How do we make work work for people? If we wanted to “do work better”—in a deep and fundamental way—how can we point the ship in a different direction? The answer lies in a better framework for decision-making about work, reorienting the seemingly prosaic choices we make about work with a completely shifted lens. The new voice shaping work decisions balances empathy (a deep respect for workers as fellow human beings) and economics (a pragmatic sense of the business world).
Here’s a four-point framework for how we can start making human-centric decisions that enable greater sustainable growth and productivity:
1) Humanism: This decision enhances business outcomes by creating a more natural flow of work.
How do we inject more humanism into our business decisions, so that we don’t compromise worker experience and productivity/impact alike?
To begin, simply believing in humanism is crucial: as long as you harbor the worry that humanist behavior will cause the system to grind to a screeching halt, it’s very hard to implement the often small tweaks (say, placing meetings an hour later in the morning) that create a human-centered workplace.
Next, apply an ethnographic lens; in simple terms, you follow people around and see what they do. If you’re trying to figure out where humanism is breaking down, you need a tactic—ethnography—that forces the researcher to marinate in the minutiae of the subject’s work experience. It’s in those little details that humanism critically breaks down—not being able to leave quite early enough to pick up your kid at after-school, a water fountain just slightly too far away for a construction worker to use on her break, one too many 6 AM meetings at a time of year when there’s no sunlight til 8. We need to watch people trying to be people at work—and to understand where we’re treating them in a way that’s somewhat less than human.
2) Inclusion: This decision enables as many people as possible to do the work—lowering the cost of talent and creating better conditions for innovation through greater diversity.
Without thinking, many organizations make talent acquisition assumptions that blithely gate off large talent populations from even applying. For instance, 60% of jobs in the United States require a bachelor’s degree . Do that many jobs actually require a college education? Likely not. Scarily, the “college education” shorthand has an incredibly distorting impact on the workforce. For instance, 10% of college graduates are black/African American, compared to 17% of the overall population. For that dimension of diversity, you’ve reduced your pool by 42%—before you started looking at candidates.
There are an array of “gatekeeping” requirements for roles that operate just as strongly as the college education barrier, but more perniciously—everything from the inclusion of particular technical skills that might not really be needed, to not including particular “soft skills” (such as empathy) that might actually be needed, to focusing on particular colleges and universities for hiring—even up to the very language of job descriptions, which extensive research has shown has differing impacts on men vs women (men are energized by certain language that dissuades women from applying).
Rethinking “what it takes” for a role is a powerful inclusion lever—and to date, a dramatically underutilized one.
3) Realism: This decision will keep work going without excessive human effort, even if technology and process don’t totally work, enhancing business resilience and day-to-day productivity.
To enhance realism in our decision-making. the technique we’ll use here is scenario planning—let’s figure out a range of possible failures, then define the if-thens. It can be taboo particularly to talk about possible tech failure and process failure is often not even considered as a possibility. Actually, mapping out where and how things could fail, how badly they could fail, and what the solution’s going to look like can take an enormous amount of weight off workers’ shoulders.
If we can take process and especially technology off of the pedestal of invincibility that we’ve put them on, and plan for failure, we won’t get whacked so badly every time things go wrong. That’s where scenario planning comes in—let’s say the quiet part out loud and admit this new system might not work quite right. Let’s be humble and say that our beautifully designed process might have some natural points of failure. And then let’s map out what happens then, instead of sapping endless brainpower and energy making workers figure out the kludge. Human-centric decisions take into account the complicated relationship between humans and technology, and never leave human beings, and by extension business outcomes, in the lurch.
4) Sustainability: This decision allows work to be doable in the long run under changing conditions, creating sustainable business models.
No one ever sets out to create an unsustainable job. But unsustainable jobs abound. For instance, we often explicitly design roles for obsolescence. Think of financial services analysts, churning out spreadsheets and pitchbooks late into the night, or seasonal workers performing highly intensified round-the-clock work during the Christmas rush or the harvest season. We also create work that’s mentally or physically overwhelming. From picking strawberries to moderating social media interactions, a large number of jobs take a physical or mental toll on workers that cannot be sustained over the long term, regardless of whether they’re designed to be temporary or not. And finally, temporary work often turns permanent. A good deal of unsustainable work was designed with the best of intentions: it wasn’t supposed to be sustainable at all! From the hiring of contingent labor to folks stepping into blended roles replace a co-worker who departed unexpectedly, organizations apply any number of work band-aids that remain in place years, if not decades later. Culling back all of these unsustainable work types places humans back at the center of the work ecosystem.
Adapted with permission from WORK HERE NOW: Think Like a Human and Build a Powerhouse Workplace (Jan 2023).