Design leaders today face a hidden risk that can have a huge impact on their success. While the news is filled with furloughs and layoffs, an even bigger risk is lack of engagement from those left behind. Low staff engagement leads to loss of creativity and productivity, at a time when maximizing quality output is critical.
For leaders trying to do more with less, the focus must be on "getting the work done", but employees who fear being laid off need more than a project to work on. They need to feel connected to a purpose larger than their next paycheck - or they'll start looking for a new place to get that check.
Our InsideOut Design Leader community tackled the challenge of Connecting Teams with Purpose during our May roundtables in LA, SF and Chicago and shared ways they are bringing staff along on their journey to what's next.
First, Make the Kool-Aid
Some industries have a clear path to purpose, like healthcare or other essential businesses where products and services are literally saving lives. But many firms are struggling to articulate their value in the current situation. That doesn't mean there's no Kool-Aid.
One leader suggested that, no matter the industry, that there's no better time to build a clear case for "This is Who We Are and Why We're Here". After a team discussion, they documented and made visible a written purpose to remind staff of their value.
The mission statement of the company can be a timely and relevant touchpoint, or, if more compelling, the immediate purpose of their daily work can inspire and engage. Looking back at company history can also be a great way to show what's possible.
Another leader pointed out that financially hard hit companies should use transparency and urgency to bring staff into the fold. If the highest purpose is to help as many customers as possible in order to stay in business, well, that's a pretty powerful reason for staff to give their best. But leave your employees out of that discussion and risk them feeling powerless and afraid.
Tell the Story, then Tell it Again
The best leaders are great storytellers, so making the Kool-Aid might be the easy part. That said, some assume that once the story has been told, engaged teams will stay engaged. One design leader cautions against relying on memory to provide direction and reassurance.
To keep the mission front and center, this leader created a living document that outlines their team's vision, which they update and share on a regular basis in an interactive forum. Most leaders are hosting more meetings than ever with teams and partners, so taking the time to share not just the "what" but also the "why" delivers true engagement.
Focus on Impact
Once your team is clear on its purpose, it's time to tie their actions as directly as possible to the outcomes that support that mission. One experience leader uses their companywide quarterly financial results report to bring impact home to their staff. By pointing out that the successful completion of "Project X" supported "Company Initiative X", leaders can show employees how much their work matters.
Taking that approach to another level, the same leader integrates purpose into their monthly staff recognition, creating peer awards that recognize the skills that support the company's focus. If the company mission includes "help solve problems", then asking your team to identify peers who are exhibiting that behavior is a great way to reinforce it. By rallying to the mantra "How can I be of help?", a design leader realized a $30,000 savings when their staff came up with a way to remotely assess and eliminate unused inventory.
Look Outside, Not Inside
Even before the pandemic, companies were embracing customer-centric business practices, but during a crisis it's human nature to go into protection mode and focus inside. Employees under pressure to perform who are surrounded by uncertainty can lose sight of the customer and undermine efforts to shift the business to new customer needs.
One UX leader paints a relatable picture for their teams by pointing out that their work on improving the user experience enables customers to order essential items during a stressful time. With the surge of new first-time digital users, UX talent can make the difference between revenue and abandoned carts. Remind them of that.
Another leader helped their staff look inside to understand why they were more concerned with getting the best projects than giving the best customer service. Using self assessments and bringing in a professional coach, they created space for their employees to refocus their efforts on their most important audience.
It's important to recognize how much this global health crisis has complicated absolutely everything in the work environment. From interview processes to design reviews, today's virtual workflow makes collaboration, team-building and measurement difficult to achieve.
A UX leader reminded that the work day has now been extended by 3-4 hours, much of which is taken up by newly formed meetings and digital communication. To improve morale and outcomes, they inspire teams to find the simplest solution possible and work together to simplify processes that slow down decision-making. Another leader was able to shorten their approval cycle by three weeks by inviting stakeholders into a live design review instead of booking weekly reviews for different audiences.
Trust Your Staff
Newly remote leaders struggle with the lack of visibility that comes with dispersed resources. Compound that with accelerated deadlines and unpredictable workloads and it's no surprise that leaders spend more time following up and less time giving space to work.
Focusing on goals instead of tactics can help build empowered teams that make better decisions and come up with creative solutions. Several leaders ladder up staff goals to team goals to department goals to company goals, drawing a clear line to what success looks like. Another leader developed a "People Committee" to allow their team to devise their own plan for team-building.
Trust could be a topic for an entire article, but a few tips to make this work for you:
- Set clear individual goals that align to company initiatives and manage to those.
- Find what motivates your team and realize there's not a "one-size-fits-all" solution.
- Be transparent and authentic; acknowledge that we are not in a normal situation and that everyone's help is needed to find the best solutions.
Ask Why Not
If all else fails, go back to the beginning (or better yet, start there). When leaders sense that their team is disconnected or distracted, it's important to understand why before simply deploying new methods to engage them.
One leader suggested finding the right question to get to the bottom of the problem first: Is the problem that teams don't have a purpose, that there is one but they're not sold on it, or that the leader is just struggling to articulate it? Each of these problems leads to a different set of solutions, but shooting in the dark can waste time and cause frustration.
Connecting teams to purpose can generate better results and improve retention of both staff and customers. Even in normal times, employees want to feel connected to a cause greater than themselves - often using their ability to make an impact as a guide to choosing an employer. Design leaders can help by creating conditions that bring out the best in their teams and make purpose a part of their daily interactions.
If you’re a senior design, experience or operations leader of an in-house team and want to connect to others who share your unique challenges, let’s talk. Our InsideOut leadership community hosts monthly virtual roundtables to help support the learning, growth and sanity of our members, and I’m honored to get to facilitate those discussions.
Stay safe out there. Let's keep learning together!