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Use social design to help your distributed team self-organize

For your organization to reach its new normal, you’ll need to take a human-centric, bottom-up approach.

The corner office. The water cooler. The cubicle farm. So many of our place-based work clichés feel suddenly anachronistic in a world of remote work and Zoom fatigue. Many people will be happy never to return to the office, and some organizations will be OK with that. And as we navigate toward the new normal, it isn’t just where we work that will change — how people work together will evolve, too.

We’ve also redefined what it means to be an essential worker. Clerks, technicians, health aides, and others once dismissed as a low-skill, high-turnover segment of the workforce have now been recognized as being just as worthy of esteem, gratitude, and, in some cases, hazard pay, as doctors, nurses, and first responders. The bottom line is that employees at all levels of an organization matter.

Together, these two developments suggest we need to realign our organizations to make them more human-centric, responsive, and resilient. In my experience, reorganizations are typically top-down affairs. For those on the front lines, a restructuring can feel more like something done to them than with them. Managers might overlook the experience and insights of those expected to innovate, collaborate, and satisfy customers within the new structure. And there is often an explicit or implicit power dynamic that distorts functional considerations as executives jostle for control of prominence and resources.

An alternative to the top-down approach is to let function drive form, supporting those most directly connected to creating value for customers. Think of it as bottom-up or outside-in. One discipline useful in such efforts is social design, a subspecialty of design that aspires to solve complex human issues by supporting, facilitating, and empowering cultures and communities. Its practitioners design systems, not simply beautiful things. I spoke with one of the pioneers in this area, Cheryl Heller, author of The Intergalactic Design Guide: Harnessing the Creative Potential of Social Design. Her current work at Arizona State University centers on integrating design thinking and practice into functions that don't typically utilize design principles.

“People’s work is often their only source of stability right now,” she told me. “You have to be careful, because people are brittle.” Beware the fear-inducing “burning platform” metaphor frequently used in change management (the idea being, essentially, that people must be forced to overcome resistance to change). Heller explained that people using traditional business thinking are often in a hurry to “get to outcomes” and that haste is counterproductive when dealing with human relationships because it can lead to disengagement and ultimately failure.

Haste is counterproductive when dealing with human relationships because it can lead to disengagement and ultimately failure.

“You can’t confront what you don’t know, and the old tools of knowing won’t reveal it,” Heller said. Social designers employ empathy and inquiry to explore the system and the people at a deeper level. “Design teaches people how to handle uncertainty,” she said. “It builds confidence in your resourcefulness to solve problems.”

Because working from home has become standard operating procedure, I also spoke with John O’Duinn, an authority on managing distributed teams whose experience long predates the pandemic. He noted that big transitions are challenging to those who manage by “counting butts in seats” — an approach that doesn’t work well for physically distributed teams. Those managers might not even feel a need to change, thinking that all is well. However, my informal survey of contacts confirmed other research showing that people are now working too much, not too little. One of my contacts quipped, “You can’t suggest taking something offline, because we’re always online.” Another suggested eliminating out-of-office messages because “no one takes days off anymore.” You might be tempted to believe your organization has successfully survived the transition to at-home work. In reality, you might be unaware that your team’s cohesion and trust are rapidly deteriorating, and individuals’ feelings of burnout and isolation are approaching a tipping point.

Heller and O’Duinn separately suggested to me a few concrete steps you can take to incorporate social design into your restructuring.

Begin by articulating the intention of your reorganization. What is the impetus for change? What are the opportunities and challenges? This “performative utterance,”as Heller called it, commits the organization and sets up the conditions of change. Heller told me that once executives make that pledge, it becomes a blueprint. It guides their other choices and helps them set priorities.

Engage with “citizen experts.” Ask those who do various jobs for you what would best help them deliver on your organization’s intention. Who knows more about what works and doesn’t in your call center, for example, than those who staff it? To facilitate this sort of listening, PepsiCo rolled out an internal crowdsourcing “process shredder” though which employees can identify one thing that gets in their way. The company has received more than 260,000 responses. That level of response indicates that PepsiCo’s people don’t fear change — they’re eager for it.

Look for your emerging informal leaders. “Audit the internal landscape to see what capabilities are evolving,” Heller said. Finding the people in your workforce who have certain leadership abilities but don’t necessarily have formal title can give you a window into hidden potential in the organization. Your informal leaders might be adept at modeling beneficial behaviors, be good at making connections across your network, or be skilled at building pride in your organization through day-to-day activities.

Design processes to meet the needs of workers and supervisors. The importance of delegating authority and building trust with employees has been talked about for years — the “results-only work environment” strategy and “management by objectives” model, both of which focus solely on outcomes, are just two well-documented examples. Yet, lack of trust in employees is one of the main reasons leaders use “butts in seats” as a metric for work. This approach is simply no longer possible when a workforce is physically distributed. O’Duinn told me he recommended to a client eliminating as many status update meetings as possible — most are inefficient Band-Aids for legacy organizational communication gaps and are a root cause of Zoom fatigue. Instead, he told me teams should reserve the high-value, high-bandwidth time together for productive, interactive work that reinforces team cohesion.

He also noted that remote work can help companies achieve elusive diversity goals. “When you meet workers where they are, you can tap into a more diverse talent pool of people who weren’t able to commute to your physical building for whatever reason,” he said. That might require shifting some real estate expenses into enhanced technological support and training, so prepare the organization for flexibility in budget allocations.

Be ready to occasionally convene dispersed teams physically when conditions allow. Face-to-face interactions are essential to building trust and collaboration, O’Duinn said. Among the costs of no longer spending most of your working day with colleagues is an emotionally disruptive loss of social structure — especially acute during a time of high stress. When in-person meetings are possible again, he recommends holding quarterly gatherings that mix work and socializing to facilitate relationship-building. Until then, intentionally focus on creating recurring times for people to socially reconnect with coworkers.

Ultimately, no matter how brilliantly planned, any organizational change is more likely to succeed if it has the enthusiastic support of those who must carry it out. Taking them on the journey, doing it with them, is essential for avoiding the eye-rolling and indifference that can derail the best-intentioned efforts. Heller and O’Duinn, coming from different perspectives, illuminate similar wisdom: Rather than planning an organization and then populating it with people, start with the people and then help them design a system in which everyone can thrive.

Eric McNulty

Eric J. McNulty is the associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. He is the coauthor of You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most (PublicAffairs, 2019). He writes frequently about leadership, change, and organizational culture.

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