New York Times: Focusing Design Solutions On Social Problems

By Alice Rawsthorn, May 24th, 2009

What do you do when a colleague calls in sick? Groan? Scream? Yell? Whatever your response, if you are the boss, you will soon be worrying whether anyone else can cover or if you should hire a temp and, if so, how much it will cost and whether he or she will need training.

That’s just for starters. What happens if the absentees take longer than expected to recover? Or if they return to work too early and relapse? Once they have recovered, how long will it take them to get up to speed? Will their absence bruise morale, or disrupt the balance of power among the team?

If a bout of sick leave can cause so many problems for one workplace, imagine how damaging it can be across all of the offices, kindergartens, care centers, cleaning teams and transportation depots managed by a city administration. When Ritt Bjerregaard became lord mayor of the city of Copenhagen in 2006, she was astonished to discover how many working days were lost when civic employees fell ill, and how much it cost — roughly €100 million, or $140 million, a year. “I was very surprised ... to put it mildly,” she said. Equally alarming was that, as the rate of sick leave was still rising, it threatened to become ever more expensive.

“You are not taught design thinking at university, and you are not taught social science in design school, so the designer and the social scientist need each other to come up with good results.”
— Filip Lau

City officials made various attempts to tackle the problem. Training programs were introduced for the worst-affected staff, as were research tools to help managers monitor the incidence of sick leave and its impact.

The mayor and her colleagues then decided to analyze the problem in greater depth, and invited consultants to pitch for the project. The one they chose was ReD Associates, one of a new breed of hybrid consulting groups that combine design with other disciplines, such as ethnography, psychology and anthropology, to tackle social problems as well as commercial ones.

Rapidly though this area of design is expanding, it is still so new that it does not have a name, at least not one that has stuck. “Social design,” “service design” and “service innovation” are among the favorites, but a bunch of design graduate students in San Francisco nailed the problem by staging an exhibition in March entitled “What the *#&! is Social Design.” Nameless it may be, but there is an accepted methodology in this field and ReD’s approach is fairly typical.

Working from offices in Copenhagen, Hamburg and New York, ReD was founded by social scientists, all of whom had worked as conventional design consultants. It now employs 40 people, including ethnographers, anthropologists, sociologists and several designers. The theory is that their combined skills will produce more potent and sensitive solutions to complex social problems.

“You are not taught design thinking at university, and you are not taught social science in design school, so the designer and the social scientist need each other to come up with good results,” said Filip Lau, a partner of ReD. “Designers have a more holistic world view, and context has a higher priority. But I guess the most important contribution they make is in creating solutions. Designers are taught to create, and social scientists to criticize what already exists. When we need to go from ‘insight’ to ‘solution,’ designers are indispensable.”

The sick leave project was no exception. The conventional approach would have involved analyzing the data and identifying examples of best practice based on interviews with local managers and city officials. Any research among local staff would have tended to focus on sick leave without addressing broader attitudes toward work and the workplace. ReD’s approach was both wider and deeper. “We selected a set of day care institutions, elder care centers and administrative offices, and spent two days in each workplace, interviewing the staff and their bosses, observing the daily routines and the interaction between staff and the users,” recalled Frederik Wiedemann, another partner of ReD. “We also made visits to anonymous employees who had been absent for long periods due to sickness.”

The conclusion was that a third of all of sick leave was due to psychological issues, mostly low morale, rather than to an individual’s health or physical working environment. The prolonged or repeated absence of some employees, ReD also found, was putting unfair pressure on their colleagues and impeding efficiency, but many managers were reluctant, often unnecessarily so, to probe the reasons for sick leave.

Another problem was that local staff felt isolated from city officials and had lost confidence in them, while their managers were so swamped by paperwork that they seemed remote and unresponsive. “It seemed to be reaching a self-reinforcing state, where it sort of became legitimate to take a day off because you thought your colleagues are doing the same or felt over-burdened,” added Mr. Wiedemann.

ReD suggested various measures for city officials to consider. New training programs are being introduced to help local managers deal with sick leave, notably by discussing it openly with their staff, as are measures intended to coax absentees back to work. After four weeks’ absence, each employee has a formal discussion with a manager, who will be encouraged to consider whether he or she would benefit from changes in the working environment, or from edging back to work by returning part time.

Acceptable levels of sick leave have been identified for every organization and area of activity, with senior city officials being accountable for their divisions. Claus Juhl, chief financial officer, now posts the running rate on the city of Copenhagen’s Web site. Efforts are also being made to reduce the administrative burden on local managers and to motivate them by giving them more strategic responsibility for their operations. They are now sent all of their forms and reports in one weekly package, and officials plan to replace some of the reports with random spot checks.

Other measures are being developed, but the sick-leave numbers are already heading in the right direction — downwards.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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