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Turning the Tables: Using Human-Centered Design to Explore Remote Work

Members of the Fourth Economy team brainstorm pros and cons of remote work.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Fourth Economy has transitioned to a fully remote team. This has led to benefits, such as increased flexibility for staff members and having expanded geographic diversity with employees located in cities across the country.

At the same time, remote work has presented challenges for collaborating and connecting, because those things need to be done differently than in an in-person environment.

To help address this, Fourth Economy has committed to holding all-staff retreats a few times a year in different cities around the United States. Previous retreats have taken us to New Orleans and Pittsburgh, and most recently the team traveled to Atlanta to gather in person.

Throughout the retreat, we connect by sharing meals, ride-shares, and the kind of informal conversations that don’t always come naturally when mediated by a computer screen. During the day we meet as a team and spend time together collaborating and problem-solving on any challenges we are facing, sharing best practices, and covering other things that might not come up in day-to-day Teams chats.

For this recent retreat, Fourth Economy Director Nicole Muise-Kielkucki explored the application of  human-centered design tools to identify strategies and resources to help our virtual team thrive.

What is ‘Human-Centered Design’?

According to the Harvard Business School, human-centered design refers to "..a problem-solving technique that puts real people at the center of the development process, enabling you to create products and services that resonate and are tailored to your audience’s needs."

The goal is to keep users’ wants, pain points, and preferences front of mind during every phase of the process. In turn, you’ll build more intuitive, accessible products that are likely to turn a higher profit because your customers have already vetted the solution and feel more invested in using it.

To dive deeper into the way remote work has affected how employees interact with colleagues both remotely and in the office Nicole, as part of a working group with our parent company, Steer, conducted a workplace survey into remote and in-person working habits. Surveys are powerful tools we often deploy to gain qualitative insights during projects, so Nicole wondered how we could leverage them to become solution-focused by utilizing some new tools she had trained on  through the Luma Institute as she pursued her certification as a Human-Centered Design Practitioner.

The Luma Institute is a trusted partner that helps organizations worldwide scale design thinking, bring about culture change, and deliver impact through the Luma System of Innovation, a framework of human-centered design that forms a toolset and shared language for innovation, even across countries and cultures.

Beyond Brainstorming

Nicole selected several facilitation methods from the Luma Institute training and led the Fourth Economy team in an engaging session that resulted in a robust understanding of the ways in which our team enjoys remote work but also what challenges we face as we work in sometimes isolated environments. We also identified several practical solutions: e.g., could we invest in standing desks for employees who wanted to counteract the fact that they were moving less? Could we set company-wide wellness reminders, and reward team members for getting outside or taking a walk at lunch time? 

Where the exercises helped most were the areas where challenges were less easy to articulate, and therefore harder to develop actionable strategies that would solve these challenges. This is often the case in our work when trying to address complex and systemic issues like housing insecurity and income inequality, and why our company believes so wholeheartedly in human-centered community and economic development.

Rose, Bud, Thorn

So, what did we learn and what were the most effective tools that provided results?  Using “Affinity Clustering” and grouping initial brainstorming developed by a “Rose, Bud, Thorn” exercise around what we liked and disliked about remote work, we identified overarching themes we wanted to develop solutions for, which included everything from “office equipment” to “mental health” and “well-being.”  

From there we developed powerful “How Might We” questions to address these themes within a “Creative Matrix.” The matrix format allowed us to explore these questions in the context of different stages of the work process, for example, onboarding, daily work, and company culture, and identify new solutions. For example, could we make onboarding new employees more fun and interactive by ‘gamifying’ the process?  

Moving to Action

At the end of the day, we gained a much deeper understanding of what Fourth Economy employees value about remote work but also the challenges it can create for each of us. We walked away with a renewed commitment to maintaining this work environment, but also an acknowledgment that we can do more to create enhanced connection in this virtual world. We recently committed to enacting some of these solutions, including providing team members stipends for networking events and co-working spaces, and a renewed allowance for home-office equipment.


As a location-agnostic company, Fourth Economy is always looking for ways to maximize the benefits and effectiveness of remote work, from the onboarding stage for new joiners to longstanding members of the team who started in-person and transitioned to remote work.

  • How has your organization adapted/maximized the benefits of remote work? 

  • Is your organization approaching remote work in a creative way?

  • Is there anything that surprised you about the benefits of remote work? 

Let’s keep the conversation going. Reach out to us today!


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