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Why make work more human?

Updated: May 23, 2023

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’. Thus begins Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. It’s set in the 1700s, near the start of the industrial revolution; the revolution which still largely informs our current conceptions of ‘work’.


And perhaps it's no coincidence that many people would describe their experience of work in the same way. ‘The best of times’ perhaps because of the wonderful human interactions they experience. Because of the opportunity to create and contribute in relationship with others. The opportunity to connect to purpose. The opportunity to help improve outcomes in the world. After all, we have made enormous (but uneven) progress in human wellbeing: standards of living have skyrocketed and healthcare, education and technology have all become much more accessible and impactful.


And, yet, we also have a sense of it being ‘the worst of times’. As Peter Senge asserts in The Fifth Discipline, in his first law, many of today’s problems are a result of yesterday’s solutions. It might feel as if we are still working in a factory (even if that ‘factory’ is an office, a school, a software team or a hospital). This is perhaps because of the efficiency of industrial-era thinking in breaking down human bonds and creating human bondage, leading to people feeling trapped, dehumanised and disconnected from their sense of purpose.


The industrial revolution was not, of course, the beginning of humanity's connection with work. However, for most of our history, ‘work’ was socially located in our farm, village or town, among people that we spent most of our lives with; people with whom we had complex, intertwining relationships across the production of wealth, the connection of community and the mores, rules and purpose of religious belief. In fact, by separating us from this more human context, the industrial revolution arguably started the process of disconnecting us from our work.


The industrial revolution was, however, incredibly efficient. The division of human labour is arguably one of humanity's greatest ever inventions. Despite appalling factory conditions, despite its role in fuelling military capability and despite creating the groundwork for global colonisation, we know that industrialisation and its consequent work patterns fundamentally reshaped human wealth creation and distribution. For many, more time can now be spent on living outside of work at a higher standard. This translates as better health care, personal safety and education, more affordable global travel, a sharp decrease in avoidable deaths and a steady increase in longevity. Overall, there’s a significant increase in the possibility of leading fulfilling lives and creating vibrant, joyful communities.


To accelerate this trend, much of our collective managerial thinking for more than two hundred years has been focused on steadily evolving our work systems. Management degrees have moved from elitism to omnipresence. The work of Henry Ford and Frederic Taylor has been lauded and iterated upon. Weberian bureaucracies thrived and were propagated (classic hierarchies, organisational charts and structured position descriptions) - even as authors such as Kafka scoffed and held up a mirror to the absurdist, nightmarish and arcane qualities of those bureaucracies. An industry of motivational speakers sprang up to help people navigate these very complexities.


We no longer need to focus on efficiency of work in order to satisfy societies’ basic needs. We know that we can now abundantly produce and distribute the physical essentials of our lives. The fact that shortages of necessities do still exist is now entirely a result of our collective psyche; a hangover from the days of scarcity and parochialism. We can address food, health, education and other shortages worldwide but, collectively, humanity chooses not to.


So, as we automate production of our basic - and higher - needs, we face a choice. We can continue our industrial-era thinking, or we can let automation free us further from factory-framed work; in other words, we can make work more human. If most of today's problems are a result of yesterday's solutions then let's now set out to create solutions for the next phase of human work.


As a society, we've been thinking about this next phase for a while. We've had some attempts at collectivism, distributed decision-making, the making of more ‘funky’ workplaces and more. This has occurred in the context of global GDP steadily increasing, and exponential growth in the power of IT has helped bring artificial intelligence, process automation, the ‘internet of things’ and near universal access to almost all human knowledge.


So, we are now at a human inflexion point. We have an historic opportunity to choose between alternate futures - remaining locked into outdated and non-human workplaces or setting the groundwork for a joyous and rich future of fulfilling, purpose-driven, creative work that helps tap into the greatest potential that humanity has to offer.


So, why make work more human? Why would we invest time and resources in shifting our workplaces from ‘business as usual’ to a more collaborative pattern?


Let’s explore some reasons why, at three different levels - individual, organisational and societal.


Why Make Work More Human for Individuals?


Almost all humans want to be happy, healthy, safe and fulfilled.


This has been a theme of human thought for generations. Aristotle spoke of happiness in terms of a life of gratification (pleasure and comfort etc.) and in relation to acquiring adequate resources, community engagement and understanding and expanding our personal knowledge. [ii] Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ (food, shelter, water, security, belonging, esteem and connection to purpose) [iii] are frequently considered as underpinning human happiness. Similarly, Viktor Frankl posits that a sense of purpose and meaning is central to human happiness and existence. [iv]


Underpinning all of this is the idea that, once our basic needs are met, we possess an innate drive to live a good life, with meaning and happiness. We want this even though we are flawed and vulnerable; there is no perfect human being, there is no perfect happiness. And, so, we know that our workplaces, communities and us ourselves will need to acknowledge and accommodate these imperfections.


We also know that most humans have a sense of (quasi) altruistic legacy. That they are thinking of intergenerational beneficiaries when they take action and how they can help others in the long-term. Peter Singer suggests such altruism began as a drive to protect one's family and community in order to ensure the survival of one’s genes but that it has developed into a consciously chosen ethic with an expanding ‘circle of moral concern’ – to make a positive difference in the world more generally. [v]


These ethical and philosophical themes appear to exist across human existence. Another example is the idea that we should seek ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’.[vi] So, making work more human is far more than focusing solely on each individual; it requires a broader focus. If we want humans to be individually happy, healthy, safe and connected to purpose, then it follows that we want those humans to enjoy these attributes as part of their collective experience: in organisations, communities, nations and across all humanity.


Why Make Work More Human for Organisations?


Humans are drawn to organisations: our school, our employer, our family, our ‘clan’ and our football team. Our sense of identity and contribution is often constructed from the organisations we belong to. This affinity to be a part of a greater whole is likely one of the reasons for our success as a species - at least so far.


Organisations face a whole gamut of people challenges: staff attraction and retention, remuneration, safety, productivity, adaptation to change, developing leadership, fostering continuous learning, managing diversity, creating safety, nurturing a ‘quality employee experience’ and much more.


The thing is, every single one of these organisational challenges can be addressed or mitigated by making work more human. This is demonstrated in the five mindsets outlined in our book, Human Work; five leadership mindsets for humanising workplaces, and in the leader stories that illustrate them. Those in formal authority (CEOs and others) can fully recognise the importance and impact of successful employee strategies.


And one thing seems clear. Making work more human will make organisations more efficient, more impactful, more purpose-driven and - if their purpose is profit - more profitable.

That's a very, very powerful ‘why’.


Why Make Work More Human for Communities and for All Humanity?


Organisations are not the summit of human coordination. As the recent pandemic has shown us, we are all part of one species, one world community and one humanity. While the anthropologist Robin Dunbar posits that we can only maintain up to 150 meaningful relationships[vii], it is also clear that we can and do think more broadly. We contribute to Oxfam or other charities of no direct benefit to ourselves, our family or our nation. We join volunteer organisations. We advocate for our governments to contribute to international aid. We created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [viii] and the Sustainable Development Goals. [ix]


Western conceptualisations of humanity, politics and work are often short-sighted. Our workplaces shape our thinking to focus on short-termism. We become afraid of short-term underperformance. We comply with bureaucratic edicts and silos because we're thinking about the mortgage or the weekend or the school fees or perhaps our own retirement plans. Perhaps our narrow thinking is ‘natural’, meaning it has helped us overcome evolutionary adaptive challenges, or perhaps it is reinforced by our working lives where our tribe is our team and our ‘purpose’ is our KPIs. But more human work could fundamentally shift this perception, for everyone’s benefit.


Globally indigenous communities understand something deeper–that we are all custodians of the future and not owners of the present. They understand that today’s decisions have an impact on humans who are not yet born, whether that's in terms of climate change, road safety, educational facilities, healthcare research or more.


We know that people can steadily expand their thinking to be more human. From the work of Loevinger [x] and others and from the insights of Buddha and many faith traditions, we know that human consciousness can be deepened and that people can live lives full of joy and satisfaction in head and heart. But why would making work more human benefit communities and all humanity? The answer seems straightforward. As Steve Maraboli says in Unapologetically You:

‘When you are living the best version of yourself, you inspire others to live the best versions of themselves.’[xi]

As work becomes more human and we invest more time in our deepest, best versions of ourselves, our work culture will change. It will evolve and cascade out into the world. For example, 70 years ago, no one would have been surprised that a woman would lose her job because she got married. But our workplaces evolved. And this evolution spread into the wider world too, with gender equality steadily (but far too slowly) becoming real across all society.


As Peter Singer notes, the likelihood of acting to help someone depends on your proximity and sense of closeness to them. Perhaps if our work helped us connect more, feel more and be more, then we would help more people. Perhaps if we focused our understanding of our identities more broadly as being part of humanity, then we could address food insecurity and access to education and healthcare for all. Perhaps we could calm the destructive, narrow-minded forces that lead to conflict and warfare. Perhaps all humanity could be more compassionate and more understanding. If we make work more human, then perhaps all humanity can become more human.


And, so, this is a call to action. The ‘why’ of is happier, healthier people, more productive and impactful organisations and a humanity that thrives and evolves.


Now is the time for us to take the first steps.


Let's open our minds workplace-by-workplace. Let's release human potential and purpose and steadily shape a world brought together by our common strengths, vulnerabilities and hopes. It won't be easy and it won't be swift. Evolving more human work will mean multiple choices between competing value systems. But progress will steadily evolve; these adaptive challenges take time, effort and leadership.


If we've answered the ‘why’, then we need to consider the ‘how’ and ‘what’. The adaptive leadership challenge[xii] we face is not (solely) a matter of laws and regulations, and the timing is not a matter of weeks or even a year or two. Rather, we're looking at behavioural change on the scale of addressing climate change, reducing road fatalities, eliminating tobacco smoking or eliminating family violence. All of these challenges take willpower, time, focus, patience and persistence.


In a hundred years, we want to look back at the early 21st century as the inflexion point for a more human experience at work. An inflexion point even more profound than the industrial revolution, replete with benefits. An inflexion point to the next phase of humanity - a humanity where people contribute and live with their heads and their hearts. This is a world in which people are so much happier, so much more fulfilled and so much more connected to our shared destiny on this shared planet.


As Rabbi Harold Kushner said (paraphrasing US Senator Paul Tsongas as he contemplated his diagnosis with cancer): ‘No one ever said on their deathbed ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office’’.[xiii] But, perhaps if we make work more human, that's exactly what people may say in the future; not because they feel trapped or obliged, but because their experience of work has been joyful, engaging and fulfilling, and because they are rewarded by their contribution to the greater good in their organisations and for all humanity.


That's why we need to make work more human.


Starting now. Starting with us.


 

[i] Senge, P, 1990, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization

[ii] Aristotle, Bartlett, R. C., & Collins, S. D. (2011). Aristotle's Nicomachean ethics. University of Chicago Press.

[iii] Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396

[iv] Frankl, Viktor E. (1962). Man's search for meaning : an introduction to logotherapy. Boston :Beacon Press.

[v]Singer, P. (2011). The expanding circle: Ethics, evolution, and moral progress

[vi] Bentham, J, 1798, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.

[vii] Dunbar, R. I. M. (1992). "Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates". Journal of Human Evolution. 22 (6): 469–493

[viii] United Nations, 1948, art. 21.3

[ix] UN General Assembly, 2015 “Transforming our world : the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”

[x] Loevinger, J., Paradigms of personality, 1987

[xi] Maraboli, S., Unapologetically You: Reflections on Life and the Human Experience, 2013

[xii] Heifetz, Ronald A., Marty Linsky, and Alexander Grashow. 2009, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World. Harvard Business Press

[xiii] Tsongas, Paul, 1984, Heading Home, Knopf



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