What does design thinking offer communicators in a COVID-19 world?

New research shows nine out of ten comms pros are seeking to create a stronger connection with employees as they help the organisation navigate the waves of the COVID-19 crisis. But why does connection matter and how can you create stronger connection during rapid and unpredictable change?

I’m currently co-authoring a book on employee experience design. The book draws on insights and tools from positive psychology and design thinking. My co-author Emma Bridger is the psychologist, I’m exploring design thinking. So, I was interested to see what I could learn from design thinking about connection and how to nurture it.

Clue: It’s about coming up with the right solutions to the right problems. Read Lost and Found to find out how to avoid rowing to the south pole when it’s the right answer but to the wrong question.

What is connection?

I’ve seen human connection described as an energy exchange that passes between people when they’re fully listening to one another. I like that as a starting point. I’m no psychologist and there are more and better definitions, but for me, this description is useful because it makes something intangible, tangible. This is in itself a key premise of design thinking – turning intangible ideas into rapid, small and tangible prototypes to test and learn from. 

This definition of connection also suggests what’s necessary to create connection – investing time in deeply paying attention to another person or other people. This also resonates with another principle of design thinking – empathy. As IDEO founder and Stanford Professor David Kelley says: “The main tenet of design thinking is empathy for the people you’re trying to design for. Leadership is exactly the same thing – building empathy for the people that you’re entrusted to help.” 

Human connection is, of course, more complex than simply what passes between two people in the moment. The need to be part of something, to fit in, to avoid social rejection and loss, to see friends, to support a team, to check social feeds, these all take up an immense amount of our brain time and inspire a wide range of thoughts, actions, and emotions. We also know that when human connection is missing we suffer. For example, when we experience social rejection it’s like physical pain. Connection is essential for wellbeing. 

In the organisational context, connection is also about connecting to something bigger than us – to a community, yes, but also to a purpose. The reason why we, our colleagues and the entire organisation does the things it does. We now know from much research to what a significant extent purpose inspires and motivates people. There is a real need now to connect and reconnect people to purpose. And that starts with organisations visibly and relentlessly delivering on it. 

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is often described in the language of an innovation recipe with steps and ingredients. In reality, design thinking is something different. It is a flexible way of approaching a particular context, identifying a problem worth solving and then responding in multiple and iterative ways.

Design thinking is about tools, not rules. It’s a mindset and a practical toolkit that anyone can use to bring about better outcomes for people. It is a human-centred approach to problem solving with empathy, curiosity and experimentation at its heart. 

Design thinking is about understanding what change is needed – not just delivering change. As such it will prove supremely useful for navigating the COVID comeback. And, more good news, it’s not just good at identifying solutions and making them real, it’s also good for the people practising it. New research by Darden School of Business Professor and serial researcher into the impact of design thinking Jeanne Liedtka shows that design thinking “shapes us as we shape designs”. 

She says: “Our research suggests the reason why we produce those better solutions is the human element. It’s because people are able to reframe problems, to become more engaged, to include input from their users. Not only do we come up with better ideas, we have a higher likelihood of implementing those solutions. So, design thinking becomes a form of change management.”

So, design thinking shifts our mindsets and beliefs as well as our skills. It builds creative confidence, offers psychological safety, and instills in us an openness and willingness to try new things. Sounds pretty helpful right now. 

Three ways to get started with design thinking

  1. Go large on curiosity

Curiosity is paramount to design thinking and fundamental to building connection. In a world of rapid change, where nothing is certain, comms pros need to be listening, learning and responding like never before. If we want to build true connection with employees, we need to know what life is like for them. We need to be constantly asking questions to understand the impact of every action we take. And we need to be continuously tuned in to the world outside our work bubble to be asking what next and what does it mean.

Curiosity brings with it a beginner’s mindset and a certain element of ease that it’s ok not to know. So, curiosity can help us be more resilient because when things are moving this fast, we can’t have all the answers, and curiosity makes that OK. 

2. Flex your empathy muscle

Curiosity goes hand in hand with empathy. If we’re really curious about our people and their experience, we need to step into their shoes to truly understand their changing needs and expectations. 

Empathy is the route to find the real answers to our curiosity questions, challenging preconceived ideas and forcing us to set aside our sense of what we think is true in order to discover what’s really happening for someone else. It’s been talked about repeatedly in the last few weeks – not all of it illuminating – but that doesn’t diminish empathy’s value. Not only is empathy a hugely beneficial state of mind, it’s also a powerful tool when we put it to work.  

We need to go deep with our people (don’t use proxies) to understand the new moments that matter to them. What are the new emotionally charged moments that will have a disproportionate impact on their experience and engagement. For example, what does it feel like to return from furlough? To lose a colleague? To find out you will / won’t be returning to the office? To experience a socially distanced workplace for the first time? And how are the old moments that matter experienced now? How is returning from maternity leave in a COVID-19 world? What does virtual onboarding really feel like? What do we need to know and when about our organisation’s COVID strategy?

3. Experiment to learn your way to success

If curiosity is in the mind and empathy takes us to practical tools and exploration, experimentation is where we start putting it to work. According to Tim Brown, chair of IDEO, godfather of design thinking and author of Change by Design, people who think like a designer have a basic attitude of experimentation: “They are open to new possibilities, alert to new directions and always willing to propose new solutions.”

As the COVID comeback takes us from responding, to adapting and hopefully renewal, we need to be agile, alert, trying new things and constantly learning. 

This is not the time for grand action plans that fall down as soon as they meet the real world. It’s time for agility – for listening to, creating with and learning from our employees. 

Connection will be the stronger for it. 


Mike Klein: A nicely written piece. What’s missing for me is incorporation, or at least an acknowledgement of the active constraints. The current situation will speak to numerous constraints – budget levels, staffing levels, customer, social, political tolerance thresholds. There will be few genuinely white sheets of paper in this environment. That is not to say all constraints must be accepted as given, but if they are to be overcome they need to be accounted for.

Belinda: Thanks for your comment. What you flag is actually one of the key features of design thinking (but as you rightly say, not mentioned above). Design thinking looks for solutions within three constraints. It’s usually expressed as a venn diagram: What is commercially viable, desirable for people and technically feasible. In our employee experience work, we suggest three related but slightly different factors: organisational context (commercial reality, purpose, values, mission etc); the requirements of the work (including where and how it gets done); and people’s needs and expectations. Being clear on these sometimes, competing demands or constraints and constantly seeking to understand and define them is critical. So, as you say, no comms team (or anyone else) is designing in a vacuum.

Janet Hitchen: I like this Belinda. It resonates very strongly with me having worked for a long time in an industry and company who actively embraced Design Thinking methodology to support its fast changing, creative way of working. 

The best and most visual example I heard was of the MRI scanner that was redesigned for children using design thinking. The designers transformed the large, ominous and frankly scary grey machine in a white clinical room into a submarine in the ocean. I find this so inspirational, it gives me goosebumps.

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I agree DT will be an essential tool for Communicators going forward. It also doesn’t have to cost money and, as we hear that budgets are being revised and strategies reviewed, tapping into your people’s ideas is a free resource that will also generate loads of ideas, opportunities and potential solutions is a no brainer. 

I have been speaking about listening and leaning in to collaboratively creating solutions for a while now and DT is one of the best tools to support this way of working, it’s also a lot of fun. 

Belinda: Thanks Janet. That is a beautiful example. And it really flags what’s great about design thinking – it creates solutions that are so human, it’s hard to believe we’ve not thought about them before. 

On the budget front, I agree. Taking this approach can also save you money. It stops you spending on things that really have no impact on people’s experience and engagement. 

Adam Fuss: This is great, Belinda! I think to sell organizations – and IC professionals for that matter – on the value of design thinking as it relates to the employee experience, a more direct acknowledgement of how it works with and within given constraints will be crucial. In other words, exactly what you and Mike discuss above! 

Additionally, you use the word “agile” toward the end. What struck me as I was reading your piece is how similar the process sounds to agile software development. That approach is widely seen as an effective way to get to workable results more quickly and efficiently, as well as to adapt to changing circumstances, so I think at least a surface-level comparison with agile development would help make the case for design thinking in EX. Well done!

Belinda: Thanks Adam. You’re 100% right on agile. There are a lot of agile transformations going on in organisations right now. And this has implications for how an organisation approaches EX design. There are many overlapping principles between EX design and agile – not least the focus on the end user, on experimentation, rapid prototyping, and making incremental improvements. Both also rely on collaborative, cross-functional teams. 

Developing EX design capability is often easier where agile is already established – the two often go together. On the other hand, agile transformations that are incomplete or implemented ineffectively may have a detrimental impact on employee experience and the organisation’s ability to design EX. 

Kevin Ruck: There’s lots to like about design thinking and employee experience. Such as positive psychology in the workplace, empathy with employees and really understanding what matters. I see many crossovers with the research on listening that I’m currently doing with Mike Pounsford and Howard Krais which highlights psychological safety – both for senior managers and employees – as a key issue. The challenge here is that adopting design thinking is going to require a significant shift in mindsets and organisational culture. 

Internal communication managers have a key role to play here in extending the boundaries for current practice beyond SOS (send out stuff) to broader remits that have demonstrable associations with benefits for the organisation and for all employees.

Belinda: Looking forward to seeing that research Kevin. You’re right, the cultural context of the organisation is key to how possible it is to establish this as a mindset and way of working. That said, it’s amazing what progress can be made even in the most unexpected of places. Start small, don’t scare the horses and be careful of your language, are all good tips to moving on this when the culture seems anything but design rich or human centred.

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