Humanising Work Makes Capital Sense

Humanising Work

‘It’s not personal, it’s just business’. If this ever had a kernel of validity, it’s no longer so. By valuing people more, it follows they can, and will, add more value to their work.

It’s taken an inhuman pandemic, with a cost of more than three million deaths, for us to understand we’re part of a human tribe.

Many leaders, CEOs included, have realised that showing vulnerability and expressing fears is less a sign of weakness and more a signal of caring. Many employees have responded with the realisation that leadership is difficult, and when leaders demonstrate empathy towards their employees they will, in turn, dig deep to support the collective struggle.

Togetherness is at play here. It’s a quality which is very, ahem, human.

Still, backsliding is also part of human nature. As workforces migrate back to physical workplaces, questions arise: Can corporate leaders manage shareholder expectations towards prioritising people over profits, longer-term horizons instead of short-term growth? Will CEOs sustain leadership approaches which accommodate emotion, not only rationality and rigour? Can work be given a metaphorical makeover so that, being more compatible with who we are, it brings out the best in us?

Humanising work is multifaceted

Globally, Covid has reinforced for millions of people that work is important – even something to cherish. How do we perceive work, what makes us feel appreciated, and what do we value in a job?

These questions are woven within issues of organisational culture, societal shifts and global megatrends, and generational changes.

A good place to start is to look around the workplace. When did space become acutely constrained? Whose idea was it that desks needed to be shared, that productivity would somehow improve when people sat cheek-to-jowl and back-to-back, or in tiny cubicles from which they were not expected to leave until clocking out for the day? (And when did employers feel the need to obsess about monitoring time?)

Actually, work imitates life. We like to create, to play – without fear of failure. Curiosity, naturally mixing tasks with leisure, the teamwork and sociability of sharing (the load and the reward) – these are among our strongest anthropological drivers. Organisations bringing these opportunities into the workplace are allowing people to work more naturally, reinforcing the likelihood of improved productivity, consistently. Futurist and author Ade McCormack notes this remodelling of work in the “campus” concept spearheaded by major tech companies. “Visit any Google campus and you’ll witness people expressing their anthropological drivers in full. In this sense, Google’s offices are cognitive gymnasia,” he writes.

Redesigning work

Disruption, innovation, data-centricity – buzzwords can be intimidating. By helping people envisage the future of work as offering new creative frontiers, one in which value networks replace supply chains, and technology unleashes human potential, the workforce can be energised around these concepts rather than confused by them. For example, data creates insights, and no company today can afford not to be data-driven. But by being sensitive to its clinical nature, managers can use data better. The numbers don’t lie, but they can be used to paint pictures, to communicate stories rather than be held up in cold light.

Human workplaces are diverse

A diverse workplace mirrors society. Capitalising on our diversity is a talent strategy necessity. It makes people sense. It also makes financial sense: recent analyses conclude that the top quartile of executive-level ethnic- or gender-diverse companies are up to 33% more likely to deliver EBIT margins above their industry averages.

However, one size does not fit all. Priorities, aspirations and expectations, as well as core capabilities and aptitudes, vary from person to person. Fairness is mandatory, but this does not mean everyone should have exactly the same work arrangements or incentives. For example, compared to older employees, the Generation Z cohort now entering the workforce are more comfortable with working independently, and as true “digital natives” they expect access to cutting edge technologies and to be allowed time- and place- flexibility. Awareness of and sensitivity to these nuances helps people feel connected to the organisation. Above all, people value being treated as individuals.

Emotions impact everything

We all have the capacity to dream big. In 1962 President Kennedy visited NASA to see how the moon mission was progressing. He greeted a janitor, politely asking what he was doing. “Well, Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon,” the janitor replied.

Intrinsically, people want something to strive towards. Even in a more basic role or functions a sense of accomplishment propels the motivation to do it again – slightly better, perhaps, or differently.

Actually, this anecdote needs an update for the workplace of the 2020s. In dozens, probably hundreds of links and references, it seems impossible to find the janitor’s name. Who was he, and why has he been lost in a story about JFK? If we wish to think holistically about humanising work, the story needs reshaping so that it captures not just the janitor’s commitment to his job, but his humanity, too.

Leading and managing a business requires an understanding of how decisions, judgements and actions are swayed by peoples’ emotions. How we feel is the thread running all the way from the strategies a CEO puts in place, to the end- user’s or -consumer’s choice. Becoming a more conscious leader, then, will achieve better business outcomes.

Leadership rebooted – and re-rooted

The modern business context has changed so many aspects and requirements of leaders, but traditional management practices still have much merit. In manufacturing companies the kaizen philosophy of continuous improvement includes gemba, meaning ‘the actual place’. Leaders are expected to take regular gemba walks; these visits are not intended to find flaws, to criticise or correct, but instead to see how and where the work really happens, to appreciate the experience of the factory floor workers, to learn about the core processes. In essence, to understand.

The capacity to understand, to respect, to feel what others are experiencing: this is the definition of empathy.

Today, inspirational business leadership builds on, and incorporates more of, these emotional cues as drivers of motivation, connection, and the pursuit of shared goals. Studies by a number of the world’s largest and leading consultancies pinpoint the weight employees attach to qualities such as openness and communicativeness, to actions that empower and encourage, and demonstrations of optimism balanced with humility.

Realistically, excellent leadership does require regular ‘tuning out’ – a deep-dive revisit of strategies and measures to realign to the longer-term vision. But day-to-day, hour-by-hour, it’s the ‘tuning in’ to the workforce, as colleagues and individuals, that nurtures trust, a culture of collaboration, and a problem-solving organisational mindset. A holistic human centredness inspires people.

Will a more human-centric approach be worth it?

We should be wary of answering adamantly and optimistically. Profits are a powerful pull. Shareholders demand returns on their investments (ROI). Global recession may be inevitable in the aftermath of the pandemic, with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimating a $9 trillion loss of economic output across 2020-2021.

But evidence exists that a human-centric approach improves employees’ commitment. And an engaged workforce may be a company’s greatest asset. Global talent research and consultancy group, Gallup, report a close correlation between engagement and delivery: across their global database, businesses in the top quartile of employee engagement scores are 17% more productive and 21% more profitable than those in the bottom quartile. Clearly, a human-centric corporate culture is a high-performance culture.

Unfortunately, SA lags, appallingly. Gallup’s latest global survey, pre-pandemic, reports that a paltry 9% of our workforce is actively engaged, and notes this to be “a stunning amount of wasted potential.”

There are other ways to assess corporate cultures and policies which do not prioritise correctly, humanly. In April 2010 BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig spilled the equivalent of five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in the largest-ever maritime environmental disaster. The cause of the explosion was a wellhead blowout on the rig. Routine maintenance had been cut; standards were compromised as management pushed ruthlessly to finish the project. Essentially, this was a failure to prioritise human considerations (and to respect the marine environment) ahead of cost and time-completion criteria.

The explosion resulted in an immeasurable environmental cost; the spill area alone was host to over 8,000 marine species, and devastating effects continues today. BP was fined $18.7 billion. How should we measure the 17 lives lost?

Blowout, burnout, fatigue

Digital and information technologies have quickened processes and extrapolated the need for more: data, output, connections, billable hours and ideas. Working lives have become more demanding. Business is now very busy.

And managers should acknowledge that hyper-competitiveness has heightened the quest for high-performance. Encouraging long hours and internal rivalry, instituting pressurised deadlines and high-bar incentives – these are useful tools for getting ahead, but they may not be productive in the longer term nor in a wider context. They are closely associated with fatigue and burnout, and may seriously compromise mental and physical health.

In his recent book Stressproof: The Game Plan, South African wellness, stress and performance consultant Richard Sutton assesses how work has become a stressor of serious proportions, and urges business leaders to acknowledge their “responsibility to shield and buffer those that fall within [their] sphere of influence.”

Welcome to the future

The importance of human-centric leadership may soon reach a crescendo. Increasingly, robotics perform manual functions on many factory floors, where functions are twinned between humans and machines. There’s even a standard manufacturing industry word for this: ‘co-bots’. And artificial intelligence (AI), in the 10-15 years, may fundamentally change or replace 40% of jobs, even senior management roles – and even in professional sectors such as medicine and law. SA-born tech guru Elon Musk warns of AI’s unknowable capabilities and powers.

If this sounds dystopian, it’s also another reason to act, now. ‘People first’ means, too, knowledge-building and growth, to prepare employees for the future.

2020 as a tipping point?

Before early-2020, a clear work-life trend had been the infiltration of work into people’s personal lives: always-on connectivity; checking emails after hours; late-night pre-reading for the day ahead. In an ironic twist, the pandemic’s enforced phase of remote work has turned this around. Life has collided into business: domestic chores dictate when meetings can be scheduled; children play in the background to Zoom meetings; health and wellness concerns are openly expressed and identified as a genuine, ongoing corporate issue.

The blurring of the personal and the professional is beautifully captured for posterity in an April 2020 live television interview. “It’s a learning process,” says the medical expert being questioned, the gentle irony reflected in a smile as she swings her curious young daughter off her lap and away from the laptop camera. But her daughter continues to explore and fidget in the background, distracting her mother. On one of the world’s biggest media platforms, a giant broadcasting corporation, it’s a moment of pure openhearted play, enriched by humour: “This is the most informative interview I’ve ever done,” says the BBC’s experienced presenter, Christian Fraser.

In many respects, the new shape of work-life balance is delightful. (For the full interaction, guaranteed to make your day, follow this link.)

We should remember, however, that history marks periods of rapid technological disruption as having far-reaching societal impacts, but these are difficult to predict and they unravel in different gears. The future of work may improve in gradual increments, not leaps.

One thing seems clear, however: the world over, people are clamouring for their lives to be better, including improved livelihoods. The world of work needs an overhaul. It needs to be humanised.

In a management role and wishing to direct or influence workplace culture and change in your company? Consider enrolling in WDC’s Emotional Intelligence short course, specifically compiled to guide EQ development towards more conscious leadership. And the questions below may highlight areas for reassessment, towards a more people-centric environment in your organisation: 

Leadership. Honest, candid leadership is the touch-paper for the organisation’s culture. At work, do you allow yourself to be authentic?

Communication. Communication is embryonic to meaningful human connections. Is this genuinely prioritised, both upwards and downwards, and practised uniformly throughout the organisation?

Flexibility. The necessity of remote work may be easing. But employers and employees alike have realised the benefits of time-and-place flexibility. Is the company formulating policies and guidelines to embrace this?

Autonomy. Empowered, trusted employees gain confidence and improve productivity. Does the organisation allow employees to influence their outcomes?

Spatial design. Covid precautions are mandatory. Beyond these, offices and workplace facilities should encourage both collaboration and degrees of privacy. Is your workspace a match for healthy and happy employees?


Written By:

Gavin Olivier

Senior Partner and Managing Executive


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