Five ways to humanize the workplace

Five ways to humanize the workplace

As a bunch of humans working for the benefit of other humans, it’s somewhat ironic that we should need to humanize the workplace.

Artists and wordsmiths have agonized over the human condition for centuries (or should that be millennia?), but when it comes to working it’s easy to forget we’re all the same.

Humanizing the workplace shouldn’t need attention.

But it does. Especially if organisations want to keep their employees and encourage them to deliver to the best of their abilities.

It’s not a new problem. Hark back to the industrial revolution where children were used as cheap labour – forced to carry heavy loads for 16-hour days. Their parents fared no better; in 1860s Liverpool, life expectancy was a meagre 25 years as dreadful working conditions combined with the disastrous effects of early urbanisation.

Hallelujah then for George Cadbury, Titus Salt and others; leading the way in humanizing what were otherwise hideous workplaces.

These vanguards of Victorian worker welfare believed it was possible to run a business that was profitable and pleasant to work in. Indeed, they believed they’d see better results if they actively cared for their workers. Cadbury and Salt introduced shorter working weeks and provided pensions and sick pay for their employees.

But perhaps more impressive is the way they invested in the infrastructure that supported the welfare of their employees. Both men built model villages for the benefit of their workforce.

Founded in locations away from the clamour and filth of the cities, these towns were something of a paradise.

Bournville (Cadbury) and Saltaire (Salt) had spacious homes, green space recreational facilities such as swimming baths, a church and a school; neither Cadbury nor Salt permitted child labour.

Thank our lucky stars that times have moved on and employers no longer need to take such drastic measures. Even so, there remain infinite ways to humanize a workplace:

1. Work healthy

Fewer and fewer people work in places deemed dangerous; the days of satanic mills and working down t’pit are no more than a relic of our grandparents’ memories. In the developed world at least, factories and mines are managed with an eagle eye on health and safety with technology doing more of the metaphorical and actual heavy lifting. But let’s be honest here, you don’t need to be doing a dangerous job to endanger your health.

Stress is a modern epidemic closely related to workplace pressures. And stress manifests itself with a range of nasty physical symptoms, from back and neck pain to infertility and mental health issues. There’s nothing pretty about the effects of stress on your workforce.

Humanizing a workplace begins with respecting and protecting the wellbeing of the folk who work there. Here are some starters:

The right equipment

Ergonomically designed gear that’s up to date minimises physical and emotional stress. Those with recognised disabilities are entitled to reasonable adjustments to help them work to the best of their abilities; making sure all your employees have the right equipment will pay dividends. Remember, not everyone works in an environment that you have active control over. The facilities manager cannot be in co-working spaces, coffee shops and home offices across the globe. As location-remote roles increase, you should ensure home-workers are as well-equipped as office-based workers; the temptation to slouch over a laptop at the kitchen table is catastrophic for long term musculoskeletal health if relied upon as a regular working set-up.

Flexibility to work at your best

The virtuous circle of work-life balance means a happy home life equates to a happy work-life, which in turn means a happy home life. Allowing your staff to work flexibly is proven to reduce stress and increase productivity. Don’t limit it to parents who have early pick ups to manage. Find a way to let everyone benefit.

Mental health care…

“A couple of years ago, we had high absence rates and a lot of stress amongst our team”, Sanja, head of finance and HR at homelessness charity Emmaus told me.

Dealing with an emotionally draining role was sapping the life out of her team. The strength of a charity depends on the strength of its employees and she urgently took steps to make the workplace more supportive. The team now has a mental health first aider on site and run regular reflective practice sessions as a way of helping team members help one another and manage stress levels.

“Self-preservation is so important” Sanja told me. “You need to help yourself before you can help others”.

It’s a message that resonates beyond the charity sector. Healthcare, education, hospitality – all sectors that demand high levels of emotional energy – need to support their staff to look after themselves so that they in turn can look after their customers.

2. A commitment to diversity and inclusiveness

Regular readers of this blog will know we’re huge exponents of workplace diversity and inclusiveness. And for good reason. It’s not just that inclusive organisations are more likely to succeed than their mono-cultural equivalents, but that they’re nicer places to work.

Time for a story. I grew up in a dull little town in rural Lincolnshire where you were considered exotic if you’d lived in another part of the UK (which I had – yes, I was exotic). When I started my first job – a brand analyst at Colgate-Palmolive – I was overwhelmed by the number of cultures I dealt with. There I was, working with Australians, Kenyans and Americans to name just a few.

There were women who achieved the dizzying heights of the C-Suite whilst raising kids single-handedly.

Men who went home to pick up their children from school because, well why wouldn’t they? It might sound ridiculous, but I never expected this level of diversity.

I learnt so much from it; not just about business and culture. Instead I learnt how to think before I speak. How not to make assumptions based on lazy stereotypes. That if you’re in the right environment and want something enough and are prepared to work for it, you can probably achieve it.

If Colgate-Palmolive had just given lip service to diversity and equality, the office dynamics would have been rather different; a smaller mix of people with fewer perspectives.

Would the conversations have been as open? The implementation as collaborative? It wasn’t faultless, but one thing’s for sure; the diverse and inclusive culture with ample opportunity meant a warm environment with excellent business results. I stayed for 12 years, and other colleagues stayed longer; a rare accolade in recent times.

3. A personalized sense of direction

WL Gore is a fascinating example of a corporation that – in the words of Fortune.com – makes its employees “deliriously happy”.

Their “lattice-work” structure shuns a conventional and they encourage and support their associates (no-one at WL Gore is an employee) to navigate their own way through the business.

Their impressive retention rate (full time voluntary turnover is 3%) is no accident; few things make employees feel more like they’re a cog in a gigantic machine than an absence of career direction.

Human scale working environments expound that it is only possible to have a personal relationship with up to 299 other employees. With many firms several times that size, taking time out on a one-to-one basis to deeply understand what makes a person tick is a valuable and appreciated investment; we all want to be seen, heard and acknowledged.

Our work in the careers space has convinced us that this investment results in lower staff turnover, higher performance, reduced sickness absence and improved internal mobility.

Career support can help humanize the workplace; encouraging employees to deliver better results and contributing to stronger retention. But it’s not all sunshine and roses. For career conversations and development chats to have real meaning, they must be personalised; a one-size fits all approach to career development won’t work.

What’s more, you must equip managers to deliver these conversations. Knowing which career and development options are available gives managers the chance to provide real guidance and support employees to develop realistic and motivating career paths. Career conversation training is especially important when the practice is being embedded into your organisation or if managers are new.

Let’s remember that those conversations are only useful if your employees are actually suited to your organisation and have the self-awareness to know what they want to achieve. Tools like The Career Equation® go a long way in helping your employees recognise their strengths and goals. That recognition builds confidence and contentment which in turn helps create a better sense of belonging.

4. Relationships matter

The future is here! AI is with us and we’ve been video-calling for some time now.

And all this tech makes it easy to forget we’re a bunch of humans working together. As useful as chatbots, instant messenger and instant holiday requests are, they remove the interaction that can make workplace a fun place to hang out and damage the potential to build genuine connection with your co-workers.

Free Nespresso, doughnuts and fruit will never make up for a workplace that lacks the human touch – there’s no substitute for genuine relationships.

The act of building those relationships can be as powerful as the relationships themselves. Sarah, a claims handler in the city, gave me a wonderful example. Two weeks into a new role at a new company, she completed a request to homogenise a report across the organisation. Her new manager was delighted with the work and asked her to send it to the departmental director. The director also appreciated her efforts and took her into a call with the global department director so she could build a connection with him.

“I was amazed” Sarah told me “It’s something that’s never happened to me in my career before and it really made me feel appreciated”.

It would be short-sighted to reserve those “human moments” for outstanding work. Build relationships wherever you can. Stroll over to someone for a chat instead of emailing them. Book in a Zoom call with your remote team instead of Whatsapping them. Send a handwritten note to say thanks for a great job. Small touches make the world of difference.

5. Try a little kindness

Stop. And before you do anything else, bookmark this podcast so you can listen to it when you’ve finished reading. Bossy instruction over, I’ll continue…

Most of us are familiar with Mary Portas’s success, but her story is less well known. The touching podcast you’ve just bookmarked highlights the power of kindness for a successful personal and professional life. (go deeper and read this, too Environmental Fit and Understanding Success – What do Women Want?)

Mary’s belief that “if you put joy and kindness in, then everything else will follow” could well be a mantra for us all to live by in these troubled times and is especially relevant to anyone serious about humanizing the workplace.

You don’t need to travel far to hear real-life examples of the impact of workplace compassion. Having been through a very tough time with a previous employer, Tracy London, a project lead in the NHS, was evangelical about her current role.

“The NHS is the most lovely place to be” she told me. “The culture is open, honest, caring. The people are genuinely lovely. I’ve never worked harder for any organisation, but the outcomes are so worth it.”

We can all help to humanize the workplace

It’s not as simple as stating that humanizing your workplace is just a case of common sense. But then neither is it rocket science. Each of us can contribute towards making our workplaces a nicer place to do business. From senior management to night-time security guards, it’s the multiple interactions and diversity of thought that makes each workplace a unique, living, breathing organism. Or to put it another way – human.

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