Dart Lindsley leads Global Process Excellence for People Operations at Google and hosts a podcast entitled Work For Humans. Prior to joining Google, he led the Human Resources Transformation Planning and Analysis organization for Cisco Systems where he founded the HR business architecture service, and later the employee experience design function. While applying these two very different disciplines to solve business challenges related to talent, Lindsley and his team came to an important insight: employees are more than inputs to production as usually framed, they are customers; the experience of work is therefore a product companies sell. Ever since, Lindsley has been using tools from marketing and product design to delve into what people really want from work (spoiler alert – it’s not what you think), and ways in which companies can build and deliver an extraordinary work-experience product. He recently spoke to The Innovator about what changes when a business accepts that employees are customers.
Q: How did you come up with this notion of thinking of employees as customers?
DL: When I was put in charge of business architecture and at Cisco, it forced my team and I to step out of the normal paradigm. Business architecture is an operations discipline, not human resources, so it looks at the world differently. When my team and I did that, we started to see that employees have a unexpected relationship with a company: they have a role as a customer. Why? Because the definition of a customer is someone who exchanges value with your company and is free not to. The idea of free will is so important here. Like customers, if employees are not satisfied, they will take their value someplace else. So the business model changes. All businesses are therefore multi-sided platforms: Employees are on one side and traditional customers on the other. Both sides need to be satisfied for a multi-sided business to work. This is very different from the traditional way of thinking about labor. The traditional approach frames employees as an input to production like raw materials, capital equipment or real estate. That’s the mistake. Once purchased, these other inputs don’t get to choose whether to give you their value. The other inputs don’t have free will. Employees on the other hand do. And because companies think of employees as inputs, they have traditionally used only a few levers to engage with them: pay them more or buy less of them, i.e. grant them more holidays or flex time and then companies think they are done but they are not done at all.
Q: Please elaborate
DL: Companies need to think about what they are selling to employees. The answer is, you are selling work as a product and if it is a product, then you can use product design tools to make it better. But where do companies start in designing a better product and how do they figure out what it is that employees really want? [Harvard Business School Professor and author] Clayton Christensen used to ask people “what do you hire a product to do for you?” By getting at the underlying purpose of a product, you can design it better. When you ask the same question about work, you find that employees want something a lot more complex than just more pay or less work.
Q: How can companies do that?
DL: First, a company needs to deeply believe that employees are customers. They need to believe it in their bones because it’s a big commitment that requires a transformation in how the company operates. The first thing is that human resources – or some other function – needs to establish an organization dedicated to the design and delivery of the work experience product. This organization needs to have enough authority and enough budget to deliver that product. And it needs to have the skills of a product design and development team. In most companies, the human resources department is a cost center that is internally facing. Its skills are about how to acquire and maintain a productive workforce. It needs instead to become a line of business on par with every other P&L owner. .This requires not just having a radically different organizational structure; it requires a radically different culture. Today, managers are torn. They are told to squeeze as much work as possible from people but to also make sure employees are not unhappy. So, they are stuck in the untenable position of trying to meet the demands of the business and the demands of the workforce without any tools to do so. They need to instead be thinking about what people want from their work and how to deliver that product to them, taking into account constraints of the business. This places them in a customer-facing role; then the tug of war that has been the center of their entire career suddenly makes sense. Their role is now one of a broker with two customers, the clients who traditionally buy the company’s products or services and their employees. To keep the employees happy, managers need to understand the type of work their employees want to do and then communicate that to the rest of the organization.
Q: What sort of process needs to be put in place to make that happen?
DL: Companies need to establish a work experience design team and deeply root their activity in customer research and how they are going to get this to market in a way that people want to consume it. Employee work is a product like no other. Sometimes work acts like a product, other times as a service and sometimes it acts more like a relationship.
If you are a large corporation, you will have different work-experience product lines for employees so that there is a range of kinds of work people can buy. How can companies scale to deliver diversity? The job of each manager becomes understanding what an employee wants and working in collaboration to get that kind of work for them. There are fewer constraints than we might think-to making this work. When a manager embraces this as their job it makes a difference.
Q: Do you think that many companies will start treating their employees as customers?
DL: What I am proposing is a business model disruption and, like with all disruptions, the bigger companies are going to have a hard time adjusting. Even big Silicon Valley companies who have really worked on adding perks such as paying for your food or dry cleaning are still in the category of buying people and not focusing on how to get extraordinary work from their employees. A lot of people before me have made recommendations about how to treat employees differently and very few of these pitch messages have landed so we’ll see how this resonates. What is important is for companies to realize that this is a business model transformation . You can’t succeed using your traditional organizational model and you can’t implement this with a small tiger team. Kindling a flame requires two inputs – fuel and oxygen – and if either one of these doesn’t work you can’t make a fire. Similarly, companies need to realize that they are multi-sided and if they don’t keep both their employees and their customers happy, they won’t ignite.
The opinions expressed in this interview are those of Dart Lindsley, not of Google or Cisco Systems.