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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Steelcase Draws Sustainability Inspiration from an Unlikely Source:
The Healthcare Industry

Questions — and asking the right ones — are at the heart of Patricia Wang’s role as design researcher in WorkSpace Futures for Steelcase Inc. These days, the biggest question Wang faces is just as complicated and ambiguous as it is important: How can Steelcase encourage employees to get to a future state that is better both for them and for the planet?

Questions — and asking the right ones — are at the heart of Patricia Wang’s role as design researcher in WorkSpace Futures for Steelcase Inc. These days, the biggest question Wang faces is just as complicated and ambiguous as it is important: How can Steelcase encourage employees to get to a future state that is better both for them and for the planet?

To tackle a question like this, Wang has leveraged her years of experience in the healthcare industry, drawing on behavior change principles and working with, rather than against, systemic barriers to help employees move in a better direction. We recently sat down with Patricia to hear more about this exciting work and how she and her team are bringing the Good Life to life at Steelcase.

The parallels between sustainability and healthcare probably aren’t obvious to most people. In your mind, what makes them analogous, and what lessons can be applied from one industry to the other?

Before my current role, I was supporting our healthcare business at Steelcase. One of the nice things about healthcare is that there is a heavy practice of secondary research on behavior change and figuring out how to help people do things differently.

Healthcare is actually all about behavior change, not necessarily just about data. I think people get frustrated about our current healthcare practices because they feel like they understand the goal — eat more vegetables, lose weight, lower cholesterol, etc — but when it comes to the methods, the change in lifestyle habits or the how, they are often left on their own. In addition, healthcare, as an industry, is also trying to figure out how to influence patient populations that might not be easily motivated to change or might not have all the resources they need and move them to a place that is theoretically better for them. You can take some of those same principles from healthcare and apply them to sustainability practices, because it’s a similar situation: You have people who may not necessarily want to engage heavily or who struggle with how to adopt more sustainable practices. You’re dealing with all these human problems in both cases, with the end goal of helping them get from a current state to what is, hopefully, a better future state.

I’ll be on a panel at Sustainable Brands in Vancouver, where I’ll discuss several behavior change methods used in the healthcare space and how others can draw inspiration from them to drive change in a sustainability context.

How do you see the interplay between human-centered design and sustainability?

One of the things that I think about in terms of human-centered design and the Good Life is that design is really good at creating and enabling desirable experiences. Sustainable Brands, through its insights on what constitutes the Good Life, has done a really nice job at identifying what people care about these days and painting a picture of what is desirable. The human-centered design practice then provides a toolkit of methods and frameworks for helping people think through how they’re going to get there.

Human-centered design prompts questions like: How can I encourage people to achieve this goal? What kind of communication would be helpful? What are some of the principles that will help me iterate and refine practices to figure out what a more desirable future state looks like?

The human-centered design practice enables us to be more in touch with humans. We stop making assumptions about how easy it might be to accomplish a task. It could be easy to eat lots of fruits and vegetables in a daily diet, but not if we’re in a food desert in the middle of Chicago, with limited access to public transportation. Suddenly, we have more behavioral barriers and mental models to contend with. Instead of trying to fight these human paradigms, we, as designers, can design new systems and experiences to help people overcome these challenges.

Can you give an example of the human-centered design process leading to a Good Life innovation at Steelcase?

I recently saw an article that, unsurprisingly, cited work as one of the biggest drivers of stress and heart disease. But there’s a really interesting interplay and opportunity here: Taking care of your people and making sure your people are taking care of themselves can become a competitive advantage.

As a result, we created something called the Wellbeing Hub, a physical place on the Steelcase campus that feels more like a lounge than a health clinic. There, we provide our people with a toolkit of resources and staff members who come from health and wellbeing backgrounds to help employees find the services they need. We know that other companies are trying to adopt a similar model, so we show them our concepts and ideas, and act as a facilitator in an informal community of practice, where others can borrow and take some of these ideas.

In the last decade or so, we’ve seen companies go from cubicle farms to radically open work spaces, where neither extreme seems to be ideal. Since WorkSpace Futures is in your title, I have to ask: How are you thinking about designing work spaces that promote the Good Life at work?

At Steelcase, we think about creating work environments that support sustainable behaviors in a workforce. Instead of thinking about dedicated spaces — desks, private offices, etc — we’re trying to help people have a wide variety of spaces to help them with the different moments of their day.

For example, I can be a bit introverted and need moments in my day to step away to cognitively and emotionally refresh. I, like many of my colleagues, need spaces to do that. I know there are others who rejuvenate the best in cafe and lounge spaces. So, when offices provide multiple spatial options, they can support a variety of preferences. We’re lucky in that we’ve designed our environment to support our culture and our values. Do you need a meditation room? Well, no, not necessarily. But the meditation room can also become a signal that you have a culture where people are empowered to take care of themselves, which will pay dividends in the long run.

Your panel at Sustainable Brands next week is about the concept of aspiration vs reality. What are the things that people aren’t being honest with themselves about, in terms of their commitment to the Good Life? In your work, where is the gap between what people aspire to do and what they’re actually doing? What are you doing to help narrow that gap?

There will always be a gap between aspiration and what you do. I think the question is really about helping people align their behaviors closer towards their aspirations. There’s an element of behavioral economics. People have persistent mental models, such as wanting to have something in their hands right now, instead of later. The problem of saving for retirement is a great example of this; there is no immediate or tangible reward for saving for retirement. So, a human-centered approach might ask: “How might we reset the default in a way that allows people to contribute to retirement so it’s not as painful?” or “How might we make the future more tangible and real so people are encouraged to save?” We want to take some of these tips and tricks, prototype, learn with a subset and then start to scale. There’s also a bit of work to craft and identify messages that resonate so that people will take action. While there’s more “work” to do in these smaller learning cycles, it’s incredibly satisfying — and, at times, humbling — to see how the ideas evolve and come to life.

This article was written by Lauren Baum, Erb Institute MBA/MS 2020.