Andy Swann, author of The Human Workplace, stresses the need for organizations to be people-first.
“The human workplace is one that adapts, innovates fast, involves everyone, communicates, understands, and acts in perpetuity. It creates relationships rather than transactions.” Andy Swann, author of The Human Workplace, tells us why a peoplecentered approach to organizational development is an imperative for driving success.
What is the significance of maintaining balance within an organizational structure?
As with everywhere in life, balance is essential in any organization or workplace. Rest too much control at the top of an organizational hierarchy (or any other version of structure) and you suppress creativity, collaboration, freedom of thought, and freedom of action. These are the things that can unlock innovation— whether in product or service, process or approach—so by suppressing them in favor of top-down control, you block the development and progress of your organization, perhaps even its survival! In addition, research shows that the less autonomy people have in the workplace, the lower their morale and productivity become.
The same can be said in reverse. Offer complete freedom with no parameters or clear behavioral guidelines and the organization will fall into negative anarchy, with no clarity, direction, or consistency. Absolute freedom can actually create a complete lack of understanding on what should be done and even lead to lethargy. I have seen many examples of this happening in organizations that attempt to offer their people the best working conditions and actually create a zero-work culture. This never works well for the customer, employee, or leadership.
True balance offers just enough structure for people to thrive—clear purpose, a shared vision, adopted behaviors, and freedom within parameters. Where this is promoted, direction and vision are maintained, while collaboration, co-creation, innovation, and personal growth thrive. Freedom to act, as long as it is in the best interest of the organization, can be granted; the design thinking mindset of learning through rapid failure allows for personal development and the discovery of new ways to succeed. Everyone wins.
Why is a people-centered approach essential to an organization’s growth?
Growth or success in the modern, fast-moving business world needs to be defined by the organization itself. Setting out purely to ‘make a profit’ is not good. Today’s consumers (whether employees or customers) demand a connection, so organizations are really creating communities around a business aim. Making money for the organization is not enough to get either employees or customers excited or committed. While in the short-term this may work, in the long-term it is just not sustainable as a business model for growth.
Giving people reason to congregate in and around the business, staying there for the long term, is the key. The most successful or coherent communities have a strong, central shared focus—sports teams are a perfect example. All communities are based around people and enabling them to thrive in the community, because if they do not, they will go elsewhere.
That is the secret of a people-centered organization. Giving people a reason to be there and then stay there is a simple idea, yet so many organizations ignore it in their over-complication of everything. The idea of infinite, perpetual growth is wrong. All organizations should identify their true target populations and focus on engaging them through a great experience. You cannot serve everyone all the time because people want different things. What you can do is serve the right people in the right way, developing and diversifying from there.
When this truly people-centric approach is adopted, everyone wins. Because the line between customer and employee is so blurred, it is best to look at all people congregating around, or impacted by an organization as a part of the community. Each of these groups has a distance from the community nucleus and the closer to the nucleus a person is, the more intense the experience and therefore the connection will be.
To achieve this, the organization needs to realize that it is a platform for people to thrive and building that platform through a high-quality experience for both customers and employees is its sole aim. This is a new perspective, which removes complexity and focuses on what is truly essential. Structure, culture, process, even working environment can be built from this experience-first perspective. This enables everyone to contribute to the community, receive a great experience from their interaction with it, and contribute to their maximum, whether through work, advocacy, or loyalty. This unlocks satisfaction, engagement, productivity, and profit.
We see elements of this approach in many organizations. Some of the most famous and financially successful companies in the world, from Microsoft to Google, and Hershey to Coca-Cola are starting to adopt these ideas. Although not necessarily in a fully coherent, business-wide global strategy, these themes are starting to shine through and over time, adoption is increasing. Eventually, it will become the only way for businesses to sustain in the true long term.
When an organization is people-first, everyone wins.
The ‘evolve or die’ mantra is core to every organization’s growth and success. In this context, you have highlighted the demise of Kodak. What advice would you give to ensure the survival of the company?
Survival for the future does not require the complete removal or restructuring of the organization, more the adoption of certain key features, such as the flow of information into more user-centric and simplified forms. It is an iterative approach to organizations and the realization that nothing is ever finished.
Kodak almost died because it ignored the importance of digital photography, Blockbuster died because it did
Giving people a reason to be there and then stay there is a simple idea, yet so many organizations ignore it in their over-complication of everything.
not realize that streaming movies at home would offer the best experience for consumers. These are famous examples, but there are many more examples of businesses that have failed, or have only been prevented from failing by a large cash reserve, because they failed to adapt to the changing world quickly enough.
It is easy to ignore the rapidly changing world and just assume that ‘doing what we have always done’ will work because it worked in the past. The organizations behind many printed newspapers are now struggling to adapt as media companies in the modern world, while Vice and others are achieving great success.
The moment an organization stands still is the moment it gives others a chance to pass it by. We must never assume that things are finished, for the simple reason that the world never stops turning. As long as that happens, there will be evolution and evolution requires constant and rapid adaptation to the present and future.
Success should be celebrated, but it is fleeting. Applaud everything, but realize that as soon as one success happens, it is time to focus on the next one. Stay aware, stay connected to the user base, and continue to iterate products/services, the focus of your business and the structure of your organization based on what customers/ employees are telling you, within the context of the wider world around you.
“Organizations do not need to be reinvented. All of the basic parts are present, it is just a case of unlocking the structure to allow people to be their best.” Could you elaborate on this with an example?
Much of the theory of organizational development and business strategy over the last decade has focused on how an entire organization is structured. Ideas like Holacracy and Teal have risen, with people starting to build consultancy businesses based on these ‘blueprints’. It is not necessarily helpful.
Wholesale change is disruptive, resource-heavy and if it is ill-thought out can create real harm for a business. Every business is a unique combination of individuals and teams congregated around a unique mission or purpose, so there is no guarantee that what worked for another business can work for yours. The only true solution is the one specifically designed for you, by you.
It is essential to gather insight and an understanding of what others are doing, but recognize that the real focus should be on working internally to understand and unlock the future from within by gaining insight, clarity, and often just getting out of the way and allowing it to happen. Recognizing the great work that already happens and the potential for making it even greater is essential. During my research, I encounter many examples of startups receiving media acclaim after achieving a couple of million dollars turnover, yet within more established organizations, there are individuals whose work creates hundreds of millions of dollars of impact every year but it goes unrecognized because it is just part of their job.
The elements of success are already within every business, they just require focus. Ideas, insight, creativity, collaboration, and innovation are all available, as long as they are allowed to happen. The organization needs to provide the minimal platform needed to allow everything and everyone to thrive—freedom within parameters, then know when it is time to step back and allow people to thrive in their work, for the good of the business.
The moment an organization stands still is the moment it gives others a chance to pass it by.
From an HR perspective, how can one ensure to build quality relationships amongst the employees?
From a relationship perspective, it is time to start acting at work as we would at home. Outside work, if somebody makes you a meal, you genuinely thank them without stopping to think about it, yet at work, people spend hours doing tasks to make profit for shareholders and rarely get thanked.
Quality relationships are simple because they are human and based on mutual respect. Business-employee relationships have traditionally been like a parent-child rather than adult-adult, which is why many negative behaviors thrive. Not only does this breed a lack of respect from the ‘children’ in the relationship towards the ‘adults’, but also enables the same in reverse. A lack of accountability enabled by stacking power at the top of a hierarchical triangle is why there has been such endemic discrimination and often harassment in the workplace. Just look at what is happening in Hollywood right now as a perfect example.
Does diversity aid/hinder this approach?
The greater the diversity in a workplace, the greater is the opportunity for alternative perspectives, collaborations, insights, and ideas. The more an organization, unit, or team is based on carbon copies, the less potential it has and the more it breeds negative behaviors. There is no excuse for harassment, pay gaps or any other form of discrimination in the workplace; not only is it wrong, it hinders the business.
How can a company be more creative with their recruitment strategies?
Enabling diversity through creative recruitment is not always easy, with bias very difficult to remove. Even algorithms are created by humans, so have some kind of built-in bias.
Shifting focus away from the skills, knowledge, and experience first, to focus on the right person for the organization in terms of alignment and aptitude, is essential. Those other things can all be provided by the organization, but the one thing you cannot affect is who someone is. Approaching that through immersive, experiential recruiting is a good strategy, keeping in mind that an individual’s experience with your organization begins at the very first point of contact. Often, this can be submitting a job application, so the least you can do is make sure they receive a genuine, human response.
The greater the diversity in a workplace, the greater is the opportunity for alternative perspectives, collaborations, insights, and ideas.
With the workplace constantly changing—robots taking over in the future—how effective is an ‘all about people’ strategy? How will humans be at the center of a workplace?
We need to bust some of the myths around robots taking over. Initially, they are starting to do the jobs that humans do not enjoy. The reason Taylorism came to the forefront during the Industrial Revolution was because it used people as robots to do repetitive tasks without thinking or acting with personality. Now we have actual robots to do the ‘robot’ jobs, which provide an opportunity to use people for doing more human things.
Creativity, empathy, ideas, conversation. All of these things are human traits and are also what unlock the innovative future of organizations. Organizations can use humans more as humans, which is exciting. Enabling people is a natural part of creating a people-centric organization, so the use of technology as a tool for that enablement is a natural part of creating an organization that is all about people.
More widely, as people previously joined manufacturing lines, traditional craftsmanship started to lose value. We are now seeing these skills rise again as people move away from the monotony.
Over time, more and more jobs will be able to be taken on by robots—the idea of self-driving vehicles alone has the potential to render millions upon millions of global driving jobs obsolete. However, these shifts create new jobs that we do not yet know about and they may also offer humans the opportunity to work less. If we do not need to work solely to survive, we can live and contribute in many new and far more human ways. In fact, we have the opportunity to start behaving as humans behaved in the pre-capitalist world.
Of course, there are potentially huge social, economic, and societal impacts, but the best thing about humans is how adaptive we are. By plugging into that trait, we can create opportunity from whatever comes next. We definitely need to be thinking about a post-work society now and how we will economically sustain everyone. Experiments with universal basic income are an encouraging start, but there is so much work to be done, not least the association of power with wealth.
How can organizations go beyond the number of hours worked by the employee to measuring her contribution?
We have seen a huge shift over the last few years. The rise of agile and flexible working has started to untether certain positions from desks, or locations and technology means we can communicate in new ways, making the requirement to be in a certain place at a certain time less essential (although not in all cases). There is an opportunity to capitalize on this.
The 2017 Wellness Together research in the UK identified a link between wellness, productivity, and profit, so the message is clear that when people are at their best, the organization is at its best. How and when people are able to be at their best varies by person, circumstance, task, and many other factors, so all of that needs to be taken into account. The case is there to do so.
It is always disappointing to see major organizations offer flexible working opportunities, clubhouse-style workplaces, mobile working technology, but then issue contracts that still specify a set number of hours, often over set times and days of the week. If I have something to finish, feel inspired to do it on a Sunday, and work for fourteen hours on it, should I still be expected to be at work on Monday morning if my kids need to be taken to school?
There are many questions to be answered, but there is still a huge disconnect between HR, real estate, facilities, operations, IT/tech, and finance when it comes to creating these coherent strategies. Airbnb created the crossfunctional Head of Employee Experience position, which is a great example of a step in the right direction, but there is much work to be done for most organizations.
Understanding what true contribution is, how to enable it, measure it and reward or recognize it is part of the challenge and there is some great work happening with the rise of recognition. Hershey’s is one example of an organization achieving results in this area.
The absolute parameters of a business or role need to be taken into account, then the individual given the maximum possible freedom acts in the interests of the organization. Doing this eliminates much of the unnecessary complexity and unlocks wider benefits, however most organizations still base HR policy on protection and control, which makes hours and tick boxes the norm.
To achieve the benefits of being people-centric, organizations need to unleash people. It is far easier to do than you think and is all part of the letting go, getting out of the way exercise—it just needs to be allowed to happen. After all, if you do not trust your people, then they are not the right ones for you.
How can organizations use communication to inform and empower people?
The flow of information is the single most important tool every organization has at its disposal to create its future. Communication is the basis of feedback, ideas, innovation, sharing, collaboration and every other aspect of creating fluid, fast-moving organizations that can deliver and adapt.
Unlocking the flow means that the right information can reach the right person, right when they need it. Whether to improve customer experience, or put a great idea in front of the right decision-maker, the more obstacles we remove, the more effective communication becomes.
The bigger an organization, the greater the reserve of human potential they possess, yet they keep this locked up by restricting people to tasks and elaborate ladder-climbing communications. Broadcasting pre-edited messages down from the top is dated and ineffective. Look on every person within the organization as part of a single entity. Making information openly available wherever possible and reasonable allows the entire entity to think and act, gaining insight from the right people at the right time.
To inform and empower your employees, it is as simple as being open, honest, allowing two-way conversations, enabling the flow of information, ensuring everyone has a voice, and allowing all people to take ownership of achieving the organization’s mission.
There are many ways to do this, from communication tools to open ideation and collaboration platforms. The key message, as with all of this, is to keep it as simple and intuitive as possible, giving your people what they need to achieve your collective goals.
Many companies reduce workforce due to the addition of robots and machines. How can this not be viewed as a threat to humans in a workplace? What can an organization do to embrace automation and use technology to allow employees to work more efficiently?
The paradox of the rise of the robots needs to be seen within the context of where we are now. It is emerging.
Sure, some jobs are being removed, but it is no different to any other time consumer demand, economic feasibility, or another factor has caused a shift in the world. The demise of coal mining is a great example. The world and the work it requires is constantly moving, so we need
The rise of technology and robotic replacements for humans in roles does not discriminate.
to be ready as humans and organizations to adapt. Coal miners, despite the tradition and heritage, associated with their profession needed to adapt and change, to find new skills. It was not easy, but that is the world we live in. It is too simple to forget to take a removed look and understand that all of this is a man-made system and the game we are really playing is survival on a tiny bubble of infinite resources floating through the universe.
Only a few hundred years ago, people existed on subsistence and task. This has escalated into a system of ‘work’ that separates home and task life for most people. A threat to humans in the modern workplace is also an opportunity. It is a chance to potentially work less, to redefine what it is to be human, to focus more on contributing to ourselves, our families and communities in ways that make an impact, or that we love. But as an entire race we need to get it right.
The rise of technology and robotic replacements for humans in roles does not discriminate. Surgeons are just as at risk as drivers or line workers. It is time to start seriously thinking about where this is going and making a plan for the long term, but that is a job for governments.
For individual organizations, they can adopt technology to enable human contribution and cost-effectively allow humans to focus on creating an organization’s future. If a robot is undertaking systematic tasks, it allows humans to be focusing on ideas, insight, and innovating for the future. From the use of data or automation to create an excellent employee experience from application to dayto-day work through to the use of augmented reality for training and robots for supporting tasks, we need to look at the entirety of the picture and be proactive. Technology and data, just like every action in an organization, need to be implemented for the right reasons. If the reasons are wrong, the only purpose is distractive or destructive, rendering it purposeless and creating organizational risk. The threat of a lost job is just the opportunity for the creation of another, we might just need to think differently about it all.
But, as humans, that is exactly what we are best at! ■
(As told to Melissa Fernandes)