Why Your Employee Experience Needs Ethical Design

Digital transformation is changing how people inside large enterprise organizations work, learn, collaborate, and develop. At the same time, many businesses are pursuing flatter organizational models and pay-for-performance policies that place individual contributions, not hierarchical structures, at the center.

Among the advantages of these new workplace structures is the attraction that self-determined, self-driven participation and development hold for top talent. But to deliver on this progressive new employee value proposition (EVP), companies need to ensure that their digital employee experiences reflect the same values of transparency, trust, and open innovation that their cultural narratives do.

People want to have autonomy over how they work and collaborate, how they develop in their careers, and how they engage as citizens of the organization. But it’s not enough to tell employees that they are free to challenge the status quo and innovate, or that they “own their careers,” or that they should grow their personal networks both within and outside the business. They need technologies, opportunity contexts, and culture to normalize these behaviors and empower individuals to follow through on them in their work every day.

Large enterprises undergoing digital transformation understand the necessity of investing in digital employee experience platforms to equip and empower people in new ways of working. But the sea change these investments are invoking raises ethical questions for employers, with their implications and challenges for the most part underconsidered and underimagined. Companies sometimes undercut the very cultural values they are trying to promote by creating digital experiences that people perceive as untrustworthy, unproductive, or disrespectful.

Read on to learn what employers need to know about ethical design inside the enterprise – what it means, what’s at stake, and how to fuel innovation and productivity through employee experiences that realize the employee value proposition for every individual.

Ethical design – and why employers should pay attention

Gerd Leonard’s five new human rights for the Digital Age define a core set of human rights to guide the ethics of human-machine relationships. While the application of human rights in the consumer space has been widely discussed – perhaps most notably by Tristan Harris and The Center for Human Technology – their implications for employees at their jobs have received little attention.

Gerd Leonhard’s human rights for the digital age are:

  • The right to remain natural, i.e., ‘merely’ biological and organic
  • The right to be inefficient if, when, and where it defines our basic humanness
  • The right to disconnect
  • The right to be or remain anonymous
  • The right to employ or engage people instead of machines.

What’s at Stake?

For Individuals

  • Time and attention
  • Bodily autonomy
  • Earning power
  • Assumptions about transparency and objectivity
  • Happiness and emotional well-being
  • How we become aware of options and make choices
  • Our ability to recognize bias

For Communities

  • Learning behaviors
  • Social networks
  • Social norms
  • Cultural narratives
  • Political outcomes
  • Socioeconomic stratification
  • Stewardship of natural resources

So what does this mean for workers inside the enterprise, and how should employers respond? The implications are broad. They touch front-line workers partnering with robots on an assembly line, executives staying connected in off-hours using their personal cellphones, sales representatives keeping informed about the latest product offerings, truckers using advanced analytics to balance their loads – and everyone in between.

How employees experience design ethics

People using digital technologies at work confront similar challenges to those in their consumer lives: they want to protect their attention, privacy, and data, and to make decisions in their own best interests. But they also face unique challenges in the technologies they use in their jobs. How can they partner with machines in ways that improve their well-being and support their development towards new challenges? How do they balance work and life? Perhaps most crucially, how do they stay relevant inside the enterprise and how do they imagine (and prepare for) their role and purpose in the organization of the future?

For organizations, the discussion goes directly to the relationship they have with their employees and how ready they are to adopt and participate in new work. Employees who feel equipped and empowered to embrace change will do so more readily; employees who feel valued and respected by their employers will be more likely to weather disruption. Most importantly, people need to feel like their digital experiences are predictable and transparent. If employees don’t understand if and how their participation on digital channels is monitored, assessed, or leveraged by the business, they will be far less likely to engage. Experience design that is perceived as being unethical impacts not only people’s performance and satisfaction, but also business outcomes and the organization’s capability to recruit and retain talent. How employees adopt workplace technologies – or fail to do so – can make or break the organization’s cultural narrative and ultimately impact how it competes in the marketplace.

Design principles inside the enterprise

In each of the following scenarios and the organizational and work design they imply, we see design ethics in action. Consider how common contexts inside the enterprise can benefit from digital experiences that realize the EVP in people’s everyday tasks – and how perceived breaches of trust can jeopardize productivity and employee buy-in to mission-critical values.

Solutions should protect that which is uniquely human (e.g., creativity, emotions, imperfections, defined set of work hours) over efficiencies that can be realized through unchecked automation.
Technological augmentation either on or inside the body should not be required as part of the process of doing work unless absolutely necessary – and in those questions, it should be clear why it is necessary. The experience should make it easy to access and control the augmentation, including any data collection taking place.
When possible, people preferences for how to interact with a digital experience should be factored and accommodated. The experience should establish clear expectations about its intended use, desired outcomes, and where people can go for support.
The experience should provide an intuitive onboarding and offboarding experience. It should be easy to leave the experience and unplug, and users should know if monitoring or data retention is taking place.
People should be able to participate and work anonymously whenever reasonable. If there is good reason for a lack of anonymity, the experience should be transparent about the level the exposure the worker has, the data that is being collected, the reason for the monitoring, and how the data is being assessed.

Bottom line: design ethics impact your business performance.

The race for top talent is heating up as knowledge, adaptability, and creativity become increasingly valuable in our exponentially developing technological landscape. Businesses’ ability to realize their EVP and inspire and retain their people is a critical factor of business success. To keep employees engaged, trust and transparency are crucial counterbalances to efficiency and automation.

For all these reasons, businesses that race to transform their organizations through new digital capabilities must be equally committed to ensuring the ethical integrity of the experiences they create. Good digital experiences can exponentially improve the business impact of technology, culture, and talent investments at every level of the business.