Faces of HR

Faces of HR: Donna Flynn on Reimaging Work & the Employee Experience

Donna Flynn never imagined that she would call herself a designer. At the time, she had earned her Ph.D. in Anthropology from Northwestern University. Prior to that, she had not only received a B.A. in Anthropology/African and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Colorado but was also a Fulbright Scholar.

Donna Flynn

Flynn would go on to study market traders in West Africa, then delve into community development work with women and girls in the Middle East and Africa. From there, she segued to Microsoft, where she spent 9 years leading experience research and strategy, helping to design and develop user experiences across a myriad of products. She was also a user experience consultant at Sapient, a social science analyst at the International Center for Research on Women in Washington, D.C., as well as an international development consultant in Africa and the Middle East. 

This led her to Steelcase, where she has spent the past decade leading research and experience strategy on the future of work as Vice President, Workspace Futures. It’s no surprise then that Flynn, until recently, never imagined herself in HR. At the onset of the pandemic, she was tapped as Vice President of Global Talent at the global office design company. In her role, Flynn oversees the efforts to attract, retain, develop, engage, and inspire Steelcase employees around the world.

Although this is her first role ever in HR, Flynn says the thread that crosses her career and brought her to this role is creating great experiences for people at work.

“I saw this CHRO role as a way to take all the learnings and insights I’ve developed about people at work and apply them to create a better future for our own employees inside Steelcase,” she recently shared with HR Daily Advisor.

Additionally, Flynn currently serves on the Board of Advisors for the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute for Technology. Her home base is a 20-acre ranch in Colorado, and she travels the world physically and virtually to design better experiences for Steelcase employees and their customers.

In our latest Faces, meet Donna Flynn.

Who is/was your biggest influence in the industry?

My professional evolution has been inspired by so many different leaders and colleagues and professionals. There’s no single bright light that stands out, but a spectrum of lights of many different colors that have pushed me to ask new questions, see landscapes from different perspectives, and imagine a better future.

What’s your best mistake and what did you learn from it?

A few years ago, I rewrote my bio as a ‘Bio of Failures’ for an innovation workshop, and shared it on our Steelcase internal blog. Everyone should do this – it’s a great way to reflect on what you’ve learned!  One of the biggest failures I’ve been a part of was the commercial failure of Windows Phone.  I was on the original design team that created the award-winning user interface, on which the current Windows UI is based.  We designed an amazing product – but the business decisions made around go-to-market never positioned it to effectively compete with the iPhone. It was an excellent lesson in market competitiveness.

What’s your favorite part about working in the industry? What’s your least favorite part, and how would you change it?

I love helping people – designing better experiences for people, challenging, and growing people, recognizing and rewarding people. I am personally energized by all the amazing, creative, and kind people I get to work with in this role. And we are all driven by the same purpose at Steelcase – to create great experiences for people wherever they work. My least favorite part is managing the endless cycle of crisis that we have faced since March 2020, which was also the month I started this job. It has been a long and hard couple of years.

It sounds like through your experience you really care about people, and you want to help them feel safe and comfortable, which is important in the industry. Please elaborate here.

In this post-Covid world, all leaders have the challenge and opportunity to redefine what work is for their companies and for their people. I think of myself as Steelcase’s Chief Human Systems Designer, and wake up every day thinking about how we might design better employee experiences, build trust, evolve our culture, develop high-performing teams, and inspire our people – and how might we help all our customers around the world do the same as they are confronting the same challenges?  I’m bringing all my past experiences to bear on these wicked problems we’re all facing today – as an expert on human behavior and a designer. 

How can company leaders make HR a value within their organization?

This is a moment of transformation for HR. CHROs and their teams are at the forefront of solving some of the biggest business problems today – redesigning work, redesigning offices to support new ways of working, actively supporting employee wellbeing, developing new models of leadership, advancing progress towards diversity, equity and inclusion goals, and making systemic changes to protect our planet.  At Steelcase we think about all these commitments we’re making as Caring for our People, Caring for our Culture, and Caring for our Planet.  Companies that invest in their people are investing in their business.

Where do you see the industry heading in five years? Or are you seeing any current trends?

I think in five years, more HR teams will see themselves as employee experience designers and system designers. And companies that invest in their people will have a competitive edge – they’ll attract and retain the best talent who will be able to learn, adapt, and pivot to navigate change. 

What are you most proud of?

Working for a company that puts people at the center of their business.  We create great work experiences by designing spaces that support, inspire and enable people around the world – and our human-centered approaches permeate our own teams, offices, and factories. Of course, we also have room for improvement – but we strive to live our purpose and core values every day.

Do you have any advice for people entering the profession?

Design your days intentionally to support your own wellbeing. You need to protect your own energy and attention in order to help your teams with all the messy human challenges that come to us in this profession.

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