How HR Can Use Work Environment Redesign to Cultivate Worker Passion and Solve Business Challenges

DU Press

Posted by Tamara Samoylova and Matt Frost on October 1, 2013

How long does it take your team to recruit and hire a worker with the perfect skillset to fit your job description? The average lifespan of skills is rapidly diminishing with many skills obsolete within five years.1

Let’s face it—business leaders are under pressure from both workers and consumers. Off-the-shelf, short-term solutions like cost cutting provide decreasing returns over the long term—and yesterday’s goals of scalable efficiency and sustainable competitive advantage are no longer enough. We need new solutions across all areas of the business—including how we attract, hire, and develop talent.

HR business partners—with a combination of strong business understanding and cross-functional, trust-based relationships—may be uniquely positioned to lead efforts to help workers, teams, and organizations thrive in the new world of the Big Shift.

In our recent paper, Unlocking the passion of the Explorer, we examine how sustained extreme performance improvement can result from something deeper than employee engagement—worker passion. According to a recent Deloitte survey of the US workforce, only 11% of respondents have the following three attributes that characterize worker passion, although 56% have at least one:

  1. Commitment to Domain—the desire to have a lasting and increasing impact on a particular industry or function
  2. The Questing disposition—the tendency to actively seek out challenges to rapidly improve performance
  3. The Connecting disposition—the tendency to build strong trust-based relationships to gain new insight through multiple deep interactions with others (both inside and outside the organization)

Worker passion exists in your organization. Maybe it’s the Sales Executive who used a new technology platform to better connect Sales, Engineering, and customer groups to dramatically improve customer satisfaction scores. Maybe it’s the Marketing Manager who participates in a community of practice to learn new approaches to quantify the ROI of social media campaigns.

Unfortunately, because many of our institutional practices have failed to evolve, worker passion can be visible in deleterious ways. Maybe it’s the Finance Analyst who challenged the 10-year-old forecasting process one too many times, resulting in a negative year-end performance review. Mr. Finance Analyst spoke with his feet—and moved to an organization and team that embraces his opinion as an opportunity to learn, develop, and improve for the long term.

Many organizations are designed to maximize predictability and minimize variances within tightly integrated processes. These work environments may squelch, rather than foster, the need for new challenges and interactions characteristic of the Questing and Connecting dispositions.

In an earlier paper released this year, we studied how redesigning the work environment can accelerate talent development and performance improvement. The same design principles can be applied as you search for ways to cultivate the dispositions of worker passion.

Our research suggests the following three goals and nine design principles as you redesign your physical space, virtual interactions, and management systems can help nurture worker passion and address business issues:

Goal # 1: Define high-impact challenges—by identifying those opportunities for greatest learning, improvement, and business impact

  • Identify challenges with the highest potential for meaningful results
  • Provide incentives for rapid experimentation and low-risk prototyping—succeed or fail quickly at a lower cost
  • Build-in time for transparent, instantaneous performance feedback and reflection

Goal #2: Strengthen high-impact connections—by enabling workers to connect with people inside and outside the organization

  • Form, dissolve, and re-form teams with specific capabilities to tackle unique challenges
  • Help workers find others with relevant expertise
  • Design to consciously shape chance encounters

Goal # 3: Amplify impact—by building the right infrastructure to scale smaller efforts across the organization

  • Create an adaptable, agile space—to be altered as new needs arise
  • Use technology to capture, organize, and share the outputs of worker interactions
  • Develop an overall sense of belonging and ownership through trust-building behaviors and programs

Redesigning the complete organizational work environment is daunting—so start small. Identify a pressing business problem relevant to a function you support—where does Sales, for example, constantly struggle to improve a key operating metric?

  1. Select your focus area—if the core is too resistant, find an edge
  2. Crowdsource hypotheses—engage all levels of the team
  3. Test hypotheses—use prototypes that require minimal budget
  4. Measure results and iterate—how did your experiment impact metrics that matter?
  5. Scale successes—share with other teams and areas of the organization

By following this approach to work environment redesign, you can help your organization solve an immediate challenge, while also sustaining performance improvement over the long term. Fellow HR and business partners may look to you to share lessons learned and replicate this framework to help them solve their own unique challenges.

You, as an HR partner, have an incredible opportunity ahead—organizations need your help. Put on your work environment designer hat and get started, and please share your stories along the way:

  • What’s a high-impact challenge for your team?
  • Which components of your work environment inhibit performance improvement? Physical space? Virtual platforms and interactions? Management systems and expectations?
  • Which design principles resonate as you seek to improve?


Tamara Samoylova As head of research for Deloitte Center for the Edge, Tamara leads the Center’s research agenda and manages rotating teams of Edge Fellows. Prior to joining the Center, Tama ra served as a senior manager in Deloitte Consulting’s Growth and Innovation practice, helping mature companies find new areas of growth by better understanding unmet customer needs, industry dynamics, and competitive moves.
Matt Frost Matt is a consultant who works with clients to align HR and strategies and initiatives with overall business priorities. The majority of Matt’s clients are leaders within HR, Talent, and Recruiting functions. At the Center for the Edge, Matt’s research focuses on how institutions can accelerate performance improvement in the 21st century, by redesigning work environments to amplify worker passion.

One thought on “How HR Can Use Work Environment Redesign to Cultivate Worker Passion and Solve Business Challenges

  1. I witnessed these types of positive steps nearly 2 decades ago when I worked in a manufacturing environment that embraced Juran and Deming quality initiatives. Measurable, actionable, 80/20 Rule (AKA, Pareto Principal) obstacles were addressed and overcome. As long as management is sincerely devoted to the success of these strategies, teams and ultimately, organizations, will score a win.

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