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Enough of the grey cubicle? Why putting the human at the heart of business is so important!

Updated: Jun 30, 2023

For a long time, corporate culture has been defined by the workstation – often a grey cubicle with your name sign on it, maybe a couple of personal photos and if you are lucky and senior enough, you get an office where you can pull the blinds down. The more creative companies have taken inspiration from the likes of Lego and Google and are moving away from this, installing slides, idea sharing areas and table tennis tables. That’s great – much more human, inspiring office environments are springing up in even in the heart of traditional corporate offices BUT, aside from the physical environment, are we really making organisations more human to work in?

Are we creating the ‘psychological environment’ in which people can thrive rather than frazzle?

Engagement has been the buzzword for the new millennium but how effective have our strategies really been? I think the answer to a happy and productive workforce lies much deeper, at the grass roots level. I share the emerging view that engagement is really an outcome and what really drives that outcome is us human folks fully expressing what it means to be human in our work. Create the right human environment where people feel cared for, trusted, appreciated and inspired, where you can be your true self (to name a few things us human beings crave to thrive) then engagement will naturally follow. Yet we seem to be pre-occupied with performance and efficiency at the moment. Yes, there will always be some coasters in organisations, some bad apples and some that struggle to take responsibility. But these are the minority. If we take the view that most people want to do a good job and take some sense of pride in what we do, we need to make sure we create an environment that enables this to become an everyday reality.

The world of work as we all see is rapidly changing. Since 2007 we have been running on leaner teams yet our workload seems to be increasing as our clients and shareholders demand more and more. The digital revolution has been amazing and we can now be plugged in 24/7 and be easily tracked by those that want our attention. Yet that all comes with a price – having worked with many organisations, I am seeing many folk reaching breaking point as their plates pile so high the plates are not just full – cracks are appearing.

Our expectations around work are changing too. Many of us are looking for more meaning in our work. Work that has a purpose and where we are clear how we contribute to that purpose. We are seeking more life integration where flexibility enables us to really live our lives and not just work until we drop. Technology now offers us the opportunity to be much more flexible in how and where we work. People are getting tired of ‘just coping’ and wearing masks every day for fear of being seen that they are not coping. Fear that we may be seen for who we really are with our imperfections revealed. Yet the emerging zeitgeist is people are looking for more real connection and more authenticity. Advertisers are known for spearheading trends and are now seeking much more genuine connections with their customers at a deeper level. Organisations for a long time now have placed the customer experience under the microscope yet it’s only more recently that we have started to explore the employee experience, and not just as human resource or capital. The CIPD in their recent work around ‘Purposeful Leadership’ were very open in saying “We’re determined at the CIPD to champion a more human future of work, and by necessity a more ‘human’ practice of HR”.

We are all people – the mind is the language of our brains and the heart is the language of our bodies. We have learned to use our brains to perform, to measure, to assess risk. In fact, we spend much of our time doing this – trapped in our heads and thinking, sitting in our ‘grey cubicles’ or running around to ‘back to backs’. Is this good for our brain and good for business? Are we training our brains in the right way; being more present, more mindful and are we tuning into our bodies, listening to our heart, to our intuition and creativity that makes us human? Developments in neuroscience are showing our capacity to rewire our own brains and break old habits so the the time is ripe to make sure that we don’t burnout, that we bring our full selves to work and realise our full potential.

Are we truly happy at work and do we feel like we are being and giving the best of ourselves or are we stuck in a way of being that we have learnt that no longer serves us, where even though we may enjoy what we do, we end our day feeling exhausted?

Exhaustion, not just from workload, but by wearing our masks, by fighting daily battles and by being pulled in so many directions. According to the recent Gallup study only 17% of employees in the UK are engaged, 57% are not engaged and 26% are actively disengaged. Very sobering figures indicating that we have a big problem to solve out there.

Year on year we have to deliver even more shareholder value than previous years; generate more income and shave our costs. The big squeeze! But how much more can we get out of ourselves, or our people, without us all going crazy. Last year alone a record 17 million working days were lost, costing the economy at least £2.4billion, according to the UK Statistics Authority. Figures taken from the Labour Force Survey also show that such absenteeism has increased by 25 per cent over the past year. Do we actually want to go to work?!

My whole focus the last few years has been having conversations with organisations from front desk to the boardroom to look at how we solve this conundrum? The common view seems to boil down to one vital thing – how do we make workplaces more human?

Historically, philanthropists have recognised that if we cared for our workers and showed we valued them they would be healthier and happier. Now living in the increasing age of automation and digital connectivity, the multi-screen grey cubicles have become the new looms or steel presses as we increasingly use our brains in agile ways and do much less our hands. Not only do we need to look after our brains better and use technology developments to aid efficacy and flexibility rather than create overwhelm, we also need to realise that what makes us human beings is not just in the work that we do.

So, what does it mean to be a human being in the workplace?

I believe if we create more compassionate and more inspiring psychological, as well as physical environments where people want to come and stay, we are a long way down the road to making the workplace human. Places where people feel really cared for, appreciated and valued for what they do. Where they feel inspired by their fellow workers and their leaders and are trusted to do great work.

Those of you who have seen Daniel Pinks’ research will know how autonomy, mastery and purpose plays a huge role in motivating us and that pay is largely a hygiene factor. So we must create environments where peopleM can take control of their own work and destiny, where they can learn and where they can connect to a wider purpose.

What will happen if we don’t really embrace this? We risk losing the people that we wanted to employ in the first place as they move to organisations that offer a better work culture or choose starting up their own business rather than working for ‘the man’.

We need to embrace a whole new paradigm for work.

Over the coming weeks I will be exploring what putting the human at the centre of organisations means and how we can build more compassionate and inspiring work cultures by making this central to our culture strategy and by developing practical solutions. I’d really love to hear your own views on what being human at work means to you, and your organisations, so please do send me your comments and let’s get the conversation flowing beyond the grey cubicle! Let’s start re-imagining the workplace.

Thank you for reading.

David Liversage

Fellow human, people and culture enthusiast


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