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The Process of Design Thinking to Ideate During a Pandemic

Susan Pelczynski is Founder and Principal at Zynsights Consulting where she focuses on workplace strategies and design sprints to uncover insights about user experience through “A Day in the Life” or “Deep Dive” or Design Accelerator sessions. Nicole Thomas is a Senior Real Estate Consultant at Steelcase where she helps brokers and project managers connect … Continue reading "The Process of Design Thinking to Ideate During a Pandemic"

The Process of Design Thinking to Ideate During a Pandemic

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Susan Pelczynski is Founder and Principal at Zynsights Consulting where she focuses on workplace strategies and design sprints to uncover insights about user experience through “A Day in the Life” or “Deep Dive” or Design Accelerator sessions. Nicole Thomas is a Senior Real Estate Consultant at Steelcase where she helps brokers and project managers connect their clients with workplace research and the right furniture solution while also connecting client’s LinkedIn profiles to their brand. Susan and Nicole joined Mike Petrusky and his co-host Madison Dujka on a recent “Workplace Innovator Interactive Livestream” to discuss the process of design thinking to ideate during the COVID pandemic. This highlight episode offers valuable insights delivered during our weekly live broadcast happening every Wednesday at Noon ET.

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Read the full transcript: 

DJ Mike P. (00:01):

Hey, do you want more insightful conversations? Many of the topics we discuss here around workplace design and strategy are also explored in depth at Work Design Magazine. You’ll find many of my past guests contributing to the site, and coming soon, I’ll welcome publisher Bob Fox to the show.

         He’ll talk about the winning submissions, and the fascinating findings from the Next Work Environment Competition. So be a workplace innovator and subscribe for free today at Thanks.

Susan Pelczynski (00:28):

So design thinking is a way of looking at a problem, to could be the return to work, COVID, in an umbrella kind of way, using empathy to think about how you would approach it from the user’s perspective.

Nicole Thomas (00:51):

Because what it does is it helps people who have different thought processes and different ways they look at things. The design thinking process brings that all together and comes out with ideation and these solutions for you to test out.

DJ Mike P. (01:03):

This is the workplace innovator podcast, where we talk with corporate real estate and facility management leaders about the industry trends and technologies impacting your organization. This show is powered by iOFFICE, the leading employee experience focused IWMS software that delivers real-time data and mobile tools to help you intelligently manage your digital workplace.

         Hey everybody, welcome to the show. It’s episode 125 of the Workplace Innovator Podcast. I am your host, DJ Mike P, and I’m so glad you’re here. Thank you for joining us as always. And this week, we have another great example of what happens each and every Wednesday on our weekly live gathering of this podcast community.

         We call it the Workplace Innovator Interactive Live Stream, and now it’s a zoom party folks. Camera’s on, breakout rooms, chats, connections are being made. We’re having a lot of fun, and we will continue to do so as long as you all are getting value from these gatherings.

         And of course I get great content. So this week I’ve got one of those timeless episodes that talks about strategies that will be helpful today, tomorrow and into next year, we called it The Process of Design Thinking to ideate during a pandemic. And I was excited to welcome two great guests, Susan Pelczynski and Nicole Thomas, my co-host Madison, and I were thrilled to welcome them to the show. It was a truly interesting and interactive conversation. And here’s just a bit of what we talked about.

         Welcome. Here we go, satellite radio.

Madison (02:50):

Another one stays in the books.

DJ Mike P. (02:52):

Hey Maddie. How are you?

Madison (02:53):

I’m good Mike, how are you doing?

DJ Mike P. (02:55):

I’m doing great. Welcome everybody to the Workplace Innovator Interactive Live stream. I’m going to give everybody a few minutes to join the party. I didn’t mean to, but I stumbled into a little Black Eyed Peas there, remember (singing). Was that before your time Maddie? Or were you were like a teenager when that came out.

Madison (03:14):

Yes! It’s not before my time.

DJ Mike P. (03:16):

Okay, I don’t know last time I brought up a song, you had this blank stare, like you never heard of it before. I guess it was a Ramones punk rock song from the ’80s. This is a little more contemporary and more modern…

Madison (03:27):

That was before my time though, ’80s is way before me…

DJ Mike P. (03:30):

’80s was but the Black Eyed Peas, and Fergie and the gang.

Madison (03:35):

I know them.

DJ Mike P. (03:35):

You remember them? Remember that song?

Madison (03:37):


DJ Mike P. (03:37):

(singing) Hey everybody, we’ve got two great guests and we will introduce you and welcome you to the Black Eyed Peas party, which is something I didn’t expect to do, but hey! There is Nicole and Susan, how are you both today? Hi, Susan…

DJ Mike P. (03:52):

Nice to have you on the show thanks for being here.

Susan Pelczynski (03:55):

Yeah, shout-out from Fairfax, Virginia.

DJ Mike P. (03:57):

Yes indeed shout-out D.C. Susan Pelczynski. How’d I say? How’d I do? Pelczynski.

Susan Pelczynski (04:02):

You did great.

DJ Mike P. (04:04):

It’s not as scary as it looks folks and Susan, I am so glad to meet you today. And we’ve been chatting via email and excited to hear about your expertise and what you do, and also want to welcome Nicole Thomas. Hi Nicole?

Nicole Thomas (04:17):

Hey everyone, Hey Mike, Hey Maddie.

DJ Mike P. (04:20):

Hey, another D.C. native right from the city itself. How are things on Capitol Hill?

Nicole Thomas (04:26):

Yeah from Capitol Hill. It’s great, its been… I mean we’re having some really nice weather. I’ve seen more people out and about than ever before, lots of dogs, lots of families. It’s nice a little hot.

DJ Mike P. (04:37):

Less cars I hope, less traffic I’m sure that’s something that’s…

Nicole Thomas (04:39):

No traffic…

DJ Mike P. (04:41):

Silver lining, silver lining in this pandemic and we have now Maddie kind of outnumbered today. I’m from the DC area too I’m out here near Dallas airport so, just West of the city. And it sounds like many of our listeners and audience members today are from our local community, which is awesome! And maybe some from IFMA and Corenet, and that’s kind of what brought us together. Our friend, Cheryl, shout out to Cheryl. If she’s out there invited us to share in this idea around design thinking and ideation and coming up with ways to really attack some of the really challenging problems that we’re all facing during this, not just lockdown period, but the pandemic life.

         I call it now because we are going to be living with COVID-19 for many, many months to come, if not years to come. So, we’ve all definitely shifted I think our mindsets towards how can we thrive in this environment? How can we do our best? So Susan, you have some experience, certainly helping organizations think through these types of complex problems. Right? Tell us a little bit about it.

Susan Pelczynski (05:43):

Sure, thanks Mike. Well, Cheryl had reached out to me to facilitate the hackathon session for Corenet Global. And the focus was to look at how do we go back to work in the middle of a pandemic? How do we go back safely? How do we address workplace and worker concerns? How are we going to do this? It was an unprecedented time.

         I think when we first had our conversations around putting that together, it was in April and we really didn’t know what was coming. And it was just the really early part of that whole conversation. And so I had done some various user experience workshops in the past, using design thinking to come through the user experience empathy lens, really understand what people were feeling and going through, put that hat on for them for that moment.

         And then try to envision how you brought them back safely as part of that whole process. So we ran a series of what I’ll call Sprints, design thinking sprints, cause they were two hours each, they were super compact and it was a day in the life. It was a user experience using an empathy lens called a Deep Dive and then an open innovation session. And then just some insights capture kind of at the end.

DJ Mike P. (07:08):

Excellent! Well, we’ll dive into a lot of those details here in a bit, but before we go too far, I want to give Nicole a chance to share her story. You were part of the hackathon Nicole, certainly I know there’s so much more to you and your life out there than your time with Steelcase, a great furniture manufacturer doing a lot of interesting things always I’ve been familiar with many folks from Steelcase over the years through IFMA and Corenet, but tell us briefly your story and, and why am I smiling when I think of your social media presence?

Nicole Thomas (07:37):

So I work with Steelcase, I’ve been with them for over five years, five and a half, which had honestly just flown by because things have just changed so much in that time. So I think when I started in furniture, so my background was actually project management with mail company CVRE, which is also a really great real estate firm to work for. And I like to think I’m a recovering project manager that still has a big focus on schedule and budget whenever I’m looking at furniture projects.

         But I think social media, on the other side, I’ve kind of really combined this passion I have for connecting. So to be connecting people with the right furniture, brokers with our workplace research or connecting people’s brands to their online social personality. And so I think that’s what you’re saying is a lot probably authentically me, with videos on LinkedIn and quite often a lot of posts.

DJ Mike P. (08:33):

I love it, I’ve seen you interviewing people like opera singers in Rome, which is fantastic. And we’ll talk more about that too, but before we get too far, I want to turn to Maddison and ask about the comments that have come in because we put up this topic at the very beginning of the process of design thinking to ideate during a pandemic. And we did send that out to many folks in advance as a topic today.

         Anything you can kind of gather from the first comments coming in, Maddie? As far as what people are hoping to hear about what they expect this discussion to be about? And then we’ll go down the path that we hopefully would be most helpful to the audience.

Madison (09:08):

Yep! So we have some people asking, how was your trip to the office changed? Why should we even go back?

DJ Mike P. (09:16):


Madison (09:17):

And we even had an email submitted saying, that majority of companies are looking to shift from remote friendly to remote first. And they’re just wondering what the best practice of how many workstations they should include…

DJ Mike P. (09:31):

Oh wow!

Madison (09:31):

How many should be available at all times. Yes, we’ve done a lot.

DJ Mike P. (09:34):

So Susan… yeah, so there’s definitely interest out there to attack this problem. And that was the idea of the hackathon as you said in the beginning, when Corenet asked you to be a part of this, so maybe let’s start from the basics for those that don’t know what design thinking is, what is design thinking? And how does it help attack a problem like this and create new ideas that may be workable in very difficult situations.

Susan Pelczynski (09:56):

Sure, so design thinking is a way of looking at a problem to be the return to work COVID in an umbrella kind of way using empathy to think about how you would approach it from the user’s perspective.

         So the office occupiers and doing ideation around that for each piece. And one of the pieces we did was, A Day in the Life, so being able to look at it from that lens, being able to do some ideas, which are very broad based in a safe way, being able to prototype those and test them and then iterate and refine them over time, kind of over and over again, and then eventually deploy that as a new methodology, so that’s the general framework of design thinking.

DJ Mike P. (09:56):


Susan Pelczynski (10:46):

And I think it’s interesting, they talked about transportation because the first session we did was, A Day in the Life, really looking at how do you start from home? How do you get to the office and not experienced the virus in that path, in that movement? How do you get there? And then how do you engage in all the different space types?

         And we really looked at it in a refined way for all of those pieces. And I think the big uh-huh there was, especially for the facility side was, Oh, we have to manage that other piece from their house to the office? We thought we only had to deal with the office. And so there were some like big kind of uh huh moments from the group that was like, Oh, this is something that’s bigger than just the building.

DJ Mike P. (11:33):

Yeah. That’s great, and this is a great visual that you’ve shared with me. And I wanted to put it up on the screen for everyone as you were talking there because I am a visual learner and helps me kind of understand this idea of attacking a problem with a diverse group of people and going through this process of design thinking.

         And then Nicole, from your experience as a participant in the hackathon, as I share another slide here about, this idea of workplace well-being and A Day in the Life, what was it like from your perspective and how quickly did you get to this point of the commute or the trip from the safety of our homes into the workplace being the real kind of light bulb moment, the uh-huh moment? What was that like from your perspective?

Nicole Thomas (12:14):

Well, I participate in a lot of design thinking sessions. So I guess it’s really rooted in design thinking. We actually were part of a company that started IDEO, which by the way, if anybody kind of wants to dive more into design thinking, Tim Brown actually wrote an amazing book called Change by Design. I would highly suggest it.

         But I think what was cool about it was I’d never done it virtually. So generally we’re in a session together and we have all kinds of post-it notes, I’m post-it person to post-it notes everywhere and you’re sticking them up. And this was just, how do we either use technology to stimulate that? Or how do we kind of find another way using the different technology platforms we have? However, we have a bunch of people like 10 people in a session from all different companies.

         So we didn’t have that unified platform like Steelcase, like we have teams. So I would say it’s took probably two sessions to get to the transportation conversation. One was Susan really leading us in kind of like setting the goals and setting how we’re going to run them. There was a little trial by error where we tried post-its and it was a lot to do virtually.

         So kind of thinking about what other technology tools we can use, we decided not to use mural, but we ended up using Google docs to house a lot of things, but it was a really cool experience because, generally when I’ve been in design thinking, I’ve had people from different areas of, for instance, Steelcase different parts of the organization, which is something that design thinking is great for, because what it does is it helps people who have different thought processes and different ways they look at things.

         The design thinking process brings that all together and comes out with this ideation and these solutions for you to test out, but coming from the different perspectives of different companies, I think it was just really cool to see how in an early time, right, we were in April before we knew, what we know now about this pandemic and the kind of light bulb things just started snowballing, right?

         Somebody brought up something, maybe an example in their organization and then it just kept getting bigger and bigger. And then we were able to keep all that content and all of that research base using something as simple and free as Google docs.

DJ Mike P. (14:19):

That’s great, and I just showed some of the slides that you used Susan to help visualize this process. And I jumped out at me every time I see the word empathy and empathetic leadership is a key to this, isn’t it?

Susan Pelczynski (14:31):

Right and I think that, especially if you’re doing user experience lens, I invited everyone to take off their management hat while we were doing the empathy lens, deep dive session, and try to look through the eyes of an individual staff person and then we sort of sliced off career moments.

         So the new grad who still has student loans and they’re trying to start their career and they don’t know if they, they haven’t met their team members and how are they supposed to get to know them? And are they really going to have a career? All of that emotion is really what we were trying to uncover.

         So we looked at the two and a half year people or three-year people, do they feel like all of the work is weighted on their shoulders. We looked at the six to 10 year people that they’re trying to manage staff who are virtual now and where are they and how do I do that?

         How do I get my work done? What do I even know where they are? All of that kind of angst and then those people maybe have kids and house to deal with. So we really dug into each slice. We looked at senior managers who were making decisions. We looked at company leaders who were literally making the biggest decisions of their life, right at that moment. Like a bad decision could mean their company was going to go under.

         So these are the stressors that we really looked at. We looked at what we considered to be off the charts, stress for every single category of worker. And then we tried to think like, okay, now that we’ve put that all down on paper and we all understand it together, how do we help? How do we bring our heart for empathetic leadership? How do we create safety nets for people who have financial issues?

         How do we help that person right out of school, maybe have a buddy or have a mentor system? How do we create like water cooler moments? So you could hop in and get to know your team member who’s in Houston or a little happy hour, a virtual happy hour that’s like unstructured, but you just go in and chat? And you form bonds with your colleagues that you would normally do in the office, but you’re doing it in a virtual way.

         So you’re not leaving people. We talked about isolation and that some people were isolated. And so the empathy really let you take a look at people as humans, but then put the design hat back on and the management hat back on and try to solve for those moments.

Nicole Thomas (17:09):

As a participant in that the one thing I wanted to add was that in that session, it was actually… I think what kind of helped us get there was, we actually started that it was a Saturday morning and we started the session just by doing what you said, how are you doing today? And we had everybody go around and just share, and it was amazing. The more people that shared, the more authentic everybody got, and you were really able to develop empathy for each other.

         So we had the empathy for the group starting, which I think really enabled us to get that empathy hat on for everybody we were discussing through that session.

DJ Mike P. (17:43):

There, you have it folks, Susan pills in ski and Nicole Thomas sharing just a little bit about the process of design thinking and the hackathon at Corenet Mid Atlantic that led to really practical ideas about ideating and creativity that helps workplace leaders navigate the coming months and maybe even years to come as we live during the COVID 19 pandemic.

         And I know you couldn’t see them on this audio podcast edit, but Susan offered some great visuals, some graphics that really helps to put this concept of design thinking into action. So I encourage you to check the show notes and you will find a link to the full video recording of our hour long live stream together.

         And if you’re getting value from this podcast, I’m so glad. And I hope you’ll tell us about it by heading over to Apple podcasts, leaving a rating and a review and sharing this link with someone in your network that might benefit from hearing these shows.

         So until next week, I really appreciate you spending time with us. As we continue on this journey to encourage and inspire each other, to be a Workplace Innovator, peace out.

         You’ve been listening to the Workplace Innovator podcast. I hope you found this discussion beneficial as we work together to build partnerships that lead to innovative workplace solutions, to more information about how ioffice can help you create an employee centric workspace by delivering digital technology that enhances the employee experience visit


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As the host of both the Workplace Innovator Podcast and the Asset Champion Podcast, Mike's role at Eptura is to share thought leadership with CRE, FM, and IT leaders in the digital and hybrid workplace. As an in-demand public speaker, Mike engages audiences with his focus on the human element of workplace and facility management at International Facility Management Association, CoreNet, and other industry events.

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