The workforce is increasingly overwhelmed. A Deloitte study shows that despite the amount of innovation in the digital workplace, employee productivity is stagnant. To adapt to this new, digital work environment, People Ops leaders are being called upon to support the design of their organizations and processes to be extra agile and culture-focused.

Enter Design Thinking

Design thinking offers a proven, structured approach to problem-solving, including those related to the modern workplace. When used at Sapling, it provides the team with perspective and puts us in a position to build simplified, productive, usable solutions to the addressed problem. At its core, design thinking focuses on undressing people’s needs and creatively working to find the best solution to those needs.

Here’s how you, a People Ops leader, can apply the 5 phases of design thinking to your onboarding.

5 phases of the Design Thinking framework:

  1. Empathize: What is the problem to solve?
  2. Define: Why is solving this problem important?
  3. Ideate: How do we solve it - through a process, product, relationship or a service?
  4. Prototype: How do we create a solution? Fail fast and cheap.
  5. Test: Does the solution work? Start implementing the results and refining it as you scale.

Let’s dig a bit deeper into Phase One of Design Thinking: gathering the needs of the employee through heightened empathy.

Know Your Employee

A key advantage of Design Thinking is the iterative, collaborative approach it encourages teams to use. Design Thinking emphasizes people over processes. Through ethnographic tools, such as interviews, focus groups, and surveys, teams can look at a problem with a wider perspective.

A design thinking people ops team in charge of transforming their new hire onboarding can begin by looking at their own experience getting onboard in their organization.

Starting at home base through journaling and self-observation will help uncover opportunities and prepare you for speaking to the topic with your team.

For a little inspiration, jot down your responses to these questions:

  • How did I feel on day one?
  • What were some of the key moments that mattered?
  • Did I feel connected to my company’s mission?
  • Did I know my goals?

When speaking with other team members:

  • Avoid using leading questions (“Did you feel frustrated when you couldn’t log in to Slack?”)
  • Listen for emotion words (scared, frustrated, shy), as these are often the biggest opportunities.

Through reflection, you’ll be able to create a more refined onboarding plan, that ultimately facilitates a faster level of productivity, knowledge gained, and relationships built.

Find Those Gaps

Once you have a better understanding of the problem, organize your insights before jumping into any solutions. A common design thinking exercise is journey-mapping. For onboarding, the journey map is a visual interpretation of your new hire’s experience across at your organization over a period of time.

By outlining every step your employee takes to complete their goal, you’ll be able to consider interactions from their point of view and further deepen your understanding of any gaps you have in your employee experience. For guidance, here are the eight most common touchpoints for employees:

For each stage, start outlining the pain points and areas of improvement. Brainstorm with your team in person (through a whiteboarding session) or using a template like the one we’ve created.

Once you start thinking in this framework, it will push you to answer:

  • What does our onboarding and employee experience look like from start to end?
  • How can we simplify the process for our new hires?
  • How can we make our employee onboarding process better?

By looking at the employee experience with design thinking’s intentional lens, you’ll quickly see improvement opportunities for your employee experience across the board. This means you have more time connecting with your team and supporting them throughout every stage of their employee experience.

Closing Thoughts

Journey maps and empirical research are just the start of the design thinking mindset. Companies such as IBM and Cisco and others have seen great results by fully applying Design Thinking to onboarding and the employee experience.

There are several ways you can get started applying Design Thinking to your onboarding and employee experience depending on the stage and scale of your team. Done well, design thinking promotes tight feedback loops between HR and the organizations they support, ultimately improving the end-to-end onboarding and employee experience.

At Sapling, we’ve already taken the legwork out of applied design thinking and built our onboarding solution with it in mind, discover Sapling for yourself!


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Utilizing Design Thinking for Employee Onboarding