Why Field Research Matters for the Digital Workplace Today
For 20 years I’ve been a strong advocate for conducting holistic and meaningful research into employee needs, as the basis for both strategy and design decisions. But with the pendulum swung back to products and features — due in no small part to the frantic evolution of Microsoft 365 — it’s easy to forget that solutions only work well when they work for employees.
The industry also has a newfound focus on delivering a great digital employee experience, with a healthy level of ambition that we’ve been waiting decades for. But what should that experience be, and how should it be different for each cohort of the workforce?
Research within organizations can come in many forms and goes by many names. For me, “user research” is typically equated with usability and UX (valid, but too narrow) and “requirements gathering” is too often just a BA exercise that focuses on features.
For many years I’ve used the term “needs analysis” as it speaks to understanding the true needs of employees. These days I’ll settle on “field research” as a more commonly used term that emphasizes that it’s not just about speaking to stakeholders in the head office.
With nomenclature out of the way, it’s worth revisiting some of the fundamentals of good field research.
Don’t Ask Employees What They Want From Workforce Technology
A common trap to fall into is to ask staff what they need. This involves asking questions such as:
- What are the problems with the current <solution>?
- What features are missing from the <solution>?
- What additional information do you need?
- How else could the <solution> help you with your job?
The key problem with these questions is they require staff to understand workforce technology solutions and how they can support day-to-day work in an organization. In general, however, staff have little understanding of intranet technologies or approaches. Instead, they have in-depth knowledge relating to their role and activities.
Asking these questions therefore generates one of two possible responses:
- “I’m not sure. Can you give me some examples of how a <solution> could help me?”
- “I think it would be great if the <solution> provided feature xyz!”
In the first case, staff are unable to provide meaningful input into design or strategy. In the second, a ‘wish list’ of features and tools is collected, but without ensuring that these ideas will actually be useful (or used) in practice.
Related Article: What Employees Always Want From Their Intranet
Use a Range of Research Techniques
A wide range of field research techniques can be used, including:
- Surveys, either focusing specifically on the project at hand, or via questions added to other routine surveys.
- Focus groups that bring together employees to discuss common activities, needs and challenges.
- One-on-one interviews that dive into daily work practices and practical needs.
- Workplace observation, where time is spent in the working environment, such as a factory or call center, to see how work is done.
The key here is to use the right mix of approaches to get the information required. The first two methods — surveys and focus groups — are more widely used but give shallower insights. They also tend to surface opinions rather than practical details.
The second two methods — interviews and observation — are by far the most powerful ways of gaining a depth and breadth of understanding that can drive decisions on everything from intranet redesigns to digital employee experience strategy.
Related Article: Best Practices for Employee Surveys
Use Good Interview Techniques
Conducting field research involves using some fundamental practices and behaviors.
The first is to be friendly. Put participants at ease as quickly as possible. This is particularly important for employees who are unused to being interviewed. Listen rather than talk. Staff interviews aren’t a two-way conversation, and the interviewer should avoid talking whenever possible.
Do prepare some questions in advance. This will help ensure you don't miss any major topics — but don’t use the questions as a rigid checklist. Instead, take a semi-structured interview approach, exploring topics as they come up, and then switching to other topics when you've gathered enough information.
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Go into sessions with a genuine level of curiosity about people’s jobs and issues, and participants will naturally pick this up. Encourage participants to talk by using the typical non-specific feedback heard in day-to-day conversations (‘mmm’, ‘yes’, ‘really?’, ‘interesting!’). Use open body language. Set up the seating arrangements to avoid the impression of a formal interview (or interrogation), and take a relaxed posture throughout the session.
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Conduct Research With the Whole Workforce
Workplaces have dramatically changed over the years. We can no longer assume that the audiences we are designing for are in the same building or even employed by the same company. Regardless of the industry, the makeup of the workforce may include several audiences with very different work styles and environments. To design truly effective solutions, consider all audiences.
Many workplaces are now made up of:
- Permanent and casual contractors: Could be office or field staff generally with a specific skill or trade eg project managers, BA’s, electricians, plumbers etc. Members of this group may have been contracting for the same company for an extended period.
- Employees of contracted companies: This is common in outsourcing arrangements, e.g. the IT or HR help desks are outsourced to a company who contract employees. They often need access to information to support the workforce.
- Temporary or contingent workers: Often used to fill an immediate need, such as for projects.
- Partners: There’s an increasingly blurry line between organization’s and their partners, particularly when there are long-term commercial relationships in place.
- Franchisees: Sharing the organizations business model, different franchisees often have access to core information as well as their own specific needs.
We need to provide the information and services that these workers need to get their job done. Start by getting a list of all employees (or groups) from HR and then work with the business to identify who isn’t on that list. Then conduct research as you would for any employee, and use the results to shape strategic decisions.
Related Article: A Strategic Framework for Digital Employee Experience
Once you've completed the research, it's time to distill the wealth of information into key findings and recommended actions. In general terms, the process involves examining the observations and discussions across all staff involved, looking for patterns.
For example, if all staff comment that their main source of news is via gossip or word-of-mouth, this clearly indicates an issue with the internal distribution of corporate news.
When analyzing the results of the research, the intranet team is looking to identify:
- Main information sources and key information needs.
- Major issues or problems impacting employees’ ability to do their jobs.
- Cultural or organizational issues impeding the success of the digital workplace.
- Key business processes requiring information support.
- Opportunities for improving information management or delivery.
- Frustrating business tasks or processes.
Based on these findings, the intranet team can make a range of strategic (longer-term) and tactical (shorter-term) recommendations. In most cases, the solutions are obvious, once the problem has been clearly identified.
Hand-on-heart, I can honestly say that conducting field research is the most enjoyable and interesting part of my work over the last two decades. So take this opportunity to dive into the needs of your workforce, and you’ll be both informed and inspired by what you’ll find. Then use those insights in every activity you conduct, and every decision you make.
About the Author
James Robertson is the originator of the global movement towards digital employee experience (DEX). Twenty years in this space, he’s one of the leading thinkers on intranets and digital workplaces. He’s the author of the books “Essential Intranets: Inspiring Sites that Deliver Business Value” and “Designing Intranets: Creating Sites that Work.”