Shifting the Workforce Equation: Employees are the New Customers

Innovation accelerates in crisis. How should the employee experience evolve?

May 21, 2020 · 6 min read

by Marcus Piña

The construct of the workforce continues to evolve and transform. That’s a given. From the notion of working in offices, moving into cubes, out into open floor plans, and then back into offices again, we’re a restless and curious lot. We migrate to and move on from staid designs about how and where we should work. We see technology, also ever-evolving, as an unstoppable force in shaping what we mean by “workforce”. And this couldn’t be more true or relevant than right now when COVID-19 is upending almost every existing paradigm and forcing us all to re-evaluate.

In retail and service industries — from the shop floor to vast warehouses, to cars, trucks, and vans, and into our homes — the idea of the workplace is a physicality that shifts and adapts. It is being reimagined in real-time as the workforce transcends walled boundaries and becomes distributed across locales, embracing technologies to deliver on new experiences.

With the onset of the same and next day delivery and pickup, digital retail is forcing many retailers to shift their strategies. Traditionally, brick and mortar destinations provided the container for work and transactions to transpire, with the occasional delivery or service call sending an employee beyond the walls and into a customer’s path. Now, at an accelerated rate, technology is enabling new experiences — but without fully examining the emerging employee user journeys needed to fulfill new realms of customer service.

Amazon has done a fair share in setting the bar: defining what it is to meet consumer demands for getting their goods whenever and wherever they want, and now competitors are moving quickly to deliver on customer expectation. Retailers like Walmart and Sam’s Club are making large investments into pickup and delivery services to meet the new normal, leveraging technology while at the same time transforming job descriptions and creating new roles in the workforce to accommodate demands of the new ecosystem.

As we dial in the optimal customer experience we must also dial in the optimal employee experience.

This new customer — the employee — has their own journey and should be considered as highly as the customer that is purchasing goods and services.

It’s no longer simply you and I as consumers of products and services. There are many more touchpoints with technology and the interfaces needed to orchestrate getting you your products where and when you want them. A lot of precision is required, and with it, consideration for a workforce with high demand and expectations to serve the customer.

If we zoom out and look at the customer experience, there are a slew of new swim lanes.

Distributed Workforce

As we consider the workplace, we must also consider the nature of the workforce. A distributed workforce creates different demands in terms of management, performance, incentives, and engagement. Airlines like Southwest have adopted technologies to create efficiencies in their workforce with services including digital check-in and scheduling. However, because technology has been layered on top of an existing customer journey, it also creates gaps around engaging a dispersed workforce — maintaining a sense of community, affinity, and camaraderie. By examining current patterns and exposing workforce needs and aspirations, precise orchestration of software and physical space systems can be identified to meet these evolving needs.

On the Job Training: Training As Experience

Training as experience should be a deliberate workstream and feature set in product planning and design. It’s not tacked on at the end, and it’s not one and done. It is vital to define and deliver a system of training for your workforce and maintaining a knowledge base that will help to keep your workforce motivated and rewarded. With new and shifting roles in a distributed workforce, the demand for training and adoption becomes more important than ever to keep employees up to speed.

New tasks in a new role require new patterns and ways of thinking — behavior change. Influencing behavior change through software means weaving reward and reinforcement throughout the experience, reflecting back appropriate levels of accomplishment and performance without getting in the way of the task at hand. It’s a fine balance, and a win-win when the system is not just a push mechanism, but a living and breathing reflection of its community.

Hello, My Name Is…

Along with new tasks and new roles are new coworkers — those with initials like AI and ML. Artificial intelligence and machine learning automation processes are taking care of the tedious and repetitive tasks, allowing us to make better decisions, faster. From reserving conference rooms to simple email responses to finding and buying products, the efficiencies are small yet meaningful. AI and automation free us up to focus on human needs and deeper interactions.

Bridging the Employee and Customer-Facing Divide

Employee and customer-facing tools now look, feel, and behave more like each other than ever before. As we design, we need to think of one holistic set of design patterns and language. Gone are the days of employees stuck pecking behind a terminal with dank DOS interfaces, peering back at you with answers and questions. Customer-facing tools empower the consumer to track down their own answers, often sharing screens with employees to dial in a request. Similarly, employees are referencing those same tools or user interfaces designed with both the employee and customer in mind. We see more and more tools with common utility, delivering information in a shared design system and brand promise.

Measuring Workforce Performance

With a distributed workforce often interfacing with management digitally, deploying tools to measure performance are important in keeping your workforce informed and motivated. Design research shows that a multitude of factors can contribute to workforce performance. Imagine how these factors play out across a distributed workforce. This can be quantifiable hard data, but also more subjective and immeasurable. Defining the subjective requires not only understanding available data, but also conducting research in real-life work environments to illuminate the hard-to-measure and qualitative factors.

Compassion and empathy are key throughout, and as designers and product makers research allows us to walk in the shoes of the workforce, catching a glimpse into their world — their challenges, their victories, and what makes a good day great. Quickly turning that research into designs, and revisiting those users to give us feedback on ideas, we create a better view on how to tool the immeasurable.

Product and design teams can make products that serve employee needs and expectations based on this human formula — data, context, compassion, plus empathy. It’s a formula that needs to be identified and validated through research and results in concepts and tools that deliver higher customer value by enabling a superior workforce.

As I write this, our companies are continuing to enforce work-from-home policies to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Technology keeps us connected via video conferencing, Slack, and other means. We also see these workforce technologies suddenly being deployed for civilian use. A simple example, close to home: my mother’s birthday was at the outset of the social distancing directive, and we quickly pivoted and met as a family in a group video chat to celebrate all together.

Experiences such as grocery delivery and pick up that was, just months ago, on the margins of use for most people have now been thrust into the spotlight of essential use — and we’re seeing systems stressed, breaking, and then adapting. Innovation is accelerated to respond to demand.

We’ll see more of this in the months ahead, quickly leveraging technology, experimenting and trying things we haven’t tried before, to keep us working, and to keep us connected. We need to continue to build not only for the customer as the consumer but for the customer as the orchestrator and navigator of systems built to deliver the best customer experience — our workforce.

In a time of shelter-in-place and enforced distancing, through technology, our workforces, and us as humans are more connected than ever.

Marcus Piña is Head of Creative, Austin at argodesign, where he specializes in design management, product strategy, UX, visual, and interaction design. With over 20 years of experience in the design field, he has created compelling experiences for companies around the globe, including Intuit, Microsoft, AT&T, and HP. He was previously Senior Creative Director at Under Armour and Creative Director at frog design, Dimensional Fund Advisors, and Microsoft Zune.

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We are a product design firm. We love design – for the technology, for the simple joy of craft, and ultimately for the experiences we create.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +725K followers.


Written by

We are a product design firm. We love design – for the technology, for the simple joy of craft, and ultimately for the experiences we create.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +725K followers.

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