Lessons We Learned This Year: How to Create a Better Workplace in 2023

Lessons we learned this year: How to create a better workplace


How might we make our workplaces more creative, inspiring, and human-centered? As the future of work continues to evolve, we need to explore new ideas and methods to make organizations more engaging and resilient. From establishing creative work rituals to bringing emotion to work in a productive way, here are 10 lessons from leaders in the IDEO U community on creating a better workplace.


1. Creative energy is built on understanding people on a human level.

Teams that have creative energy share ideas openly, debate well, pursue things that are contrarian, are comfortable breaking the status quo, and know how to jointly confront fear together. To access those creative capabilities, you first have to build a foundation of understanding each other on a whole human level.

Keith Yamashita, founder of the consulting firm SYPartners, encourages people to ask the questions: What is a great life? What is great work? What is great impact? Once you understand each person’s wants and desires, it starts to impact the way you treat and work with one another.


2. Workplace rituals give us psychological safety, purpose, and performance.

When thinking about the benefits and business case for workplace rituals, Erica Keswin, author of Rituals Roadmap, says they provide us with three things.

  • First, they give us psychological safety, which is a sense of belonging and coming together.
  • Second, they create purpose, the opportunity to connect to our values.
  • Finally, they help with performance, which starts to increase once you have psychological safety and purpose.
Erica says that rituals ground us to each other, our teams, and ourselves.


3. Bringing emotion into work can be productive.

Two venn diagrams, one with a small shaded area representing the ideas people share when they don’t feel belonging and one with a large shaded area representing the ideas people share when they do.

When emotions are brought into the workplace, a team might choose to move on rather than risk things escalating further. But Mollie West Duffy, co-author of the book Big Feelings, encourages teams to stay in the moment and set the right structures to help people move through conflict in a productive way.

Instead of going in with assumptions and starting with your own perspective of what happened, start by asking the other person what their thoughts and feelings are which can create the psychological safety needed for them to share. Approach conversations with mutual respect and a shared goal, and stay in dialogue rather than shutting down.


4. Ask yourself when you feel most aligned with your company.

Sometimes, it can be difficult to figure out what counts as a ritual in your company. Erica Keswin suggests asking what she calls the magic question: “When do you feel most [company]-ish?” (insert the name of your company).

When Erica asks this question to people, she sees a lightbulb go off in their heads as they reflect on the different aspects of the employee experience that stand out to them. Looking at the moments that feel most in line with your company culture will help you identify existing rituals as well as new opportunities for your company.


5. If you’re feeling burnout, figure out what’s causing it.

A common emotion experienced at work is burnout, and according to Liz Fosslien, co-author and illustrator of Big Feelings, there are three different drivers.

  • The first is feeling overextended and having too much on your plate.
  • The second is feeling disengaged, with a lack of meaning or connection—you might have good work-life balance, but you don’t feel connected to the people around you or don’t believe in the company’s mission.
  • The third cause of burnout is feeling ineffective, where you’re putting in effort but not getting anywhere.

You can figure out what’s causing burnout through a burnout assessment, then take steps to address it.


A woman pushing a boulder up a hill with the description “just because you can endure” and another woman walking away from the boulder with the description “doesn’t mean you have to.”


6. Explore the world and find inspiration in duos.

Keith Yamashita says that duos are the atomic unit of trust. There’s a level of trust between two people that doesn’t exist as easily in larger groups, and duos can function as accountability buddies for creative inspiration. Find someone who inspires you with a new perspective, and set aside time to connect with them regularly.

If it feels hard to find the time for these conversations, assess your current interactions. Which are energy nourishing and which are energy depleting? Add up the time you spend on behaviors that don’t inspire you and see how much you can shift to a bigger creative task.


7. Ask “why” to shape your creative identity.

“Oftentimes, people can’t really tell you why they love what they love. In that discovery is the beginning of your creative identity.” - Brandon Viney

According to Brandon Viney, a creative director at Google, people can often tell you what they love, but not why they love it—and that discovery process is the beginning of establishing your creative identity.

Identify artists, designers, or creatives who you find yourself gravitating toward. Then, find a few pieces of work from each person, and put words to feelings by writing down what you like about them. Brandon found art that resonated with him and began to incorporate the same qualities into his own creative work.


8. Leadership is about asking the right questions, not having the answers.

Dabney Hailey, founder of the consulting firm Hailey Group, says that no leader knows as much as a group who listens to each other. Facilitative leadership is an approach to leadership focused on unlocking a team’s potential, where success is about enabling others to do their best work by asking the right questions rather than having all the answers. Leaders are good at framing work as a learning process for their teams, stepping back, and holding space for others.


9. Encourage participation in your teams by clarifying processes and roles.

It’s easy to let more vocal folks take center stage, but it’s important to offer the opportunity for equal participation. You can do this by clarifying your role and that of the participants right at the beginning.

Start the meeting by outlining the kinds of behaviors that would make the conversation more collaborative and productive. Dabney Hailey says that when we create space for everyone, we realize what it means to really be heard and how wonderful it is to access our colleagues’ thinking.


10. Approach mentoring with empathy.

When becoming a mentor, Brandon Viney notes that it’s important to keep empathy in mind. Don’t assume that everyone is on the same level, starting from the same place with the same information.

People come with different backgrounds and lived experiences, so take the time to understand who they actually are and where they’re coming from. Then, you can empower them by sharing your own experiences and lessons you’ve learned.

If you’re interested in reading more about how to design a creative and innovative workplace, visit the IDEO U Blog or follow us on Instagram @ideo_u.

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