How To Design a Job: REDF Cooks up 15 recipes for success – Sarah Smith

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What are the conditions for success that reduce barriers to work and increase job retention? What’s working for the people employed by the social enterprises REDF supports? Where are we coming up short? How can we do a better job of supporting employers that create effective and rewarding jobs?

Those are critical questions to ask as REDF seeks to extend its mission and replicate its successes. At REDF, Business Partnerships Manager Sarah Smith explains, because REDF provides funding and expertise to a portfolio of social enterprises, but is not directly providing services to the social enterprise employees.  It is all too easy to get isolated by layers of management and fail to reach through to the end user—the employee—of the services provided.. “We wanted to learn more about the customer of our customer,” Smith says. “We recognize we are not the experts. We’re a step removed. But it’s important for us to understand that final step.”

Smith spearheaded the effort to learn what happens when REDF’s portfolio companies and other social enterprises deliver services to job seekers. Based on the principles of Human Centered Design, the research focused on the end user. “Human Centered Design is built on empathy and requires the researcher to truly see and understand of the conditions of the end users,” Smith explains. “You have to get your head into where the beneficiary is and design with their needs in mind.”

Backed by extensive interviews lasting two to three hours, six REDF researchers looked at the daily experiences of 22 social enterprise employees. “We asked, ‘Where do you keep your stuff. What are your interactions like with co-workers? When was a time when you were really happy at work?’” Smith recalls. “We intentionally picked outliers to speak with – people who had failed disastrously, and others who had achieved enormous success. We gave participants disposable cameras so they could walk through their day and document it.”

The results, Smith says, “Were eye opening.” Insights uncovered by the research team included “how crucial it was to allow and validate the family web of interactions for each employee. Another was to recognize the humanity of each employee by celebrating both big and small successes.”

As one participant said, “I am excited to come to work when I get complemented, when my supervisor says, ‘I need more workers like you.’ I like this job because I feel accepted and respected.”

Following the ethnographic research, Smith’s team dug through their transcripts to find nuggets of data, discovered common themes, and presented them as findings. “Our goal was to understand the conditions for success that lead to long-term employment,” Smith said. “And if we discovered barriers, to learn what could we do to remove barriers to employments for our target population.”

Through analysis of this research, Smith’s team came away with 15 design principles. “These are recipes” Smith says, “not commandments.” The guidelines and suggestions will be used to design upcoming projects focused on providing a progressive employment path as REDF rolls out programs designed to support social enterprises in the future.

One of the most interesting discoveries is that people who have succeeded in finding steady long-term employment are driven by a desire to give back. Again and according to Smith, the people interviewed said, “Now that I’m sober… now that I’ve got a job… I want to help other people get there, too.”

To leverage these findings, REDF is exploring paid peer-to-peer service opportunities within the framework of the social enterprises it supports. In something of a virtuous cycle, Smith says, “Our next step at REDF will be to design those jobs.”

-If you want to learn more about this area, read this blog on Listening to those you serve.