Design your back office for better employee experience

Why taking a design-led approach to engineering your back-office matters.

How do you ensure your business can invest and grow? Replace people. It sounds like a terrible, dystopian way of thinking but it isn’t new, and large organisations are proficient at it.

Since the advent of the wheel, human ingenuity has been shaped around making tasks easier, faster and inherently less incumbent of people. From feudal farmers to industrial factory owners it has helped us to produce more with less. As service providers, it helps us reduce the cost of delivering any given service.

Since the advent of the wheel, human ingenuity has been shaped around making tasks easier, faster and inherently less incumbent of people.

It is understandable, for an organisation to survive it needs to maximise its capital and free funds and people to invest in the future of its growth rather than spending money maintaining the status quo. It also isn’t necessarily a bad thing, change is often resisted but growth creates opportunity. Organisations embrace technology in the desire to use the latest idea to take more of the heavy lifting away from its people leaving it free to focus on growth.

Inevitably in this quest, it is often the back office that is first to fall in the crosshairs. First automation of report to report tasks that require no human intervention. Then, in the drive to reduce cost, technology is increasingly asked to enable organisational self-service where previously humans would have been relied on.

The idea is simple, if employee A can easily go and complete their back office task then we don’t need to employ employee B to support them. Similar thinking to the supermarket self-service checkout. Unfortunately, as with many simple ideas, it is in the execution that the fault lines manifest.

Our experience  

Take this example:

A decision is made that costs need to be saved and a back office function is the target, ‘We are handholding too much, our employees should be able to do these things for themselves’. Working teams from IT and SMEs from the function are brought together to drive the work forward. The project finishes and they have faithfully housed the existing landscape into a digital solution.

What previously took specially trained employees to understand and translate is placed in the hands of every employee in the company. The expectation is for them to simply understand it.

The job hasn’t been a failure. By the time the work has finished employees are usually ‘technically’ capable of completing any given back office task for themselves which was previously completed or supported by another employee.

But these people are not experts. They have their own day job. Often, they don’t understand what they are looking at, have little idea how to complete tasks, and it can take so long that instead of increasing efficiency in your time poor workforce you have decreased it. A tale hidden behind the cost savings made by reducing head count.

The issue  

The problem lies in, one lack of appreciation for what is really going on in a function, two the brief and three the make-up of the teams leading the change.

Business complexity

Business complexity is rarely understood, it is disconnected from many Executives. In any given process there are multiple layers of interpretations and outcomes created to cope with the non-linear requirements placed upon processes. These systems of human decision-making form around business processes and create layers of self-designed complexity within organisations.

The brief

Lacking full appreciation of this, Executives lay down the brief to their teams, ‘take what exists today and enable employees to do it for themselves’. What’s overlooked is the self-designed complexity in the function. They have missed the real value the people in this department are creating for the rest of the organisation.

The team

By joining I.T and subject matter expertise you bring together extensive knowledge of existing processes and systems. But they are inhibited by the brief and their own understanding of the status quo.

Without design thinking they struggle to challenge how the service operates and become lost in the designed-complexities. Their outputs take the existing process and recreate rather than reinvent. As employees struggle with the system the reaction is to increase the replication of the system by adding the human element you’d planned to remove, ‘has anyone thought about chatbots?’. 

The result

Clear cost efficiency has been achieved by a reduction in head count thanks to automation and enforced self-service. However, inadvertently, productivity has been reduced and remote cost centres now exist to support chat functions. A degree of progress resulting in a reshaped problem space. The question of how to truly, effectively, design and deliver the function without the human layer remains unanswered.

Five pointers on designing your back office

1. Understand the real value being created

Complexity develops as humans respond to the requests they receive. You need to spend time understanding the value being created by this complexity. Ask yourself:

If you are fundamentally changing how you expect your organisation to interact with the function, these needs must be at the forefront of how you design the new interaction.

2. Get the brief right

You are not being asked to rehash, you are being asked to reimagine how the service works if the human experts who understand, interpret and humanise a complex business process are removed. You are trying to create an experience that does the heavy lifting a human once did.

3. Assemble the right team

Expertise in the current landscape needs to be complimented with original thinking and customer centric service design. Your team needs to challenge how the function works and its purpose today to reimagine how it will work tomorrow.

4. Mandate change

You need to be willing to change how the function itself works. The single largest blocker in transforming end outcomes is an organisation’s willingness to adapt to how its employees or customers wish to engage with it. Remember: you are not designing a solution to house the existing service - you are designing the service in its entirety.  

5. Trial and measure

Rethinking the status quo comes with risk. Think what signals will demonstrate the success or failure of the new approach to the function and how you can track them. Create your measurement framework and trial with sections of the business while the previous function runs in parallel. Once you are happy you are achieving success, start to scale. 

Why do it properly?

Customer experience is developing at pace. In the fight to keep talent, employee experience demands a seat at the table. Your organisation’s ability to answer their needs in a timely and effective manner is intrinsic to enabling them to be productive.

By designing your employee experience you’ll save cost, time and empower your employees. Then explore how this impacts performance and retention, what works, what doesn’t and iterate based on that information. 

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