On today’s podcast, we’re joined by Julia Makhubela, the visionary consultant behind 54 twenty four.

Julia’s mission is to disrupt traditional human resources by focusing on the fundamental need for every employee to feel valued. She’s an advocate for human-centered design, which she employs to create inclusive and personalized employee experiences.

Julia’s journey began in mobile tech startups, where she observed the rapid evolution of customer-centric approaches, while employees often received standardized and impersonal treatment. In her pivotal role as Ops Director at Joe Public United in 2017, she revolutionized the employee experience by personalizing it to the needs of a diverse workforce, demonstrating that small tweaks can make a monumental difference in ensuring that everyone feels valued and appreciated.

Today, Julia shares her personal stories and insights, shedding light on the necessary changes for employees in the modern and future workplace. This promises to be an enlightening conversation that will transform your perception of HR and employee engagement.

Welcome to Great Minds Design Think Alike. Where we investigate design thinking, the challenges, the successes and the problems it solves. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of design thinking, check out episode 1. Be sure to subscribe so you get the newest episode as it’s released. Great Minds Design Think Alike is hosted by Stuart McDougall, owner of Tenaka, a leading design thinking consultancy in Johannesburg, South Africa and is proudly brought to you by Mac Media.

Today I’m speaking with Julia Makhubela from 54 twenty four. A consultant who is passionate about disrupting human resources and focuses on the reason why everybody wants to feel like they matter. She is using human centered design to create employee experiences that are inclusive. It’s about how we can be different together.

She also shares some personal stories that have guided her in understanding the importance of what we need to change for employees of the present and future.

The conversation with Julia: 

SM: Ok so I’m sitting with Julia Makhubela. She is from 54 twenty four. Julia, are you heavily involved in the design of employee experiences?

JM: Absolutely.

SM: Are you totally passionate about this?

JM: Yes.

SM: I think first for the people that are listening, give us sort of a background, Where you came from? What got you into this space of employee design?

JM: I worked for 10 years and I job hopped. I started my career in mobile tech start ups. And I think what was happening around me was that I was seeing that the customer landscape was changing fast. So we were starting to personalize journeys for customers who were starting to humanize them. 

However as an employee, I wasn’t getting an experience that was personalized, that was customized and that was human centered. 

So in 2017 while job hopping, I went back to an organization called Joe Public United. Everybody knows Joe. And I was the Ops Director there. I remember sitting with the MD of the digital department and we were trying to figure out, how do we engage a diverse workforce? Where there are different generations, different races there is different genders and everybody has different needs. 

So the biggest thing was we can not have standardized operational processes. So because we came from the UX background, we used those principles to actually design the employee experience in a way that got everyone completely engaged. 

It was 100% personalized. So if we had to interview someone who was coming from, as an example, Vosloorus, we wouldn’t set up a meeting at 8am. 

Whereas if Michael is coming from 10km or 5 km away, it was ok. So it was that kind of small tweaks to the system to make sure that everyone felt that the environment enabled them to matter. 

SM: So digging a bit deeper now into the employee experience design that you did, specifically in this experience that you were part of, what were the benefits? What did you really see being positive outcomes? From designing it so personalized.

JM: So you would know Stuart. Is that human beings want to feel like they matter. Whether we are customers, whether they are employees, if we say something we want to feel that they will be responsive. 

So whether it’s a website or whether you are talking to a call center agent or whether you are walking into a store, we want environments that are responsive . 

So in the same way you are ignored at the airport and you have been waiting in line and can see people are having fun and no one is responding to you. 

That same principle is what I applied. People would complain but their complaints were ignored. So as soon as we gave them space, we understood them, we sat, we talked to them and we customized the experience for them, I think people got happier, they were more engaged, they were willing to go the extra mile. 

So people would work late, they would make sure that they met deadlines, they felt quite respected. So I think to summarize all that, we had a high performing workforce. 

SM: In fact I had a conversation with someone who was from a competitor of Joe Public and he mentioned that, once you get in to join their culture and that their operation was so inclusive, it keeps the employees there and the retention of the staff was increased. People generally didn’t really leave except for somebody who was working for a competitor or something.

JM: And even if people leave, sometimes you don’t want to have employees for life because it can kill innovation. Even if people leave like me, I’m always going to orbit ground Joe. So I’m an employee, I’m almost like a Joe Publican for life. So I could go back as an entrepreneur. I mean they are one of my clients, so I can go back and work with them. 

So I’m almost going to create value for Joe because for me it was about them allowing me to, you know, use things that were not traditional. To actually engage employees.

SM: So in terms of the building of a great employee experience and designing it, just give us an insight on what you would do to go about doing it.

JM: So one of the things that is quite key, let me talk about the history of corporate. So my mum started working in 1988 and she worked in a factory. It was literally a 9-5. She had to clock in, she had to clock out. It was a command and control environment. She had to be silent, she had to be seen and not heard. So it was a completely different world order. And it made sense because back then the workforce was there as hands. 

Enter me in 2008 when I started in tech startups, where I need to be proactive and I need to constantly be creative. I need to always learn. So if I’m going to bring myself and I’m going to go the extra mile, one of the key things is that I need to be happy. 

So the one thing is acknowledging. The first thing when I work with clients is acknowledging that we are in 2019. Humans are not resources anymore. 

There was a time when they were like that. We need to constantly learn. We need to bring your whole self. Its first enabling clients to appreciate and understand that. And one of the things that enables people to bring their whole selves is the idea of psychological safety. Is it safe for me to make mistakes?

Is it safe for me to make mistakes and admit? Is it safe for me to say I don’t know? Is it safe for me to disagree with my boss? So is it safe for me to innovate? 

But there are all these conditions for me to understand first before I can give out my best idea. So it’s first enabling clients to know the history of corporate, then you make them understand psychologically safety. 

And then the fun stuff that we do which is then bringing the design principles of let’s empathize with people that sit with the different people in the organization. Let’s segment them into different demographics because how you engage a baby boomer is not the same as a millennial and they all matter. 

We will create personas from that in the same way that we do it for customers. We will create personas and the personas will have a picture, a person’s name representing that demographic. It will say what they value, what their pain points are. So some people’s pain points is, older generations they never had the opportunity to always learn in their jobs, so now how do we get them to have plastic minds? To constantly learn, it’s something that you once shared with me. 

And then with younger people how do we enable them if we grew up in a society where they always had to wear uniforms at school. They had to break down their creativity. Now they are in this world that they have to be creative. So it’s first understanding the people, breaking them down into personas, and then identifying common moments that matter. 

So common moments that matter are moments like when a person will join a company, a person will leave the company and then there are the in between moments. How people have meetings, how people produce work and all these things so that people can actually have an easier way of adding value. 

So that is the high level. It’s to first understand that we are in 2019, then secondly understand that there is a thing called psychological safety, understand the people and then identify the moments that matter. Such a mouthful.

SM: Yes but I mean it’s very detailed, it’s immersive but it’s taking the whole journey from the very beginning of joining an organization, or even before you possibly join an organization, all the way through the lifespan of the employee at the organization to eventually being an alumni.

JM: I love that you said the word alumni because when a person leaves, like I have left Joe, their repetition to other employees, depends on what I say. Or I could be that person that speaks badly about the company. So it’s the whole journey, it’s everything, the building, where is it located, the people that are hired, because people can take away from the culture, it’s the processes, is the environment digital enough. So its all those things that we know from a customer experience are important but now we are moving into the organization.

SM: It seems like it’s quite a massive task for a business to redesign this experience for their employees. Is there any sort of methodology that you use to eat the elephant in small bites or?

JM: So that is such a very important question because a lot of companies don’t necessarily have the time. They have to transform. The quickest way I can say is people need to learn design thinking. If they can learn those skills they can do it themselves. 

So I think Tenaka does that. It’s offering those skills. If people understand just the bare principles of human centered design then it doesn’t seem like this huge task. That way you can identify what are the key pain points. 

Is it how we have meetings, is the fact that we send each other too many emails and then lets start small and have the small acts that have a huge impact. 

But I think to shift the dial, it’s first to upskill the people who have to design these experiences so that we know and we have a shared language, we have a shared mental model, so I think that is the key first step. 

Without that it will be just me designing experiences and then leaving the systems and everything is just a document in somebody’s inbox. 

SM: Just from an employee experience perspective then going forward and the impact that you would like to see happening particularly in South Africa, I know you are quite passionate about South African business, like what is this vision for you? Where do you see going and what the future might look like.

JM: I love questions like that. I think that South Africa has such a great opportunity to show the world how to be diverse and still inclusive. We were given such a gift by Nelson Mandela. The fact that we never revolted. Sure, there are threats, politically there are threats, but the fact that we never really shook, there is such a great opportunity. 

We are as South African so resilient right, we are constantly trying to know how to be different together. 

And I sincerely think if we had to design employee experiences that represent Ubuntu where everybody feels safe, everybody, I mean everybody. I think we could teach the world how to do that. 

I think a lot of people are going to move around a lot. And in the future we’re gonna have to work with difference even a lot more. And we are in the thick of it. We are constantly having to live with the differences. 

We have got eleven official languages, we have got all these diverse, it’s a melting pot. So when I think of employee experience design in the context of South Africa, I see the opportunity of where organizations have every voice represented. Where organizations have everybody matters. Saying to some people you are irrelevant now that BEE is there. White guys move away. 

We are not saying to people who are younger you don’t have a say at the table. So my dream is that we export this and how to be different together to the rest of the world. We have such a great opportunity. 

SM: You are so right it’s amazing because, like you said, this massive amount of variables and variance that we have here in South Africa, if we were able to get this employee experience right here, the simplification of it into Europe, Asia, America places like that would be easier.  It’s like taking a piece of what we do here and implementing it in their environment.

JM: We are sitting through the fire. I think we always underestimate how we have got these social ills that the first world doesn’t have. We have this transforming country where everybody needs to play their part. We have got all these opportunities that Silicon Valley is looking for. They want to cure the diseases, they want to build integrated home structures, they want all of these and we have it. 

So it’s almost like seeing the problems as opportunities and seeing. The people we think are problems as solution makers. So it’s just when I think of the melting pot and I think of my position in history like 2019 in South Africa is as exciting as developing technologies because we really have a lot. 

We have got AIDS, we have got unemployment, we have got crime, we have got all the ills, we just now need to kind of collaborate, use all these Silicon Valley terms, collaborate and make sure every voice is represented in the room. And really fix things. So I think all the principles around design thinking have a home here I really do. 

SM: So I mean what you are saying there in terms of collaboration, I mean those are the principles of design thinking. How do you come up with the best idea to design a new experience? It’s by putting your heads together. And understanding what the biggest opportunity is to design for and create a solution around it.

JM: Absolutely and I think the reason why there is so much talk around inclusion is because in the future we won’t solve things in silos, we won’t solve things in black people, white people, young people, old people. We have to solve things in collaboration. We have to. 

So that’s why I get so excited about the future. I like that we really could teach the world how to sit through the fire of everyday discomfort and having to learn to be together like is so exciting. And I, when I first got exposed to human centered design I really did feel like it had the spirit of Ubuntu. 

SM: Well it’s inclusive, it thinks about everybody in every situation. So there is no exclusion in terms of what the solution can possibly serve. So in terms of yourself, what’s the future for you? Where do you see yourself having the biggest impact right now? What are you focusing on, what are you working toward currently?

JM: So I think because of my gender, because of my race, I get called in a lot for things that are focused on women in the workplace. So how do we engage women who are in that age range of having babies? Are work spaces designed for them in mind? 

Because a lot of the rules were written pre women entering. It is around how do we have structures that enable women to still have flexi hours but however still advance in the work space? How do we make sure that when women get included they don’t get that glass ceiling? 

So I think a lot of the projects that I have been involved in have been around women. Like how do we represent women in the boardroom? How do we make sure that women feel emotionally safe? Are my emotions allowed in this space? How do we make sure that women have? 

Also I guess in that it asks for a bigger question, can men be parents? Cause in the past men couldn’t be parents. Men are shamed for taking half a day and and and. 

So the biggest focus right now has been around my own identity, being called to do work around specifically women. So women in leadership, we have brought these women how do we now give them all the tools, the skills, and and and. So that they can thrive in their roles. So it’s been that.

SM: Yeah that’s great. And I mean there is a lot of work that needs to be done around that area. As much as we can see that things have changed over the last 10 or 20 years. There is still a massive amount of room that can be improved.

JM: And Stuart women are asking for just respect most of the time. And to be human. And so respect is don’t expect me to take the notes because of my gender or because of what my gender represented in the past. Don’t expect me to make you tea and and and. So it’s that its just respect.

SM: Those are small things, there is much bigger things out there. I recently had a conversation with somebody at a big FMCG and she sits in the board and she feels very insecure. Almost like she is lacking confidence in that room. And it’s because of the energy that is being brought to that room by the men that are seated around the table.

JM: And globally there is a movement of, it’s the opposite of toxic masculinity, I can’t remember what it is. It’s basically redefining masculinity. It’s redefining what does it mean to be a man who thinks, who feels. Because men also have to be rehabilitated too, it’s ok to feel anything but anger. It’s ok to cry. It’s ok for you to be this human being. It’s ok for you to admit that I don’t know what I’m doing. 

Cause in the past men had to have all the answers, have to be providers and and and. So I think the work around the women in the workplace has been preoccupying my time. I am enjoying it and I’m also seeing that a solution that works for women works for everybody. Because as a default it humanizes spaces for gays, for men, for everybody. 

SM: There is something that I can use an analogy which builds back to the design thinking side of things which is you are saying we need to relearn some of the stuff. Which is to readjust themselves. We see that with creativity. It’s like we find creativity from youngsters which is so much more open and broad like everything is possible. But as we get into corporate creativity seems limited or people lack the confidence to try and be creative.

JM: That is a huge part of employee experience design. What is the point? What’s the point of employee experience design? To enable innovation. Innovation is creativity. It is to enable employee engagement and and and. 

Around creativity we really were conditioned to only chase one answer. One right answer. And now we have to unlearn all of this and really let ourselves loose. And it’s really scary but again why I’m so proudly a South African person, because we are so diverse, a lot of our cultures are expressed creatively. We don’t have very stuck up. Even when you go through the CBD the way the constitution court is designed. It’s very creative because we are a creative people. 

So we almost have to own that and let go of that one right answer. Like a lot of us have to unlearn. I get anxious when I have to be creative because I always remember the traumatic story of you can’t draw, you can’t do this, you can’t. This one person can.

SM: It ties again into what you were talking about your mum and this whole version of kind of like the industrial revolution side of it. We still find businesses today that kind of want to have the same kind of industrial versions of how to run their businesses. They have to unlearn that. They have to change it.

JM: Yes, that’s a big job. That’s why I’m saying when I work with companies it doesn’t matter. I can give them the greatest strategy. It’s about helping the people who are in HR and organizational development to actually learn human centered design. Because they are so used to pushing processes down to people’s levels instead of pulling them. 

These structures are so intact they are so in place. Another thing that I discovered the other day, I was in a focus group and somebody said, but when we were kids we were told to shut up and listen. So now in the workplace I’m expected to speak. So you understand that is a big.. So it’s just a big world.

SM: And we would never know that.

JM: We would never know that. She was like I literally had to be seen and not heard. The adults which is now her boss. The adults in the room had to be the ones with the loudest voice. And so Julia you are saying i must bring my whole self, you don’t understand how that is such a shift.

SM: It’s so different.

JM: It’s so different so. We are all of us learning to be human. All of us. There is no one who is advanced. All of us are in the same boat. 

SM: Its amazing hey.

JM: It is, it’s exciting. I’m excited. I like finally we are not in the creative professional space which is where both you and I come from. But it’s everybody can wear the jeans now to work. Everybody can have hair that works for them. Everybody can just be so that we can be creative. Because you can’t be creative if you have to wear a suit. You can’t restrict one part of you and then liberate another part of you. 

SM: The acceptance of tattoos is evidence of that kind of change that’s taking place.

JM: Stuart it’s the acceptance. When I work with leaders who have never been in the startup world who don’t know the kind of environment that we have been in. There is so much anxiety around cause there is a form of control when you dress up right. There is so much anxiety around the guy in tattoos. He will bring value. He will. 

SM: He is probably the most creative.

JM: Exactly. So it’s just like holding the hands of leaders to show them that behind the tree at night is not a ghost. It’s just your imagination. Imagining that if you give people some freedom they are going to behave badly. They won’t. They won’t. 

SM: Trust hey. That’s also understanding that you have to trust people. That they have the same goals as you and beliefs as you. Their purposes. And they get behind that.

JM: Absolutely. And I empathize on a personal level because my dad being a Zulu man, he learnt a lot raising modernized daughters right. So my dad is quite a case study. But because I was around a person like that, like my dad who had these ideas. Like he would say to me you need to be empowered. I agree with you. You need to take over the world. Do you mind just making me tea though? 

So I empathize with these leaders that are like I want you to do your best but within these restrictions. I empathize with cause I was raised by a man like that. And I think our relationship has helped me really understand human nature and it’s not easy to change and unlearn. But it’s possible.

SM: It takes the effort but you gotta do it and you gotta believe that it’s the right thing to do. So Julia if people wanted to get hold of you and make contact with you , follow you maybe, what are the best channels that would work for you? 

JM: I’m very active on LinkedIn, no other social network. It would be just Julia Makhubela on LinkedIn. And from there, there is a whole host of other conversations that we can have. We could connect via my website, but I think LinkedIn is the best medium especially for these kinds of conversations. Because there is a lot of community around it. So a lot of people are talking about this. 

SM: So Julia you are doing some amazing stuff and I wish you the best of luck.

JM: Thank you

SM: I’m sure we are gonna see you around. You will be a top speaker in this area of expertise because you are trying new things and you are wanting to disrupt. And I know that’s your objective in this space. Specifically the human resources space.

JM: We can not leave the human resources space as is. The HR professionals have got to relearn. We cannot. So that’s why I’m such an advocate of let’s train them up, so absolutely.

SM: Good luck.

JM: Awesome, thank you.

Thank you for listening to Great Minds Design Think Alike. Give us a call to discuss how you can take design thinking into your organization to make life better for your customers or employees. Visit our website at Tenaka.com. Look out for our next episode where we will uncover more or simply subscribe. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it.