The business systems your employees use to do their work can introduce a great deal of stress—or joy—on a daily basis. Most organizations rely on business systems that are good enough, but not great. The gaps that those “good enough” systems leave often force employees to use informal, undocumented processes that rely more on human networking and communication than a formalized system. Since the spring of 2020, when many employees started working remotely, the reliance on those informal networks has not only taxed the employee experience (EX) at many companies, it has also highlighted the need for better-designed systems.

I recently attended an online gathering of executives from enterprise-sized organizations. The organizers asked each executive to summarize their most important initiatives for 2021. I noticed a new trend that I haven’t seen in previous years: over half of the executives listed employee experience as a critical initiative for 2021. This makes sense. While corporations have made innumerable advances in remote work over the past year, much of it has been at the expense of the employee experience. And while the virtual office is not a new concept, it has been thrust on us at a pace and scale that nobody expected.

The good news is that with the right business systems and practices in place, the day-to-day experience of employees has the potential to be more effective, usable, and even enjoyable.

What is a Business System?

Business systems are collections of tools and human processes people use to get their work done in an organization. They can be:

  • Analog – a customer service rep writes an order on a form and hands it to the warehouse to find the item and put it in a delivery truck. Copies are sent to accounting for billing and payment.
  • Digital – a customer orders an item online, where it flows into a fulfillment system. Robots retrieve and organize items on a conveyor belt to fill a truck dedicated to a single client. The driver delivers the shipment to the customer using a mobile app. The order flows into an accounting system for billing and payment.
  • Hybrid – a cashier enters an order into a POS system and adheres a fulfillment sticker to a box. The warehouse works off of a tablet and places orders in the box that matches the order number. A delivery person drives to locations identified in a mobile app, but relies on printed labels to deliver the right things. Accounting tracks the order in an enterprise system for billing and payment.

Truth be told, fully-digital systems are exceedingly rare—even Amazon prints labels for tracking—but many organizations have digitized as much as possible in their operations. That has been the saving grace of shifting to remote work. While many organizations have shied away from working remotely, many of their systems allowed them to quickly move their operations to the kitchen table and remain somewhat productive.

We have been designing, developing, and managing business systems for our clients since 2007, so we have a good perspective on what makes these systems sustainable and adaptable. Here are some important principles to keep in mind when evaluating your business systems.

Principles for Business Systems that Improve Employee Experience

Business Systems Must Adapt to Working Virtually

Any organization that procrastinated on implementing a web-enabled version of their desktop software has been kicking themselves since last March. If you’re not considering that at least one person in your entire service blueprint will need to interact with your system from afar, then you’re engineering obsolescence into your system before it’s even launched. This kind of planning involves more than just the system itself; your IT infrastructure should be prepared to deal with the security needs of a virtual team.

Maybe you own a retail store and think, “It all happens in this building. I don’t need to be virtual.” The next time you’re on vacation and frustrated that nobody is answering your emails about your inventory levels, you’ll wish you had remote access to your data.

Business Systems Must be Usable

The technologies we encounter in our consumer lives have set new expectations for usability in our work lives.

People deserve to work with business systems that are as well designed as the products they interact with in their consumer lives.

I was once conducting interviews on HR management platforms, talking to end users about their biggest challenges with HR business systems. Multiple managers talked about how difficult it was to run simple reports from very sophisticated systems. “It took me a few days and an SQL handbook just to generate a list of the birthdays of all of my employees.” The systems they were using were feature rich and aesthetically pleasing, but the reporting tools were designed in the ‘90s and never changed.

Major usability issues can become the sole focus of a user. No amount of new features or widgets will matter if you don’t address the most egregious problems first.

Business Systems Must be Accessible

The concepts of usability and accessibility should not be separated. At Think Company, we believe that a system is not usable until it can be used by everyone, regardless of their abilities or identity. In other words, an inaccessible system is, by definition, unusable; whereas a system that has usability issues can still be accessible. Moreover, business systems that exclude individuals based on their abilities or identity limit your organization’s options for finding talent. Your competitors will adopt more accessible systems to gain a serious talent advantage over you.

Sustainability is a built-in assumption of accessible systems. Web code that interacts fluidly with screen readers is also the most SEO friendly. A design system with accessibility as a requirement takes out the guesswork for your designers and developers when new components come along.

Business Systems Must Communicate with Each Other

It’s a pipedream to think you can have one overarching application that covers all of your business needs. The work your finance group is doing is vastly different than operations, sales, marketing, or production. Still, at a macro level, each system needs visibility into the data streams of other systems. APIs, microservices, and micro frontend architectures are the new hotness. You don’t need to understand how all of this works, but you do need to make sure the people selecting and configuring your systems know that it is a requirement that their system be able to share data with other systems and ingest data from them.

Data and Measurement in Business Systems are Key Business Advantages

This principle is closely tied to the principle of communication above. Most organizations generate vast amounts of data. Smart organizations invest in building logical data models and data lakes for regular reporting, deeper analysis, data science, benchmarking, and in many cases, building products that leverage that data. At the very least, each system will need to see the data from other systems. Making this an up-front requirement saves a lot of headaches downstream.

Many organizations set goals for their business systems around process improvement, customer satisfaction, and collaboration. Some of those organizations dream of achieving those goals, but don’t make much progress toward it.

Business Systems are Products and Should be Managed as Such

This should be the first principle, but I’ve saved it for last to make sure it’s your last thought about your business systems. It’s helpful to think of your business systems like a house. It’s much less expensive and disruptive to perform routine maintenance than it is to ignore it over time and then replace the entire home because you let it fall apart. This is a key principle of product management.

Product management requires the creation of a product roadmap and regular prioritization of your backlog of issues and enhancements. The alternative is launching a system to great accolades, then 3-5 years later being blindsided by issues such as aging technologies, inaccessible data, frustrated users, and diminishing customer satisfaction.

Back when I worked in a digital product-based company, we assumed that the annual maintenance cost of any product we built was between 20-30% of the initial build cost. If you’re not planning for maintenance and upkeep, you’ll end up spending much more than that when the time comes. And when the time comes, you’ll be rushed to get it done.

Improve EX and Prepare for the Future

If you’re looking to improve the employee experience at your company, an investment in business systems will improve the day-to-day working lives of your employees as well as their overall experience of your organization—and that will have a ripple effect across your teams and customers. As we move into a future where business touchpoints and employee interactions stay in this hybrid model we’re living, your team should be prepared to build and maintain systems that are strong, effective, and ready for whatever comes next.