The design of work and the work of design

Design thinking offers a new way of looking at broader business problems.

0 1,002

By Gary Miciunas

First published in  W&P Edition 2 – February 2013 Pages 15-18

Tags: work process • workplace strategy • design thinking

Design Thinking

The business world is increasingly turning to design thinking as an innovative way to reconceive products, services and business models. This presents an unprecedented opportunity for designers to expand their scope and influence in the area of workplace strategy. Designers will add more value than ever by applying design thinking beyond workspace design to impact service design. This involves the design of business processes that integrate facilities, technology and work practices. The implications for workplace strategy and business transformation will be significant for both internal and external service providers.

Workplace strategy aligns an organization’s work patterns with the work environment to enable peak performance and reduce costs.1 Absent in this definition is a keen emphasis on the well-being of knowledge workers. Knowledge workers are being offered freedom to alter their work patterns by choosing work environment options for how, when and where to work. Increasingly, this is viewed as a competitive advantage for attracting and retaining talent. Achieving peak performance, reducing costs and lowering levels of work-related human stress through ease of service will require a new approach.

This new approach must equally emphasize two key tenets: 1) improving knowledge workers’ interlinked experience of both “work” and “place” and 2) considering knowledge workers as “consumers” of an organization’s “workplace” offerings. This expanded scope does not fit neatly into current roles and responsibilities of internal management staff nor designers working as consultants to complex organizations.

Ideas expressed in the first issue of Work&Place set the stage, inviting open dialogue about new and exciting possibilities2. What are the implications of thinking of “work as a verb” while promoting a new role of “Director of Work?” Exploring these ideas requires that we keep in mind the dual usage of “work” as both a noun and a verb.

“Design” is also both a noun and a verb. If we emphasize designing work, then the work of design must extend beyond the materiality of physical places to encompass the experience of related services. It needs to create the optimal user experience as seen through the eyes of the knowledge worker. This goes beyond the traditional role of designers toward applying design thinking to broader business problems of integrating services that enable knowledge work.


In the IT industry, “Workplace-as-a-Service” (WaaS) is a third-party service arrangement providing desktop and mobile computing services to employees via cloud computing. WaaS enables virtual desktop capability through a variety of mobile devices including tablets and smartphones. These bundled services are typically provided on a fee-per-usage basis. In the IT domain, the term “workspace” refers to the desktop as opposed to physical workspace. Outside of this IT context, the phrase “Workspace-as-Service” is increasingly being used in reference to smart physical workspaces that are bundled with digital services and shared by a community of users.

Increasingly, “consumer” expectations for on-demand services are impacting information technology policies and, we might expect, real estate portfolio management practices as well. As organizations gradually shift toward policies and practices such as Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) and allowing employees to work off of company premises in third places supported by cloud computing, IT concepts such as “Workplace-as-a-Service” are disrupting infrastructure solutions. According to Booz & Company, “employees expect to be able to use all the innovative new devices and tools at their disposal, both to do their jobs and to maintain their always-connected lifestyles while being able to work whenever and wherever they need to.”3

Should we anticipate that the consumerization of IT will soon trickle over into commercial and corporate real estate? As businesses begin to incorporate third places such as coworking facilities as an extension of their property portfolio strategies, the provision of both space and shared services as a bundled value proposition will become the norm for both internal and external service providers. The Global Workspace Association – representing office business center owners and operators – has already moved in this direction as reflected in its mission statement of “Advancing Workplace-as-a-Service.”

The new world of work is certainly enabled by advanced technologies; however, it still takes people to accomplish work. Both technical and social aspects of knowledge work must be integrated into new service designs. Optimizing this “customer” experience provides organizations with competitive advantage to attract and retain the next generation workforce that increasingly values flexibility. The 2011 Cisco Connected World Technology Report found that young professionals – who want an open environment that accommodates social media, device freedom, and remote working to accommodate their lifestyle and inspire innovation – will take a lower salary, if necessary.4

Cisco Connected World Technology Report

The second annual Cisco Connected World Technology Report*, based on a survey of more than 2,800 college students and young professionals in 14 countries, cites these findings related to job choice and salary among others:

• The study revealed that one in three college students and young employees under the age of 30 (33%) said that they would prioritize social media freedom, device flexibility, and work mobility over salary in accepting a job offer, indicating that the expectations and priorities of the next generation of the world’s workforce are not solely tied to money.

• Mobile networking, device flexibility, and the blending of personal and work lifestyles are key components of a work environment and culture that are increasingly important in determining which companies will land the next wave of industry talent.

• More than two of five college students (40%) and young employees (45%) said they would accept a lower-paying job that had more flexibility with regard to device choice, social media access, and mobility than a higher-paying job with less flexibility.

*Cisco News Release dated November 2, 2011

The design of work

Work design is defined as “the systemic organization, design, and articulation of work activities at one or more levels of the organization: systemwide, process, group, job, and task.”5 The societal shift from industrial age to knowledge age is causing a “third generation” transformation of work design theory and practice.6 Addressing these multi-level dynamics, especially in the context of alternative work environments, makes the design of work more complex, especially in terms of sociotechnical systems design that integrates technical and social aspects of non-routine knowledge work.

To this day, the design of work still relies heavily upon job evaluation and work measurement systems that were designed in the first half of the 20th century. The rise of scientific management based on Taylorist principles supported the hierarchical pyramid of command and control styles. Its popularity literally transplanted what worked so efficiently on the factory floor and applied it to the office floor. The jobs within this traditional structure were determined by a breakdown of tasks into work units. This approach proved to be very efficient in routine production work environments; however, it did not envision the impact of the internet and digital work in the networked age.

The future of work relies upon networked organizations in which “the vertical arrangements for guiding the flows of knowledge are disrupted, if not subverted.”7 The vertical arrangement of structuring knowledge is giving way to the horizontal channels of exchanging knowledge and distributing information across social networks inside and outside of organizational boundaries in a networked world. This is causing disruption in forms of organization and styles of management. Given the extent of change and rerouting of authority over the career span of middle-aged individuals, it is easy to understand why managerial resistance to change by this age cohort is often cited as the primary obstacle to adopting new ways of working. Such challenges require strategies for change management and learning opportunities for managers to acquire new skills in working with remote teams and individuals.

Work design theory and practice is playing catch up to the new world of work. With the exception of work environments that still support routine jobs in processing functions, the analysis of inputs, throughputs and outputs does not serve well as a basis for evaluating contributions of knowledge workers. A focus on the management of outcomes is gaining momentum. And increasingly, achieving outcomes amid constraints and competition requires the ingenuity of knowledge workers to innovate on the job and decide the best way to perform the work of the organization. Vertical layers of management control are diminishing as horizontal spheres of influence are increasing in the form of dissipative, self-organizing structures.

This organizational flattening is placing increased demands on knowledge workers’ time and challenging notions of work-life balance. It is no longer thought necessary to separate work and life into compartmentalized portions of a day. Work-life integration is becoming the norm in which “working” and “living” follow an interchangeable rhythm throughout the course of a day. Having flexibility to decide when, where and how to work responds to this blurring of work and life and the focus on outcomes.

Imagining a day in the life of a knowledge worker in this new world of work becomes critical to understanding how their experience of work and place could be improved in meaningful ways.

The work of design

The work of design is no longer limited to the role of designers. Everyone needs to be creative in an innovative organization. A design approach to business is injecting unconventional thinking and open and collaborative approaches to innovation in the business world. This growing trend is retooling the skill sets of managers with methodologies to improve products, services, processes and business models. Industry leaders such as GE Healthcare, Procter & Gamble and Philips Electronics have developed in-house programs that emphasize design thinking as a different lens for managers to use in solving business problems, by combining logic and creativity to boost the bottom line.8

Why is management increasingly attracted to design thinking to address its business problems? Because logic and quantitative methods do not tell the whole story and storytelling is critical to describing qualitative scenarios of the customer experience with a company’s products, services and business processes. For example, a common tool of design thinking plots every stage of the customer experience from the perspective of what the consumer or user is trying to accomplish. Various sources refer to this same tool as Journey Mapping9, Customer Journey Maps10 and User Journey Map11. This creates empathy and appreciation for underlying emotions, desires and behaviors and identifies potential gaps in fulfilling human needs, opportunities to enhance offerings with additional features, or streamlining of activities that add no value to the customer experience.

Design thinking principles

Promoting empathy is one of ten core Design Thinking principles.12 Others include being action oriented, comfortable with change, human-centric, foresight and anticipatory imagination, iterative process, reducing risk, creating meaning, fostering a questioning organizational culture, and competitive strategy. Applying this set of principles to ambiguous problems provides insight into varying value propositions that may be meaningful to different customer segments, e.g., knowledge workers with different work styles. A “one-size-fits-all” universal approach no longer works in a world of consumer expectations used to mass customization.

When managers become adept at design thinking, what then becomes of the role of designers? The designer becomes the facilitator of a collaborative process that engages stakeholders who have very different perspectives of the problem. Co-creating a service design that improves knowledge workers’ experience of work and place requires such a collaborative process that applies principles and methods of design thinking. According to a special report of the MIT Sloan Management Review, “design thinking – distinct from analytical thinking – has emerged as the premier organizational path not only to breakthrough innovation but, surprisingly, to high-performance collaboration, as well.”13

Collaboration is the new elixir of work. Most definitions of collaboration, however, do not make a strong enough distinction compared to teamwork. Working constructively in cross-functional teams, with internal and external partners, involves inherent conflicts that arise and must be resolved. Being comfortable with resolving conflict and overcoming the discomfort of change are hallmarks of effective collaboration. Barbara Gray provides this definition making the distinction:

“Collaboration is a process through which parties who see different aspects of the same problem can constructively explore their differences and search for solutions that go beyond their own limited vision of what is possible.”14

Teamwork often fails because team composition may not represent such diversity or members may not possess skills in collaboration and design thinking. When different ideas naturally collide and people choose to collaborate, not only does the search space for solutions increase, but so does the likelihood of redefining the original problem and reframing project boundaries in a new light. This is most likely when the composition of teams represents multiple parties with different sets of interests and concerns, and the team possesses the requisite skills and methods of constructive conflict resolution.

This is certainly the case when calling for more functions from across the enterprise to work together to improve the knowledge workers’ experience of work and place. The ability to collaborate becomes a critical competency among procurement, finance, real estate, facilities, information technology and human resources. And, their ability to deliver improved services and experiences of work and place requires that they recognize these dynamics:

• work patterns are changing

• permanent employees are engaging with external partners and contingent workforce as much as their internal associates

• a variety of work environment options is necessary

• on-demand services to support distributed work must be integrated and seamless.

The design of work & the work of design

Workplace strategy that is based on design-led innovation combines the design of work and the work of design. Let’s return to the implications of work as a verb, the role of Director of Work, and how a design approach to business expands the role of designers.

The major implication of understanding “work as a verb” is to focus on what knowledge workers are trying to do when they are working. The implication for a Director of Work is to focus on how an organization orchestrates its work (as a noun). Design thinking offers a set of principles and tools for all stakeholders and managers to apply in improving knowledge workers’ experience of work and place.

The implication for designers is to embrace a broader role as facilitator of a collaborative process at the fuzzy front end of innovation. As workplace designers, we have an opportunity to expand our expertise to include experience design and service design. Imagine an organization in which the Director of Work and the Director of Work-Place each have their respective teams and value networks. These teams will need to collaborate as allies including their HR and IT peers to develop new business models and platforms for service delivery that cater to mobile knowledge workers. This will involve inherent conflicts and require innovation.

Designers will thrive in the new world of work if they externalize and share the way they think about problem-solving. Redefining workplace strategy to be human- centered and focused on the user experience of knowledge workers will shift the value added by designers beyond creating more efficient places toward making a talented workforce more effective and organizations more competitive. W&P

Design thinking

Design Thinking refers to the methods and processes for investigating ill-defined problems, acquiring information, analyzing knowledge, and positing solutions in the design and planning fields. As a style of thinking, it is generally considered the ability to combine empathy for the context of a problem, creativity in the generation of insights and solutions, and rationality to analyze and fit solutions to the context. While design thinking has become part of the popular lexicon in contemporary design and engineering practice, as well as business and management, its broader use in describing a particular style of creative thinking-in-action is having an increasing influence on twenty-first century education across disciplines. In this respect, it is similar to systems thinking in naming a particular approach to understanding and solving problems.

About the Author

Gary Miciunas

Gary Miciunas is principal of advisory services with Nelson, a global interior design, architecture, engineering, strategies, workplace services and information services firm – and serves on the firm-wide Design Leadership Team. He holds a Certificate in Real Estate Development from ULI, BSc in Urban Studies from University of Wisconsin, MSc Environmental Design from Southern Illinois University, and Master of Corporate Real Estate (MCR) from CoreNet Global.

e [email protected]




1 Savage A. E. (2005) Workplace strategy: What it is and why you should care. Journal of Corporate Real Estate, 7(3) cited by Wikipedia October 23, 2012

2 Carder, P. (2012) The Director of Work – A New Role? Work&Place, vol.1, issue 1.Occupiers Journal, Hong Kong.

3 Bernnat, R. et al. (2010) Friendly Takeover: The Consumerization of Corporate IT. Perspective Series. Booz & Company, Inc. New York, NY.

4 Cisco Connected World Technology Report (2011) Press Release. November 2, 2011.

5 Torraco, R.J. (2005) Work Design Theory: A Review and Critique with Implications for Human Resource Development. Human Resource Development Quarterly, vol. 1, no. 1. Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

6 Painter, B. (2009) STS Theory – From the Industrial Age to the Knowledge Age.

7 Husband, J. (2008) The Design of Knowledge Work: The Industrial Era vs. The Networked Age

8 Wong, V. (2009) How Business Is Adopting Design Thinking. BusinessWeek (November 3rd issue).

9 Liedtka, J. and Ogilvie, T. (2011) Designing for Growth: A Design Thinking Tool Kit for Managers. Columbia University Press, New York.

10 Stickdorn, M. and Schneider, J. (2011) This Is Service Design Thinking: Basics – Tools – Cases. John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, New Jersey.

11 Kumar, Vijay (2013) 101 Design Methods: A Structured Approach for Driving Innovation in Your Organization. John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, New Jersey.

12 Mootee, I. (2011) Applied Design Thinking in Business Problem Solving. Design Thinking for Creativity and Business Innovation Series. Harvard Graduate School of Design Executive Education. Idea Couture Inc.

13 Design Thinking Special Report (July 2, 2009) MIT Sloan Management Review

14 Gray, B. (1989) Collaborating: Finding Common Ground to Multi-Party Problems. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Further reading

Donkin, R. (2010) The Future of Work. Palgrave Macmillan, Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire UK

Hutton, W. (2010) Design in the Knowledge Economy. Design Council, London. October 24, 2012

Maitland, A. and Thomson, P. (2011) Future Work: How Business Can Adapt and Thrive in the New World of Work. Palgrave Macmillan, Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire UK

Osterwalder, A. and Pigneur, Y. (2010) Business Model Generation. John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, New Jersey.

Rylander, A. (2009) Design Thinking as Knowledge Work: Epistemological Foundations and Practical Implications. Journal of Design Management.

Vianna, M. and others (2012) Design Thinking: Business Innovation. MJV Press, Rio de Janeiro.

Editor’s footnote: Gary’s article started off shorter, but I was intrigued by this topic, so I kept asking him more questions. Gary skilfully responded, and it has become a full feature! For some designers, there is a career opportunity embedded in this article, by applying their skills to the ‘design of work’ Work&Place Linkedin Group.

GraphicChicago office of Critical Mass designed by Nelson Anthony May Photography

Leave A Reply