Designing the Worker Back Into Service Work (2016)

New York City has a huge concentration of service workers.

Union Square is a park in New York City. It’s a phenomenally busy park, situated at the corner of Broadway and 14th. Looking at the business data layer of Google Maps, I was able to identify about 25 big name service-dependent businesses that directly border the Square.

Let’s do some quick math. Let’s say that each business on average employs ten folks who are involved in the day-to-day operations of that outlet, whether they’re customer facing or working behind the counter in some way; this is a pretty conservative estimate (the Whole Foods alone probably employs several times that in various shifts). Collectively, the businesses at street level employ about two hundred and fifty service workers, or a thousand if we count the other three sides of each block. If you add in the people working in service roles of various kinds in the towers found in these blocks, that number increases, maybe by a factor of two or three. If you count taxi drivers, Uber drivers, bus drivers, bike couriers, and paramedics, despite their transient natures, this number gets even higher. This is all in an area that’s less than a square mile.

These are the people who serve you coffee, bag your groceries, adjust your insurance plan, and grab you the size ten Air Jordans you asked for. They take your calls, schedule your appointments, hand you your money. It’s hard to say exactly how many people in New York City work as service workers, per se, because labour statistics don’t typically get chopped that way. What you can say pretty definitively is that private sector jobs are growing in areas that are pretty often service-oriented: educational and health services (+34,200), leisure and hospitality (+16,700), professional and business services (+15,200), other services (+9,700), trade, transportation, and utilities (+8,200), and financial activities (+6,500).

The 2015 Service Design Network Global Conference was held at Parsons School of Design at the New School. It is a short walk from Union Square to the campus, which is clustered around 5th Avenue and 13th.

At the conference, there were bureaucrats and brand managers, service designers and design researchers, technologists and academics, the embodiment of a zeitgeist focused on disrupting and streamlining the service economy. This was a room setting its collective mind to changing the world through the design of services, and in fact, they might pull it off.

Zero-hours contract: companies are increasingly hiring individuals with no promise of giving them actual work. While this might not surprise us when it comes to low-skill service workers, increasingly these contracts are used in higher-skill professions, like university teaching.

The absence of these voices, here at the beating heart of the discipline, is deafening.

What do we lose when these voices are absent, in our professional discourses and in our projects? It seems like there might be a cascade effect, from our largest social structures down to the design of the touchpoints and service interactions so central to our work.

First, there’s a business case to be made. At the touchpoint level, the level of individual interactions with the system, there’s a risk that we can build service experiences that are great for customers, but corrosive for workers. Here’s an example from a project Bridgeable worked on recently for a company with a large customer service department that was trying to encourage online chat. We learned from customers that they needed a more personalized chat experience in order to know they weren’t talking to a robot; one obvious solution was to introduce video chat. Had we not talked directly with customer service reps, however, we might not have learned that this introduced new kinds of professional risk for them, particularly for female reps who worry about harassment when customers can see their real faces.

This percolates up to the organizational level. We’re living in an era with unprecedented automation, where service is increasingly self-driven or computer- assisted; it’s easy to view employees as replaceable. But they continue to be crucial, the human face for your organization (or the human brain behind the scenes, in some cases), and a service that isn’t designed with their needs, desires, and values in mind will burn them up like firewood. It’s hard to build a culture of people that customers want to interact with when those people are leaving.

Independent contractor: Uber is famous for describing its drivers as ‘independent contractors’ rather than as employees. This distances Uber from some of the risk that the drivers take on related to equipment and lawsuits, while still allowing them to enjoy full profits.

This isn’t a lost cause

There are things we can do to make workers our valued partners in creating new kinds of work. In fact, I’d venture that some of the tools of service design position it advantageously to drive towards a future state where this is the case. What might this future state look like?

First, there are two things we can implement in our practice right now. Foundationally, we need to expand our vocabulary and our value set. ‘Customer centricity’ is a watchword for designers of all stripes, growing under the umbrella of human-centred design. There’s a risk, though, that customer centricity can come to eclipse many of the other stakeholders for whom we design. Growing a vibrant set of practical values related to employee experience is crucial, as well. It’s something we live and breathe at Bridgeable (it’s arguably the most important value as our company grows), but we’ve seen it pay dividends in projects too: in a project working with a non-profit, we found that engaging the frontline workers as core stakeholders enabled us to develop solutions that not only worked well for them in a mechanical sense, but which also gave them a greater sense of agency and ownership over their work.

Building from this shift in values, we need to leverage the tools of our work to more effectively engage workers. At the Service Design Global Conference, co-creation and co-design were consistent elements of many of the case studies and professional practices on display. Often, the practitioners sharing these stories talked about co-creating with client stakeholders at the management level, or with customers. These are useful advances towards the kind of shared value creation that service design is capable of delivering.

Surprisingly absent, however, was the engagement of frontline delivery staff in co-creation. In the earlier example from the telecom industry, we enabled frontline workers to directly influence the design of their own work by engaging them as equal stakeholders in co-creation, learning from their intimate knowledge of customer behaviour and designing towards solutions that worked great for them and for upper management.

Beyond these instrumental changes, imagine a future where the definition of who can be a client or project partner broadens to include organized labour. Service designers are experts at creating complete, complex, and compelling visions for the future of work. Often, these visions take a technologically-deterministic slant, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Indeed, the need for human ability, emotion, and capacity for empathy is becoming greater than ever. The union in the 21st century needs these kinds of visions to make their case for the recognition of human value. Bringing constructive approaches to creating shared value might bolster their position at the bargaining table, and the conscientious redesign of both the professions they represent and the services they offer might help these organizations reverse the trend of declining membership.

Precarity: a work situation that doesn’t provide the typical security or benefits that we expect from work. Often, individuals can find themselves in a chronically precarious state. Around 40% of workers are in precarious situations in the Greater Toronto Area (where Bridgeable is located).

In his discussion at SDGC15 of design as a transformative tool for organizations and, more broadly, economies, Christian Bason talked about how, in his experience, the redesign of an organization or service often left about 10% of current employees in the dust. This is not because of uncovered ‘efficiencies’, but because these individuals simply couldn’t cope with the change. These people departed, moved to other parts of the organization, or were in some other way marginalized.

This was presented by Bason as the cost of doing business. It should not be read as anything but a failure of design and communication. A doctor who leaves 10% of his patients in the morgue during the course of his practice is a bad doctor. A factory that generates 10% waste in production is woefully inefficient. These are loose analogies, but the point is clear: to fail 1 out of every 10 in a group of key stakeholders in designing solutions and implementing them is unacceptable.

As we more powerfully flex our disciplinary muscles and more fully engage with the challenge of designing jobs and work, it seems crucial to be dissatisfied with a 10% failure rate. If service design eats the world, in the same way that software has (and this is surely the goal, for if it isn’t, why do we do what we do?), then it seems imperative that we strive for a practice that seeks to build work into a sphere of shared value, in the same way that we are refactoring services now.