Achieving balance is nice. It’s also necessary.

Organizations, employees, and customers should be in balance. The symbiotic relationship between these three entities is vital for stability, growth, and long-term success. It’s difficult to achieve and maintain. When organizations get out of sync with the people they serve, whether internal or external, the outcome can be destructive. Organizations or whole industries that are off-balance tend to fall without a correction. Achieving balance isn’t easy, but it should be the goal.

Internal Imbalance

Amazon says its mission is to be “Earth’s most customer-centric company,” continuing to push boundaries in service of its goal in new ways. Its drive has led to the reinvention of whole categories. In the wake of these changes, customer expectations have been altered for both consumer and business-to-business companies alike. Amazon has revenues that rival a small country and is often held up as an example for many.

Amazon’s success has come at a cost to some of its employees. In 2018, Amazon workers in the U.S. and Europe went on strike to shine a light on poor working conditions. This sentiment was backed by the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, which listed Amazon as one of the most dangerous places to work in the U.S. due to its warehouse conditions. The following year, the New York Committee for Occupational Safety & Health surveyed Amazon warehouse employees in Staten Island. Out of the 145 surveyed, sixty-six percent stated feeling physical pain while working. Forty-two percent said they felt pain even when not working. While the company has thrilled many investors and customers, Amazon risks not accounting for its employees.

The imbalance is unsustainable, even for Amazon. Communication technology and social media make problems more visible and harder to ignore. Amazon’s brand reputation was beginning to be shaped by a public backlash. By 2020, additional pressures from the COVID-19 pandemic led Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos to announce that the company would spend billions on coronavirus-related expenses like worker protection. He told investors that they “may want to take a seat” as he told them they plan to spend all of the profits from the next few months on these efforts. Whether the health crisis directly spurred these changes or just sped them along, Amazon is seeking to restore balance.

External Imbalance

By the second quarter of 2019, Facebook had 2.41 billion monthly active users, a steady increase for more than a decade. Facebook’s iconic growth represents the explosion of social media in general, tools purportedly designed to connect people and communities. Despite a narrative of bringing people together, the growth of social media coincides with a dramatic rise in anxiety, depression, and suicide among adolescents in the U.S. and beyond. The National Institutes of Health report that nearly one in three kids, ages 13 to 18 will experience an anxiety disorder, a 20% rise between 2007 and 2012.

Social media may not be the sole cause of this crisis, but many experts recognized these platforms as a strong contributor as the “constant connection” impacts self-esteem and their worldview. Social media may have been designed to bring people together but is also having a negative societal impact by contributing to this increase in anxiety and depression.

The imbalance between intended and real consequences of technology on its users is pressuring social media platforms to better understand the real impact. More recently, the social unrest arising from the death of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, and the changing political landscape has further challenged these companies which thrive in a virtual space to better understand how their products are affecting real people.

Industry Imbalance

Industry imbalances cause seismic shifts for both companies and customers. Higher Education is a great example. The promise of a college degree is a higher paying job – which is largely true. As of 2017, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the median weekly earnings of a high school graduate at $712 while the median for a bachelor's degree is $1,173. Unemployment rates have been lower for those with bachelor’s degrees at 2.5%, comparing 4.6% for people with only a high school degree.

However, if we compare the rise of tuition to early-career salaries, a massive gap appears. From 1987 to 2016, the average price of an undergraduate degree saw an increase of 161%. In hard numbers, adjusted for inflation, that’s $39,643 in 1987 to $103,616 in 2016. Over the same time period, the average salary for a recent college graduate only saw a 2.3% increase – $49,406 to $50,556.

While the college degree can lead to a better salary, it can take more than a decade for many people to pay for their education, making it increasingly questionable if the degree was really worth it. The impact of imbalance is being felt throughout our economy as young people struggle to invest in homes and lack disposable income as they struggle with student debt that outweighs their income. For many of its customers, the education industry imbalance may be ready for course correction.

Achieving Balance

Holding your balance is hard. It takes practice, patience, and perspective. Like juggling, it means seeing and knowing, skill, reaction time, technical ability, and nuance. It’s not easy, but balance is the goal. It’s nice, but it’s also necessary. Organizations are made to serve people, and things that don’t work for people don’t work at all. Creating a balance between organizations and the individuals they serve, whether employees or customers, generates a positive impact on everyone involved, and contributes to the development of a healthier society.

Want to discuss? Join Peopledesign's Kevin Budelmann and Jake Himmelspach for a live conversation! Office Hours is a time we've set aside to discuss ideas we're thinking about at Peopledesign and issues we experience first-hand with customers about business value, brand perception, and service design.