Last week I did something I love and hate in the same breath.

Speak to a bunch of people on a webinar about something I see as important, designing for people (love) and then see the recording and notice my whacky hair and snaggle teeth (hate). But I can grin and bear it…

In seriousess, I was lucky enough to be part of a webinar with the Hacking HR Philadelphia Chapter, titled “How to apply Design Thinking and Agile HR to COVID-19”.

As I said on the webinar, I am not a purist when it comes to Design Thinking – I won’t argue the toss with you in the exact order or stages or ‘must haves’ or be prescriptive on the tools you must use at every step along the way – but I will tell you that if getting 1-person interested in Design Thinking helps them apply empathy to understand the people, customers, stakeholders, and society around them – who they share the planet with – then, I’ll sign up for that.

And I’ll sign up to that as I have used Design Thinking in a range of applications – from understanding what CFOs and Treasurers really do (as a different way of understanding the products and services they need from their bank), to building a talent portal from scratch in a matter of months to reshaping performance around what really matters (it really is as simple as having valuable conversations that help people do better work together).

Naturally, in preparing for the conversation, it got me thinking about Design Thinking, and to me, aside from being cited as ‘the first phase’ of most Design Thinking Frameworks, the whole thing is about empathy and understanding.

And if there’s ever been a time we needed empathy and understanding – it’s right now.

Most recently, we’ve used the term ‘Co-Curate’ to describe a way you can apply empathy and understanding to Culture and Employee Experience in our work – pre-COVID, during COVID, post COVID.  Co-curating is a way of understanding the collective – the shared experience of work and of understanding the n=1 – the differences in individual lived experience.

And, it works right now as COVID-19 is just so uneven. Our lived experiences are more different than ever, albeit, it’s taken a tragic pandemic to paint that picture. You see it on your TV. In numbers, in faces.

And while COVID-19 has had, and still has, so many unknowns – when will it end, how, phases, waves, recurrence – the one known is that it is SO UNEVEN.

The data here in the US blows my mind every day.

COVID-19 is much worse for women than men (economically speaking).

It is much worse for people of colour.

It has hit much harder for those without a college-level education.

And it’s worse for those that already don’t have a lot.

Of the ~36 million unemployed Americans, something like 40% come from households that earn under $40,000 USD annually.

Source: Pew Research, Survey of U.S adults conducted March 10-16, 2020. 

So, ordinary hardworking people – the people that make the economy tick  – those that get others to work on public transport, that care for them, that keep the streets clean, that help manufacture the things most tied to our physiological needs (food, water, shelter), those that stock the shelves or help feed people. They are the ones that have been most impacted through stay-at-home measures, or by the risk of illness if their work has continued.

We can see this in the cellphone data that showed more well-off areas are simply more able to ‘stay at home’, to cut their movement patterns down and adapt to remote working than those in less well-off areas.

COVID-19 still has so many unknowns.

But along with the known unevenness, I’d like to give another known that we can use, and how we can use it – empathy.

I don’t even need to name examples, be it political, business or community leaders – some people have stepped up and shown that leadership is NOT about them, it is about what they can do to support others – with best available information, with best thinking, with best collaboration, with best intentions for people, for others. And as true as that is, it’s clear that others have been vacant and self-serving.

And while the word empathy may contain the letters to spell ‘me’, that word has to be far from the focus if we are to live empathy.

So, I give to you the 3 stages of empathy as I see it in light of COVID-19 and with Design Thinking in mind. This thinking is what’s needed when the world has turned upside down, when it’s ready to cautiously step into a new normal and when it’s ready to forge a new normal that doesn’t look like the rearview mirror.

3 Stages of Empathy:

1 – Immediate Empathy

This cycle was up front, and for most people, countries, economies, we are now through this. This was the immediate empathy needed for those still working, those unable to, those that were sick, or those at risk. What are the cards we have been dealt, what information is at hand, what are we learning, how do we bend and flex around what people need that desperately need it as quickly as we can.

2 – Planful Empathy

This is probably where Australia is at, and where increasingly parts of the US are at or are about to be. How do we planfully put some positive fire back in to people, work, the economy – safely, cautiously, optimistically. Not keep closed, not open too soon. What are people’s fears, anxieties? What are they excited about? How do we make this work?

3 – Strategic Empathy

This one screams of more ‘traditional’ Design Thinking. What are the biggest challenges we face? How might we solve them? What are the ideas, solutions, funding that could work? How can we test them out? What do we need to refine ?

Yes some of these things might seem too big to grasp – healthcare, education/childcare, universal incomes, but they are the conversations we so desperately need to get to.

We have an opportunity to ‘go big’, this pandemic has created change we didn’t want – human loss and economic loss but – it’s also created change we wanted and couldn’t get – flexible work as the normal in a matter of days, newfound appreciation for families and work, a bit of an environmental boost and a realization that we can include more people because the way we have always worked need not always be the way in perpetuity.

So, if you need an energizing hour this week with your family, your team, your friends – a break from the Netflix, activewear, routine – why not put your collective thinking and empathy to ‘How might we’ make work better?