There are several trends in the world of work and beyond that are pressuring enterprises to humanize work. But as of yet, these factors are not changing the workplace to the extent that they should. Leaders should consider these trends when trying to engage their people.
Alienation from the workplace
People more than ever feel alienated from their places of work. Relentless organizational restructuring and downsizing, re-engineering, and layoffs are now commonplace. This upheaval inevitably unsettles and demoralizes employees, particularly those who lose their job! Throw into the mix the growing inequality of wages and the rising disconnect—reflected in engagement survey results worldwide—and insecurity understandably builds. Although people feel separated from their organization more than ever, they paradoxically yearn for a more humanizing workplace. The estrangement caused by these unsettling forces presents real opportunities for leaders to improve their interactions with team members.
The pervasive influence of technology is another driving force to humanize work through better conversations. Isn’t it ironic that we’ve never been more connected digitally, and yet—at a human level—we’ve never been so disconnected? At the click of a button, we can connect with someone on the planet in seconds. This digital connectivity and the wonderful benefits it brings is a relatively recent phenomenon. In inverse proportion, there’s been a rapid erosion in human connectivity. Regional communities have been replaced by virtual communities. We don’t always know our neighbors, let alone the people who live in the house across the street. What’s more, we’re not all that interested in knowing. We keep to ourselves. We don’t know the name of the person who services our car or the person behind the counter at the corner store. And yet, we humans still have a deep hunger for human connection; much deeper than ‘connecting’ with friends on Facebook. So, the workplace can—and does, to some extent—fill this void as our de facto community.
The workplace—despite feelings of emotional isolation—is a prime source of community. Traditional groupings for emotional bonding are evaporating. There’s a decline of neighborhoods, dwindling church attendance, disappearing civic groups, and less reliance on extended families, for example. Can the workplace community—even with its apparent insecurities—compensate for these dwindling, traditional pillars of society? For an increasing percentage of employees, the workplace offers the only steady link with other people—a constant source of ongoing human interaction.
The meaning of work
With the digital explosion comes lots of exposure to new ideas, philosophies, and perspectives. For instance, Eastern philosophies are no longer mysterious to Westerners. What’s more, Eastern philosophies have inspired Westerners to consider other forms of spirituality. There’s a growing curiosity in Buddhism and Confucianism, for example. Zen Buddhism and Confucianism promote practices like mindfulness and meditation and emphasize values such as loyalty to one’s group instead of individualism. Central to these philosophies is the discovery of one’s spiritual identity in all pursuits. These sorts of ideas are finding greater acceptance and application in our society. Time-honored beliefs such as these are shaping the way we think about our lives, including the role work plays.
With a large slice of the current workforce contemplating retirement and about to depart full-time work, baby boomers are reflecting on the meaning of their lives and the legacy they leave behind. As aging baby boomers move closer to life’s greatest certainty—death—they naturally have a growing interest in contemplating life’s meaning. I know I do! This reflection concentrates more attention on one’s work contribution.
Creativity and global competition
There’s a lot of talk and instances of artificial intelligence taking people’s jobs now and in the not-so-distant future. At the same time, escalating global competition has, in the past two decades, shifted attention from machines to people as the primary source of competitive edge. Despite this, most people—bar a select few—are increasingly being treated as a disposable commodity, regardless of their capabilities, skillset, or educational attainment. Yet it’s the technological tools that are the real commodities. Technology is easily accessible, reducing in price all the time in relative terms, and offers the customer a bewildering array of options. Technology is no longer the edge it once was. It’s people who are still the differentiators in the working world.
Even though people are generally treated as a resource, high-performing individuals are in great demand worldwide across all industries. The relentless pressure of global competition has escalated the value of people’s creative energy; thinking outside the box is the new black. Harnessing and maximizing people’s ideas and ingenuity involves the collaboration of head and heart. Innovative thinking that translates to practice is a rich source of adaptive advantage. Innovative thinking is the fuel that drives the necessary adaptive gain in an economy characterized by accelerated change and uncertainty.
Even with these four drivers to humanize our places of work, there are factors working against this idea. The human connection to the organization is more tenuous than it ever was. Instead of a place of dignity and security, today’s workplace is one of unease and insecurity. Work was once a stable and predictable pillar in one’s life. Today, more and more people are changing jobs for a host of reasons every couple of years or less. High turnover accounts for some of the tension we experience in the workplace. Still, these four drivers offer leaders a platform to humanize their workplaces.