Finally! We’re designing work for humans first, not machines

HR Innovation

Ding-dong, the office cubicle is dead! But it’s not the only box that needs breaking: nine box grids, ‘out of the box’ leadership programs, 2 x 2 matrices designed to help ‘tick-a-box’, all rigid frameworks designed to make machines more efficient, not people. It’s time for a human first approach to work. 

Coach and consultant, Peta Karunaratne, Founder of The Karuna Collective believes the time has come to bust the madness of 1980s HR practices and start thinking about how we elevate and expand experiences at work so that “Our people – the humans in our care, become bigger, better versions of themselves.”

HR dinosaurs still stalking your office?

Today’s HR practices and ways-of-working are the product of a bygone time when standardisation and efficiency was the goal, but don’t reflect how humans function at the peak.

“We need to design work for humans, not machines,” says Peta, “And in doing so, create a greater impact in their life, their community and your organisation.”

1980s HR theories and practices persist not because they help achieve our business’ goals, but because they’re stubbornly embedded into our frameworks, policies and culture.

“The 1980s saw a boom in ‘HR frameworks’ which we’ve diligently applied. Sure, they helped us create consistency, but at what consequence? How is consistency now serving you and your organisation’s future?”

“Could the silver-lining of the past 18-months could be our willingness to look afresh at what no longer serves us and start the conversation with employees about co-creating new ways of doing business?” suggests Peta.

Post COVID, even the most stubborn HR dinosaurs concede that work no longer has to look like sitting in front of a computer screen in a city-based office tower for eight hours, five days a week.

“The pandemic confirmed what many of us suspected already; our greatest creativity is rarely revealed in front of a screen, and we work best when we are most in flow,” says Peta.

Don’t be afraid of what employees might say. Be afraid of what happens if you don’t ask.

Beyond flexibility there are plenty of other dimensions that need to be overhauled to create a more human-centred workplace. Current structures (e.g. organisational design; team structures; and power dynamics), systems (e.g. collaboration technologies; leadership assessment and development programs) and processes (e.g. recruitment frameworks; promotion pathways and talent identification) – even basic assumptions about what work is, are all up for review.

The first step is to start a conversation with the people who are experiencing your workplace first-hand. COVID has shown much of what we once thought to be incompatible with productivity and profitability, such as working from home and prioritising sustainability and social outcomes and even shorter working weeks, can work differently, and perhaps better.

“Things remain uncertain but it’s precisely because of this ambiguity that now is the right time to question all your People & Culture beliefs to decide if they are helping, or hindering, your future,” says Peta.

The war for talent 2.0

In an already tight labour market with radically shifting employee values, people will once again be businesses’ scarcest and most valuable resource (but really, when weren’t they?)

“The companies who lead on issues like radical flexibility, sustainability and tackling social issues, will have the attention of top talent,” says Peta.

Canva’s recent $40 billion valuation, and simultaneous announcement that its founders would commit the vast majority of their equity to ‘do the most good we can’, ends any persistent assumptions that in order to be successful, businesses must focus on productivity and profitability at the expense of people and planet.

Add to this, Canva’s shift towards radical flexibility requiring employees to come into the office only eight times a year and it’s not hard to see why the brightest talent is flocking to join the most valuable privately-held company in the world.

The early movers

Other early movers putting people at the heart of their brand with a variety of lockdown-specific and ongoing human first initiatives include:

Work180: Reignited the shorter-week debate by shifting permanently to a 9-day fortnight, allowing staff a paid day every two weeks to recharge. The move came after a three-month long pilot which Founders report has been effective at tackling burnout, with no adverse impact on productivity.

Nike: Gave US Head Office staff a week of to recover from the pressures of the pandemic with senior management going so far as to issue a ‘Do not work’ directive. Like sport, Nike has identified that taking time for rest and recovery is key to performing well.

Xero: Starting with product and tech teams, permanent employees are encouraged to ‘choose your career adventure’, permitting them  to become permanent remote employees. Xero cover the of setting up a home office, as well as travel and accommodation to visit relevant Xero offices up to four times a year, on top of all their standard employee perks.

Citigroup: An early mover, the Bank announced Zoom-Free Fridays way back in May to help employees recover from Zoom fatigue and manage the relentlessness of the pandemic workday.

Adore Beauty, Linktree and Rome2Rio have each announced ‘tools down days’, providing staff with paid days off to recharge, tackle life admin and cope with associated stress of ongoing lockdowns

Some have gone ever further: in the wake of Texas’ effective banning of abortions six weeks after conception, Salesforce offered to relocate Texas employees and their families, once the law goes into effect.

These early movers show that while it takes intention, deliberate design and a courageous dose of conviction, it is possible to redesign a different, better way of being in business.

Need help?

Reach out to The Karuna Collective if you’re being challenged to reimagine a more caring, human first workplace. We’re here to help.

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