Can Human-Centered Design Help Me Stay Union-Free?

Staying union-free is always challenging because it depends on management’s skills in developing a positive culture, a collaborative workforce, engaged employees, positive employee relations, and all that includes – employee voice, empathy, sense of inclusion and belonging, quality leaders skilled in people management, accessible communication systems, work with meaning and on the list goes. Suffice it to say that engaging employees means making people your first focus, and the rest should fall into place – health and safety, creative expression, collaborative problem-solving, and a supportive organizational culture.

Human-centered design means putting people first, so it’s a natural approach to staying union-free. All of the qualities of a human-centered design are the same qualities your organization and managers need to develop and maintain positive employee relations.

What is Human-Centered Design?

Human-centered design is a model that says you start first with the people you are designing for and then look for solutions. IDEO popularized the idea of design thinking through application in its organization. The Executive Chair, Tim Brown, defines it this way, “Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

Notice the needs of people come first, not the needs of management or the organization itself. There is no mention of profit goals or expansion plans. It begins with the needs of people.

Human-centered design is the foundation of making design thinking work as an innovation model. Your organization starts with the people you are designing for when looking for solutions. It requires deep empathy to truly understand their needs and the solutions that will work best. Human-centered design is an employee engagement process in which managers start with first listening to identify employee’s needs, interactions with others, and expectations and perspectives. They can also study new behaviors that have emerged in these tumultuous times.

Leaders then develop work models that give employees a voice, participation in change and innovation teams, etc. – all the things they should be doing to keep unions out and minimize protests. In Human-centered design, you begin with the employees (applies to customers too) and build models and strategies around the discoveries rather than starting with the business strategy and forcing people to fit.

Emphasize Employee Needs

People Design helps organizations implement user-centered organizational design and makes an excellent point. Many companies continue to anchor themselves to products instead of humans, and new opportunities are lost as a result. Focusing on products and the bottom line first can lead to a situation in which “companies emphasize output and employees emphasize titles.” When an employee wants more pay or a promotion, the person must increase rote productivity rather than innovating. A company can design and manufacture something but still struggle with sales because they don’t truly understand their customers’ needs. The human-centered design focuses on the whole organization and not just products and productivity.

The benefits fall right into place for developing strong employee engagement and a happy workplace. For example, employees are freed from rigid job functions and can focus on their own approach to accomplishing tasks. Placing employees at the center of focus means managers can better view each employee’s value in terms of the experiences, creativity, and unique perspectives they bring to the workplace and the unique perspectives, rather than the tasks. Leaders connect with employees.

There are many elements to the human-centered design that are all about employee engagement and positive employee relations. When positive employee relations exist, unions are much less likely to look attractive.

  • Empathy – Management should understand the people experiencing a problem before trying to solve the problem. Leaders must lead with empathy, in other words. When managers put new policies and procedures, systems, or strategies in place without understanding the full impact on employees, they inevitably run into resistance.
  • Trust – Employees must trust management before they will be willing to share their authentic employee experience, present unique perspectives, and ideas or present personal and work issues to a supervisor or manager.
  • Optimism – Optimism is a positive perspective. In the human-centered design, optimism rules! People believe they have value, can make significant contributions to organizational success, progress within the organization, and help find critical solutions to challenges. They are looking ahead with the belief that problems are solvable. Compare this to the cynical union strategy of making employees believe they need the union to resolve issues because management is untrustworthy and only cares about the bottom line.
  • Accepts ambiguity as a source of opportunities – Ambiguity refers to not knowing the answer to a problem but being willing to pursue various new ideas. Ambiguity is not easy to describe because…well…it refers to being open to inexactness. This goes against the traditional business approach, so it’s important to train leaders to leverage ambiguity as a positive.
  • Embraces people’s differences – As the workforce becomes more diverse and global, it’s critical for managers to embrace (not just tolerate) employee differences. A diverse workforce is an enormous source of new ideas and perspectives. When management respects differences to their fullest, meaning diverse people are included and feel a sense of belonging, employees will also value differences as an overall organizational value.
  • Open communication – Your leaders must have excellent communication skills to keep your organization union-free. If employees are unwilling to share ideas or issues with your leadership or never get genuine feedback when they do, people become disengaged. At the same time, your managers should be willing to accept feedback from employees, even if it’s something they prefer not to hear. In human-centered design, managers meet regularly with employees, conduct pulse and longer surveys, utilize technology to improve communication, invite new perspectives, and always keep employees in the loop. Transparency is as much a value as honesty and authenticity in communication.
  • Culture and workplace ecosystem of harmonySystems Concepts helps to understand the design of a human-centered organization. One of the elements in their model is harmonizing the environment. Harmonizing means ensuring human, technical, and environmental factors smoothly together. Employees are allowed choice and control over work and have responsibility for outcomes; tasks are developed to make sense of the whole job; systems evolve rather than being implemented in a single step. Letting them evolve eases the impact of change on the workforce too. It reduces the likelihood of change leading to union organizing because change creates uncertainty.
  • People are in the right job and doing meaningful work – Employees are only successful and happy in their jobs if they are suited for the work and believe it is meaningful and impactful.
  • Consider the whole human experience – A human-centered design organization caters to all human needs. They include some of the things mentioned, like inclusion and belonging and meaningful work, but there is more. Since it focuses on people’s needs, the human-centered design considers health and safety, recognition, conscious and unconscious bias, and issues like sexual harassment. Workhuman’s State of Human at Work (March 4, 2020) survey found that 42 percent of employees don’t trust Human Resources. If over 40 percent of employees don’t trust Human Resources, it means the organization is not human-centered.

Are You Really Meeting Employee Needs?

When an organization is not human-centered, management’s needs are placed first, like the production of more product or growth of the bottom line. Applying this to Human Resources in an example, you implement an employee communication system that employees don’t like and only cursorily use. You can claim you have the system and give employees a voice, but are you really? If the system doesn’t meet employee needs, it isn’t an employee engagement tool.

Companies that have been slow to move towards an employee communication system that integrates a variety of technologies – like social media and apps giving easy access to managers and coworkers, organizational information, and a union-focused website – will likely have a gaping hole in their employee engagement efforts. Most workers today are tech-savvy, and their preferred mode of communication is via mobile technology. If they don’t have access to the right tech tools and resources, what opportunities and innovations is your organization missing out on?

By focusing on employees first before implementing solutions, you may discover better ways to engage employees, or opportunities for developing stronger positive employee relations are being overlooked.

Mental Health & Human Resources: Prioritizing A More Resilient Workforce from ProjectHR

From the Union Perspective

It’s no secret that unions are more active now and more likely to succeed in growing their membership in the future than they have been in the past decade. People at the highest level of government actively support unions, making public statements encouraging employees to vote for unionizing and attending pro-union rallies. They are promoting the PRO Act as a set of solutions based on employee needs.

Unions are actually using a semi human-centered design by focusing on employee needs first to drive their direction and by using technology to outreach and organize people around solutions. But the solutions are primarily driven by the union and are often negative – protests, strikes, harming a company’s reputation, and filing unfair labor practices are just a few. They convince employees they need to fight for higher wages, improved health and safety, more voice in the organization, more diversity and inclusion, and so on. Unions promise employees they understand their needs and can provide targeted solutions.

Ironically, however, unionizing adds rigidity to job functions and career advancement and even to your organization. The union approach to human resources is outdated. They value structure and boxing people into job titles and responsibilities. Employees plan careers around hierarchal siloed organizations, i.e., promotions based on seniority, limited to working in a single unit, unable to voluntarily assume new tasks and responsibilities out of interest and self-motivation. It is challenging to have a human-centered design in a unionized organization.

In addition, unions are increasingly using technology as a means of organizing protests and starting union campaigns. They don’t utilize it to change their strategy to one focused on improving employee lives by giving employees flexibility in how they interact with management. To do so would mean they lose power and authority. It’s the reason employees must let the union negotiate contracts and manage grievances.

People First Strategy

Developing positive employee relations is a process of creating a human-centered design. IBM addressed the critical features of a human-centered organization. In the words of IBM, they are:

  • Focuses on creating better human experiences
  • Builds resilience and de-risks innovation through continuous iteration and learning
  • Cares as much about the experience of its diverse, empowered teams as it does about its customers
  • Intentionally and actively embeds these principles into the fabric of the organization

It is a transformation of purpose and not just operations. Staying union-free truly comes down to becoming a human-centered organization. It doesn’t happen overnight, but you can build on your efforts to date. Projections, Inc. recommends starting with a re-evaluation of the organization’s focus (product vs. people) and expanding leadership training on developing positive employee relations. Learning how to prevent union organizing is another crucial step that organizations can incorporate into leadership training. The bottom line is that a union-free strategy is a people-first strategy. 

About the Author Jennifer Orechwa

With over 25 years in the industry, and now as IRI's Director of Business Development, Jennifer has gained a unique perspective on what it takes to build a culture of engagement. By blending a deep understanding of labor and employee relations with powerful digital marketing knowledge, Jennifer has helped thousands of companies achieve behavioral change at a cultural level.

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