Discover your why

To create human-centric organizations, leaders need to revisit the fundamental question of why we work.

In the early days of our 300,000-year human evolution, work was simple: we worked to eat and avoid being eaten. We found meaning through art, spirituality, science and religion. Today, being a human is complex: we navigate the internet and social media, living in a virtual world where our identity and personas can be whatever we choose. Humans are a remarkable species, ruling the planet and driving advancements in ways far beyond anything that any other species has done. And work has become an extension of our identity.

Social connectedness, culture, belonging, purpose, the ability to think – these are not things that simply stop when we are working. Neither does our lifestyle, or our responsibilities, fears and anxieties. Yet we have persuaded ourselves that when we are at work we must diminish our humanity and appear robotic. As a result, the workplace and leadership are the root causes and fuel of many societal issues, from wellbeing to inequality and the climate crisis.

Workplaces comprise diverse sets of people bringing lots of experiences and skills together for a common purpose. They need our humanness. When we show up physically, psychologically, emotionally and spiritually, we bring our minds and all the wonderful qualities that make us each unique. The most underused asset at work in the 21st century? Being human.

What can we do?

Making work more human isn’t about the chief executive, a leader, an employee or an author. It is about collectively tackling global issues; we all have a part to play in our communities and for our planet. But it starts within the workplace.

People are not cogs in your organization’s machine, there simply to drive financial success. People don’t want to be managed, controlled and worn down. They want purpose, empowerment and the chance to follow an inspirational leader: one who shows empathy and humility, is brave enough to have tough conversations, who shows respect, practices gratitude, is optimistic about the future, and who engages their team in the vision and the part they play. A workplace led by inspirational leaders and underpinned by the strong values associated with human-centricity has the moral standing to tell what is right from wrong, the curiosity to ask why, creativity to think how, and is fuelled by social connectedness, belonging and purpose.

The organizations and leaders who drag their feet, resist change, are afraid of ambiguity or the perceived loss of power will be responsible for nosediving employee engagement, and subsequent recruitment and retention issues. High turnover is destabilizing and affects the bottom line of the business. It hits psychological safety. Innovation, speed and agility are lost as newly reshaped teams try to gel. Morale plummets as employees step into cover for the knowledge gaps left by those who have moved on.

Following the year of the largest remote working experiment, few would argue against work not being somewhere we go – but being what we do, and why we do it. Technology is enabling the physical workplace, once relied upon 9am-5pm Monday-Friday, to now be a tool of choice in our armoury. We have to continue to reflect on what the physical workplace is for, why we need it and how we will use it.

The physical workplace

We must evolve to a way of working where people choose their location, the space and the technology they use, depending on the task they are working on, who they are working with, and what fits their individual needs and circumstances on that day. To attract people to the physical workplace, even just some of the time, the why must be clear.

A cookie-cutter approach has to be avoided. Before prescribing the where, we need to capture granular detail to understand the why of the workplace, and the why and how of our people. Having our why keeps us focused, makes us dig deep during tough times, and enhances creativity and motivation. As Nietzsche wrote over 100 years ago, one who has a why to live for can endure almost any how.

There is a space in your employee experience for the workplace. It is an important space that needs to be used to drive connectedness, collaboration and belonging. This is about the deep and meaningful – not free breakfasts, table tennis and tick boxes. Workplace design needs to be data-led, evolving, incorporate rest and refreshment, and enable communication, collaboration, contemplation, concentration, creativity and curiosity. It needs to provide technology that is equal to or better than what is at home, and adds real value without gimmicks; it should simplify or automate, leaving people to do the more human-centric tasks.

We have been presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reimagine work and the workplace. A human-centric workplace is not a perfect workplace; those do not exist. They take skill, a team effort, lots of practice and the mindset that you will never be done. When we bring our humanness to the workplace and enable others to bring theirs, we create an environment where people are enabled to thrive. When our people thrive, communities thrive, as does our planet. The human-centric workplace is about acknowledging that we can do better. We must do better.

Simone Fenton-Jarvis is author of The Human-Centric Workplace: Enabling people, communities and our planet to thrive (LID Publishing, 2021) and workplace consultancy director at Relogix