Despite significant technological advancements, the full realisation of human potential continues to be one of the most over-looked sources of value in organisations today.
The sad reality is that many workplaces have not been designed with the intent to unlock human potential.
Quite the opposite.
Many workplaces today are still heavily burdened with antiquated systems, processes, policies and mindsets. The central intent that lingers on in many legacy workplace design elements is not to empower and enable, but rather to control, to mitigate risk and to ‘incentivise’ desired behaviours through elaborate (usually ineffective) systems of sticks and carrots.
Over the course of our lifetime, many of us we will spend at least 90,000 hours at various workplaces. The experiences we have in these workplaces, and the extent to which we feel valued and valuable has a profound impact on us.
Recent research by Beyond Blue revealed that whilst 91% of employees believe that it is important to work in a mentally healthy workplace, only 52% agree that their workplace fits this description. The AIA Healthy Workplace survey found that 50% of Australians were suffering from at least one dimension of work-related stress.
1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men are likely to experience anxiety in their lifetime. Depression is now the number one cause of disability across the world with 1 in 6 women and 1 in 8 men likely to experience depression in their lifetime.
Johann Hari’s ground-breaking research identified nine underlying causes of depression. All nine causes have something in common – they are all forms of disconnection. In his words:
“ they are all ways in which we have been cut off from something we innately need but seem to have lost along the way”.
The first disconnection he covers in his book Lost Connections is disconnection from meaningful work. Johann explores the link between disempowerment at work and poor mental physical and emotional health. Other chapters cover; disconnection from meaningful values, disconnection from nature, disconnection from a secure future and disconnection from status and respect. All of these lost connections are lurking causes of poor mental and physical health.
There is an enormous amount of work to do (and undo) in order to create organisations that truly unlock full human potential.
As Barry Schwartz explains in his book “Why We Work”:
“What people come to seek in work largely depends on what their work makes available. The conditions of human labour created by the industrial revolution have systematically deprived people of fulfillment from their work. We “design” human nature, by designing the institutions in which people live. If we want to help design a human nature that seeks and finds challenge, engagement, meaning and satisfaction from work, we have to start building our way out of the deep hole that almost three centuries of misconception about human motivation and human nature have put us in, and help foster workplaces in which challenge, engagement, meaning and satisfaction are possible.”
Role Of Technology
Henry Ford is reported to have said; “Why is it that I always get a whole person when what I really want is a pair of hands?”.
Well, thank goodness recent technology innovations means that we can now start to relieve humans from repetitive, manual work. We are now able to utilise technology to do the mundane work that we had to crudely incentive humans to do for all these years – freeing up humans for higher-order, value-creation activities.
I recently heard Georgie Harman (CEO of Beyond Blue) talk about the important topic of supporting a mentally healthy workforce through a focus on:
“good job design and the creation of thriving systems and processes that support 5 in 5 employees”.
This was such a powerful and refreshing message to hear. Often organisations take a more reactive and narrow approach to “OH&S” focusing mainly on supporting the 1 in 5 employees currently experiencing a mental health challenge (which of course is vitally important, but in no way comprehensive or progressive).
Start To Notice
I believe that the best way to accelerate the improvement of employee experiences is simply by paying closer attention to the current state.
Become curious. Start to notice how elements of your current-state workplace design influences human behaviour, motivation, wellbeing and performance.
You can create change simply by questioning the language your use in your workplace.
For example, the term “Human Resources” has never sat well with me. According to Wikipedia, resources are defined as “materials, energy, services, staff, knowledge, or other assets that are transformed to produce benefit and in the process may be consumed or made unavailable”. Not exactly uplifting.
Also, have you ever noticed how common military terms are in business? Chief, Officer, front line, sales force, fighting uphill battles. Military constructs are not designed to unlock human potential – their intent is to create obedience.
During my Lean Six Sigma training I was taught to use a simple tool called the “Five Whys”. Here is a link to a good guide to using the Five Why’s in the Atlassian Playbook.
To use it, you simply need to channel you inner four-year-old and ask “Why?” over and over to uncover the root cause of a problem.
If you apply this tool to question elements of your current workplace design, If you get the answer “because it has always been done that way” – you have discovered an opportunity for innovation.
Here is a simple (fun) example:
Why do men in my office wear small nooses around their necks? …because ties are standard corporate attire for men.
Why is are ties standard corporate attire for men? …because it is the tradition for men to wear ties in formal settings.
Why is it the tradition for men to wear ties? …well according to a quick google search, neckwear was worn by Roman soldiers as a symbol belonging to a particular group. The modern necktie traces back to the 1600’s when Croatian mercenaries in French service, wearing their traditional small, knotted neckerchiefs, caught the interest of the Parisians and the garment gained the name “cravat”. It is believed that when a factory worker joined the management class, he could wear his cravat long as an indication that he no longer worked with machinery (as long cravats were too dangerous to wear when operating machinery). So basically, you could say that a tie is a message to the world that says “ I am important”.
Why are men still wearing ties to work today?…because we have always done it this way
How Might We…
Once you have discovered an opportunity for improvement, you can frame up the opportunity with a ‘How Might We’ statement. For example, “How might we trust our people to dress appropriately and comfortably?”
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Why are hours worked the primary unit of currency at work?
- Why do we send so much email to each other?
- Why I only get meaningful feedback from my leader once a year in my annual performance review?
- Why do we place so much more value on customer feedback than employee feedback?
- Why are there no formal mechanisms for employees to give feedback to leaders?
- Why don’t we have access to consumer-grade technology at work?
- Why do we have bonuses?
- Why do we try to slot complex talented human into narrow pre-determined job descriptions?
Don’t Just Tinker
If we really want to transform the way we work, we can’t just tinker around the edges of the current state.
The most impactful employee experience innovations start with a blank sheet of paper because we must start the process of design with the right intent at the core of the design.
So, start the design process with the intent to create a simple, inclusive, empowering, value-creating, frictionless employee experience – and see what happens. You can always add things back in later if your legal and compliance team raise concerns. But it is important not to start your design with all the current complexity and mess already baked in.
A great example of a transformational employee experience innovation comes from Aurecon. Aurecon is the first company in Australia to use a visual employment contract, eliminating more than 4000 words from their employment contracts to create a succinct and meaningful visual contract. I love that this approach creates a fresh, beautiful and playful experience for all new employees – as opposed to creating a terrible experience for everyone in order to mitigate the risk of things going badly wrong for the tiny minority of new hires. Their guiding design principles were: make the complex simple and be playful with serious intent.
Be A Pioneer & Hold The Course
The key is to hold the course and be prepared to play the long game. Establish a portfolio of employee experience experiments to test and learn, to push the boundaries and help others to see the possibilities for a different way of working.
Start by focussing on the elements of the employee experience with a clear and direct connection to better customer and commercial outcomes.
Employee (and customer) experience transformation can be insanely hard work. There will be many forces at play that try to protect the status-quo. Cass Spong of ENTHEOS Consulting explains this beautifully:
“When the alternatives start to appear there is push back as the system is inclined to self preservation. The system will try to crush the alternatives. During this period between paradigms, there is an important leadership capacity – to sit in uncertainty, to be able to sit in the swamp of uncertainty for a LONG time, maybe far longer than ever imagined.”
There is much work to be done to design and sustain thriving organisations.
As technologic advancements continue to accelerate shifts in the way we work, my hope is that we will see more organisations sustain thriving, inspired workforces, delivering great employee experiences that enable the delivery of beautiful, frictionless, valuable, differentiated customer experiences.
This is a photo of some old local newspaper clippings reporting on Miss Jean Warne’s “retirement” from her position at the local council. It was 1938 and she was getting married.
Jean Warne was my grandmother. She was 22 when this newspaper was printed.
The paper reports; “Many tributes were paid to Miss Warne when occasion was taken to officially farewell her prior to her retirement in preparation for her forthcoming wedding. She was described as having proved her worth. She had been a great girl for the council. Her interest and attitude towards her work was marvellous. Councillor Costello congratulated her on her choice of husband. He felt sure she would make a great success of married life. Mr Smith referred to the efficiency and obliging character of Miss Warne. She has proven herself to be a very fine type of girl at all times. She was a lady and efficient in every way – nothing better could be said of her. Miss Warne in responding spoke very nicely saying “all the nice remarks of me make it even harder to leave.” A few months later the paper reports on her marriage. “The gift from the groom to the bride was a crystal brush and mirror and that of the bride to the groom a attaché case”
Over the last 80 years so much has changed in regards to gender equality. Somewhere along the way someone had the courage to challenge the status-quo and ask a very bold question: “Why do women have to retire from work they enjoy when then get married?”
Through our collective and continued focus on the creation of workplaces that inspire, empower and enable human potential, the sooner more workplaces will become a source of sustained wellbeing and performance
Taking care of people so that can take care of customers the heart of great employee experience design. Great workplace design innovations can be sparked by one person simply asking why. In the great words of African-American author Alice Walker
“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”