As humans, we move through our worlds without knowing what our futures hold.
Our careers evolve over time and lead us to unknown, unexpected, and unforeseen places. Our relationships take turns we never thought they’d take, and we’re put through experiences we never thought we’d ever have to deal with.
Our lives are entirely unpredictable: nothing is certain, and nothing is guaranteed.
Yet our workplaces? For the past century-plus, they’ve been operating as if they’ve been able to glimpse into the future.
Thanks to the Industrial Era, the majority of the working world became predictable and controlled. The principles of Scientific Management were applied to everything, as leaders focused on OPTIMIZING ALL THE THINGS for efficiency, productivity, and predictability. And furthermore, they optimized relationships between Managers and Workers by removing trust, providing repetitive, explicit tasks, and direct supervision to make sure things were done as they were expected to be done.
And guess what: it worked wonderfully!
The machines we were building and the processes we were creating were perfect for that style of management, because the more repeatable we could make things, the more output we could create, and the more output we created, the more value we created, and the more value we created, the more money we made. Time equaled money, and it was all about inputs and outputs. The more we put in, the more we got out.
Now, everything is different.
We now live in an era of abundance, whereas before we lived in an era of scarcity. Now, we have variety of everything, access to everything, and are able to produce and trade mass amounts of goods and services, all over the world. New tools and machines are no longer the driving force for making lives better and lifting people from economic poverty; instead, ideas, creativity, knowledge, problem solving, and information are the new tools of work.
Yet now, there’s a gap — a chasm, almost — created in the system. A gap in the place where certainty and predictability used to be. And that gap is growing, because most institutions and organizations are still operating on the principles of that industrial, predictable era, and we’re creating a lot of debt throughout organizations that are unable to properly adapt to the new rules of the world around them.
So what are we do to?
We need to learn what these new rules are, share them far and wide, and then transform our institutions and organizations to wholly embrace them as quickly as they can.
Now is the era of being human-focused.
Throughout most organizations, we’re drowning in policies, processes, and philosophies that fail to address some of the most basic principles of the world: that people, and the human experience, are at the center of everything we do. We’re clinging to these practices that were designed for a time that once was, except we live in modern times where almost everything has changed.
But the one thing that hasn’t changed? Human needs and desires.
Jobs are done by humans, products are purchased by humans, art is interpreted by humans, knowledge is learned by humans, businesses serve humans, technology is used by humans, and so on. Our species rules this planet, yet we’ve gotten ourselves into a situation where we’ve developed our infrastructure to be optimized for the entities we’ve created (machines, systems, organizations, etc) as opposed to being optimized for ourselves! Furthermore, we’ve let our lust for optimization, efficiency, and productivity captain the ship, while we’re stuck taking orders as the crew.
As we evolve into the 21st-century — the next iteration of humankind — now is the time to focus on the needs of people in the workplace, because people are the ones who have the ability to think, learn, and create the future we’ll all share in. The ideal shared prosperity that so many of us seek to create. It is us, the humans, who have developed cities, businesses, communities, and societies, so it is us, the humans, who must be considered when we put energy into making things better.
Technology isn’t the focal point of the future; humans are. Organizations are not in control of us; we are in control of them. Systems, as powerful as they may be, do not deserve the power they have achieved; we as humans must evolve our systems so they serve us — the people — instead of themselves, the system.
It’s time to embrace The Human Era. It’s time to put people — our needs, traits, quirks, beliefs, values, wants, desires, etc — as the focal point of organizational leadership.
In organizations, people are at the core of everything we do, so people must be at the core of how we lead, work, and operate.
As startups rise and put incumbents out of business; as globalization makes the world increasingly smaller; as the internet connects everything there is to connect, there are new rules of engagement for modern organizations. Specifically, these new rules require leaders far and wide to let go of what they think they know, and embrace the uncertainty of the 21st-century. Furthermore, they require people to tap into their their emotional intelligence — empathy, awareness, presence, etc — and help our workplaces embrace what it means to be human.
In leading Management Thinking and Organizational Design circles, Emergent Organizations are being talked about more and more; Organizations that experiment, learn, embrace ambiguity, thrive amid uncertainty, and emerge in the midst of complex, dynamic, rapidly-changing environments.
One of the prevalent philosophies of an Emergent Organization is the inherent need to embrace components of nature, such as ecosystems, complexity, unpredictability, ambiguity, chaos, and more. These traits are the makeup of our modern landscape and must be wholly embraced if an organization is going to thrive in the future. Emergent Organizations have designed themselves to intentionally leverage these conditions by learning to respond and adapt to the world around them, instead of trying to shape the world to reflect their own image.
But adaptability is only one piece of the puzzle. Which is where Human Workplaces come into play.
What I haven’t seen much of in the conversation about Emergent Organizations is the focus on the human elements of work. Specifically, a focus on helping people balance the needs of their work alongside their personal priorities as a way to enable people to do their best work and live their best lives.
All the emergent organization blog posts I’ve read talk about designing systems in certain ways so the organization emerges to realize its full potential. While this is critical for organizations to thrive in this modern environment, to me, there’s more to it. There’s the added component of taking care of people by creating environments that support a person’s wholeness, and add value to their lives, as opposed to extracting as much as an organization possibly can.
Human Workplaces are an essential addition to emergent organizations because they intentionally develop cultures that add value to the lives of the people who work with them, beyond just their contribution to the progress of the organization. They embrace the truths of life and what it means to be a human, and put the needs of people at the center of an organization’s design, as opposed to just the needs of the organization.
Human Workplaces facilitate trusting relationships between employer and employees, and provide flexibility and autonomy for people to balance personal needs (health, family, etc) with work objectives (projects, deadlines, etc).
Human Workplaces are representative of the communities they serve and operate within, and offer inclusive environments so people of all kinds feel welcome, comfortable, and supported in their professional endeavors.
Human Workplaces understand that people are complex beings with a certain set of needs that must be met in order for everyone to do their best work.
Human Workplaces recognize that people have lives, and mostly don’t want to be working all the time, so have chosen to place value on impact, as opposed to false metrics of productivity like growth, profit, and checkboxes.
Human Workplaces focus on creating equitable relationships and positive economic impact through livable wages, paid parental leave, sustainable long-term thinking, diverse and inclusive work environments, wellness programs, flexible scheduling, individualized learning pathways, and various other ways of investing in people.
Let me say that again: HUMAN WORKPLACES INVEST IN PEOPLE.
Mostly, Human Workplaces are designed to help their people create value that moves the organization towards fulfilling its purpose, as opposed to being designed for the organization to extract value from the people while giving nothing back.
Instead of organizations designing structures that are best for them, Human Workplaces are designed to be supportive of the people who serve them: employees, customers, partners, and anyone within the organization’s ecosystem.
The core belief of Human Workplaces is that the wellbeing of their people is essential in order for an organization to fully achieve its mission, and therefore all systems, structures, and processes must be designed in consideration of human needs, instead of in spite of them.
Human organizations are supportive of the messiness that is human life. Volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, real life isn’t always pretty — and neither are our professional endeavors. Yet for decades, organizations have expected people to “button up” and present as if everything is under control.
Human organizations flip this on its side by saying “yes, work — just like life — is messy,” and by embracing that messiness, and supporting the wholeness of people, we’ll be better positioned to realize our potential and achieve our mission.
Our lives are not predictable and we do not know what the future holds, yet as people, we wake up every day and go to work. We try new things, learn from those experiences, and then try something new. We actively learn as we move through life, and the most successful of us are driven by purposes that are bigger than ourselves. We experiment, fail, iterate, try again, fail, cry, struggle, push through, struggle more, try more, fail more — and then one day, have a breakthrough that changes everything.
And we can see it happening now: the organizations leading the way are the ones that are embracing the messiness of life and work, and learning to use our humanity as a strength, instead of a weakness.
And that’s what makes them human.
Human Organizations design environments that are inclusive, humane, adaptable, equitable, and ready to emerge from the complex environment that is modern life.
Emergent Organizations are designed for adaptability, and Human Organizations are designed to support the wholeness of their people. Emergent Organizations are about structure, processes, and policies, while Human Organizations are about empathy, trust, and the needs of people as humans, not just as employees.
They are two peas in the same pod.
Imagine a world where work supports your life, and life supports your work. Where instead of being two opposing forces, work and life are in service of each other, as opposed to against one another. Where you’re supported by your environments and colleagues, and emboldened to do the best work of your life, while also living the life you want to live.
Welcome to the future of work.
Welcome to The Human Era.