Human-Centered Design Principles for Building a Better Workplace

March 29, 2021

As we head into April 2021 with more mass-vaccination sites opening daily signaling hope of a normal tomorrow, it seems most organizations are still on a journey of constant starts and stops as they try to feel their way through the post-pandemic working world. With digital transformation efforts accelerating around the world, including significant investments in robotics, AI, advanced materials and biotechnology, we can imagine what the working world might look like three to five years from now. Beyond people with specialized STEM skills, the future working world demands thought leadership and will demand a radical up-skilling of people who have formally been task-producers. To bring out the best human thinking, organizations have the responsibility to design environments that inspire and enable the best thinking to flourish. It’s a leader’s job to ensure that environmental conditions are always optimal for people to come alive.

This challenge is taking center stage as we plan our return to the office after a year-long global experiment in working from home. The new work-from-home working model proved viable, but not optimal for some. In a late 2020 global study conducted by the Steelcase 360 research team, findings suggest that employees expect to work from home, but far less often than you might think. 54% of US participants responded they expect to work from home 1 day a week or less, while only 20% expected 4-5 days a week. 72% of respondents expect some form of hybrid working model.

Today, organizations must reconsider their own culture, rituals, technology, and real estate strategies in order to create new hybrid models that reframe the work environment from a place where work gets done into one where humans naturally come alive.

To learn more, click the link below to access the 2021 global report about the changing expectations and the future of work: 2021 Global Report.

As you look to create a new workplace built around a human experience, here are three design principles I urge you to consider.

We’ve all volunteered or been voluntold to join various project and initiative teams focused on solving the most critical problems. As a coach to several global business leaders, I’ve observed that Simon Sinek’s principle to start with why is often overlooked or ignored. One useful practice while walking leaders through design thinking exercises is reminding them to think, not solve. As humans, we have a natural tendency to fix problems. But before we fix, we must understand why solving that problem matters. “Think, don’t solve” keeps you honest, grounded, and allows you to always come back to the source that first inspired you to change.


Tip: Start with your shared why, not what or how.

Most leaders are focusing on the logistical side of how people will return to the office, including maximum occupancy rate, handwashing and break station protocols, temperature check routines, and the like. This tells us how, but not why we should come back together physically.


Tip: Design rituals around desired behavioral patterns, not just tasks.

I see a misstep from some organizations who are simply defining their return to workplace policy based on workers they deem essential. But how are these companies defining essential? Are they considering what’s essential to these employees and what they might uniquely need once they return?

One takeaway over the last year of working from home is this: our absence from our daily office commutes has made us all realize that we have new needs, and we’ve created new routines along the way. These needs and routines are unique to everyone.

Steelcase identified dominant personas from their research. The Overworked Caretaker whose home office is a nonstop flow of competing demands. The Relieved Self-Preservationist who sees the home office as the only place they can be safe. The Frustrated Creative feels the home office is a suspension from normal life and work. The Autonomy Seeker loves the freedom of working from home while the Isolated Zoomer sees working from home as a lonely cage.

What this research reveals to me is that job tasks aside, all people have had their own unique experience during the pandemic, independent of the jobs they do.

Here are 3 better questions to ask yourself and ask you team as you plan:

  • Are we simply returning or are we reimaging the workplace?
  • What motivates people to be together? Do we know? If so, how?
  • What must evolve about our workplace to deliver on the desired together experience?

How often do you communicate in a way that you feel is effective in inspiring people to think differently? Do people listen to you? If so, why? What I’ve observed in the organizations I coach is that those who communicate effectively inspire faith instead of instill fear with the words they use.


Tip: Be honest with your words.

Faith is believing something you don’t see or fully understand. Fear is believing your worst possible assumption will come true. Both belong in the realm of the unknown. One propels us forward. The other holds us back and pushes us down. Sometimes the best approach is to put down the script and ask ourselves if we’re inspiring faith.

Better questions to ask:

  • What messaging are we (or am I) using to describe this change?
  • How might our/my messaging be instilling fear in my audience?
  • How might our/my messaging shift to inspire my audience’s faith?

I once asked the CEO of a large, multi-national company how the pandemic had changed his mind about what the remote or hybrid future work experience should be. His response had nothing to do with headcounts or social distancing. Leaning back in his patio chair, he said “You know, I’ve felt the most sense of community from my neighbors. The people who literally live next door and down the golf course from me. I didn’t know many of them before the pandemic, at least not the way I do now. We help each other out. We ask how the other is. We cook meals for each other and we know about each other’s lives. I hope going forward that our company will look much more like the care I’ve received from my neighbors.”


Tip: create a community that looks and acts like a group of diverse neighbors

Designing employee personas can help companies understand what people need vs how roles and functions need to be managed and directed. Think about understanding human connections first, and the underpinning rituals that hold them together.


Tip: identify and inspire your first followers.

People want to follow leaders with a vision, not those who rehearse and read a script. And that’s why I’ve never seen voluntold champions work out well. Be intentional, about the primary sponsor or change agent for your initiative, but also about who you rally to be first followers. If you model desired behaviors, your people will follow.

Better questions to ask:

  • Do I view myself as a community leader vs. a task manager?
  • What community rituals could we adopt?
  • Who are my first followers and how am I leading them?

Humans are always creatures of habit. We desire the things that make us feel most fully human. And the workplace can play a large role in making us feel and behave more fully human. This is why companies should focus on reimagining –– not just returning –– to the office. If we are intentional about how to make that return more human, more collaborative, and more inspiring, we will give employees a reason to return to something better.

About the Author:

Laura Eley is a trusted culture and employee experience advisor to organizational leaders across the globe. She is a life-long student of methods for how organization’s successfully amplify their beliefs by influencing the collective behavior of people through both formal and informal practice. In her consulting, she applies principles from organizational psychology as well as real world practical experience to guide the culture-building journey of large enterprises as well as start-up businesses.