with some new ways to deliver the employee experience. There will be different levers for different organisations. Just because breakfast, headphones, music and a relaxed atmosphere work to support the values at IDEO, that doesn’t mean to say they’ll work everywhere.

This needn’t be as disruptive as it sounds: try out which levers will work for you by experimenting with small groups of staff. It’s not a pilot, it’s an experiment. And it won’t be right first time. View it as a great opportunity to learn from the experiment, iterate the idea and test it again. Be open about the experiments and tell stories across the organisation, even if you’re changing tack. People appreciate you’re open to trying new things to help them. Roll out the elements of employee experience only once you’ve been through a few iterations of the experiment and you know which levers have the desired effects. Leave to one side fine ideas that didn’t, in practice, deliver the required behaviours.

Back in IDEO, normal service resumed the next day. Much to everyone’s relief. But what we’d really observed was how quickly people forgot the real point of the exercise. They felt so disempowered and mistrusted that they started to behave like the original saboteurs in the Industrial Revolution who were so disgruntled they threw their clogs into the machines. It might not have been clogs (designers are more stylish these days) but they did find ways to subvert the system. And that, in turn, used up energy we’d rather they spent working with our clients. It served to wholeheartedly confirm our belief that there really is a fundamental link between the design of your employee experience and how your customers will experience you as an organisation.

Next time you hear anybody in your organisation bemoaning this or that department for not delivering to the customer, just remember as an organisation you get the people you deserve.

Design your employee experience with the same values as you hold dear for your customers and you’ll be heading in the right direction. If you have trust and respect in your list of customer values, make sure you’re designing the experience of your employees to enable them to feel trusted and respected and it will follow that they’ll deliver. As Aristotle said: “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.”