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Culture: Is the Old Workplace Model Broken?

Natasha Wallace | 31st January 2020

How the environment is changing

Like it or not, the world of work is changing. It’s widely accepted that everyone has the right to be happy and fulfilled at work. Workers require more than just a paycheque!

Investors and leadership teams are waking up to the damage that can be caused by toxic cultures (e.g. Uber). They are also realising the importance of building a thriving culture as your business scales, to create long-term sustainable value

What do we mean by a ‘human workplace’?

It’s time to face the facts – the old model of the workplace is broken. Many companies are left scratching their heads as to how to fix it… but there is a very simple fix. It’s a more human approach to leadership – where leaders understand themselves and their people more. Where they spend as much time improving the working environment as they do the service delivery. 

When I ask people what they consider a ‘human’ workplace to be, they say very similar things. They want flexibility in the way they work, to feel included and to have a voice. They want to be trusted and treated like an adult. They also want to be able to have fun and build relationships. This means having the time and headspace to do it. Yet with so many workplaces simply not enabling these things, we’re facing disengaged employees, increasing challenges around mental health and leadership struggling with workplace happiness and productivity.

What’s interesting, is that time and time again I see that leaders and employees want the same thing. Although leaders are often criticised for causing all the problems, they’re normally employees too, and they want to feel happy and fulfilled at work too. Everyone wants the same thing from their workplace yet there’s something getting in the way…

Where have things gone wrong?

We’ve become obsessed with efficiency and delivery. This comes at a cost. Our need to prioritise profit over purpose and our bionic expectations of each other are driving people into the ground – or at the very least, stopping them from working to their full potential. This isn’t because leaders are bad. It’s because the modern world has led us to drive so hard for results, at both a personal and organisational level. The result is we’ve forgotten how to take care of ourselves…we don’t have time to (and self care doesn’t tend to appear on our KPIs). We’ve forgotten how to be human. 

The way we live and work has sent us into autopilot. We’re programmed to work hard, we’re constantly connected, constant delivering, constantly preoccupied with what we need to get done – who we need to appease – and what the next big project or deliverable on the horizon is. Ultimately, work-life balance is poor!

That’s led to people eating badly, drinking more, sleeping badly, doing less exercise, ruminating more, worrying more, thinking more, and resting less. Not good! People have sacrificed their own personal time too – with family and friends suffering. We’re too distracted with what we need to get done to recognise that in order to do the best work, we must take care of ourselves too.

The data speaks for itself

I’m not the first person to realise that something isn’t working. The government has recognised in light of recent corporate failures that companies need to be more transparent and accountable to their employees, customers, suppliers and shareholders and there is now a requirement for limited companies in the UK with more than 250 employees to report on how they are engaging employees. My fear is that producing a statement on engagement activity is not going to fix the problem but at least it puts it on the agenda.

And following the 2017 Thriving at Work report, a series of recommendations were made to enable organisations to make changes that would make a positive difference:

  • Provide good work that improves mental health
  • Provide the knowledge, tools and confidence to allow people to take care of their mental health
  • Help and support for individuals with a mental health condition from recruitment onwards
  • Reduction in sickness caused by mental ill-health

It’s not difficult to see why these changes are necessary and the opportunity cost of making the changes. There are some useful insights in this recent Deloitte report:

  • Poor mental health costs employers up to £45bn each year (up 16% since 2016)
  • Presenteeism is rising by up to £29.3bn each year
  • Seven of the nine days absence per employee per year is due to presenteeism
  •  £1 invested into workplace wellbeing could yield a return of £5 or more

 People are waking up

What’s important to remember here is that not all employers experience the same problem or the same level of problems. Not all companies are experiencing poor engagement, low productivity or high absence rates. However, there won’t be one company out there that wouldn’t benefit both from a commercial and from a mental health perspective from a critical assessment of the way they operate and how it could be improved. Even in the best teams I work in, people are human, and we’re always learning more about each other, how to support each other, and how to be at our best.

As teams evolve and grow, there will always be new insights and challenges that allow for better conversations and ways of working. You must be alert to them, otherwise, a team or organisation that was once great can quickly run into problems.

Investors and leadership teams are waking up to the damage that can be caused by toxic cultures. We’ve all heard tales of companies like Uber and Amazon where the company has grown off the charts, yet the casualties are great – it’s the employees who are being detrimented. It’s why more leaders are recognising the importance of building a thriving culture as their business scales, if they want to create long-term sustainable value.

How do you create a thriving culture?

Be honest. Honest about how things are going. Honest about how people are feeling. Honest about the fact that everything won’t be perfect.

Most organisations are far from perfect. It can be very easy as a leadership team, who are often removed from the ‘front line’ experience of work, to believe that things are much rosier than they are. It’s not necessarily their fault. There is a problem we face in organisations, that as leaders become more senior, employees are less likely to tell them the truth. Even if the leader wants to know what’s really going on, they may simply not be able to access the data.

Conscious leadership

This is where Conscious Leaders focus their attention. They are constantly scanning the horizon to see how people are feeling. They spend their time checking in with people, at all levels of the organisation, to understand what they’re experiencing – the problems they’re facing – and the extent to which they are developing and growing in their roles. Conscious Leaders are natural coaches. They know they don’t have all the answers and so they get good at asking questions. They are curious. Curiosity with kindness allows a leader to explore what is going on under the surface of the organisation, without the need to attack or blame people for what’s not working. 

Workers’ needs

Conscious Leaders recognise that people have various needs that need to be met for them to feel good and work well. They recognise that without a good level of health, people will struggle to perform. Which means they create working practices that allow people to work flexibly, recognising that a constant throughput of work, and having to continually work long hours doesn’t create sustainable results. They allow people to take care of their needs inside and outside of work and they don’t need to give approval for every moment spent away from a desk.

Safety is paramount

Conscious Leaders recognise that people need to feel safe and secure and that only when they do, can they focus on performing well. So, they create environments where people can speak up, where leaders show vulnerability, and where people can be themselves – by removing the barriers to certain types of people being able to flourish. They want to hear from everyone and recognise the pressures that people face outside of work. They are comfortable providing support around financial management, they allow people time off to deal with life’s pressures, and they remove the fear often associated with needing to achieve performance. They see the value in regular one to ones with people and avoid systems like the annual appraisal that place people in boxes and apply ratings to them.

People matter

Conscious Leaders finally recognise that people need to matter. They know that people want to feel valued and recognised for their contribution and to feel like their opinion matters. Which is why they listen, they act on the ideas of people at all levels of the organisation, and they regularly and consistently recognise where people are delivering – not just at a functional level but delivering the values that are important to the organisation – they call them out and they celebrate them. They create clear vision, purpose and values, which are embedded into the roles and the working lives of people every day.

What are the three things you can do to improve the culture?

If you’re a leader and you want to create a human culture, there are some things that you can do today:

1. Critically assess how you’re working. Are you modelling good behaviour? Are you demonstrating healthy habits? Do you make it obvious when you’re taking breaks to encourage others to do so? Are you giving people enough freedom to work in a way that enables them to do their best work?

2. Be vulnerable. Do you ever say when you’re struggling with a project? Do you show when you’re feeling a bit stretched or you don’t have all the answers? Do you open up about your life experiences so that other people can too?

3. Ask people what they want. It’s so easy to pretend that everything is OK but only when you ask people how they’re feeling and what they’d do to improve things, do you start generating some honest conversation. You need to stop and listen, ask curious questions, avoid being defensive, and commit to at least one change that will make a difference to the team. It may be slow to start with but when speaking up without repercussions becomes the norm, you’ll hear more great ideas.

Author of The Conscious Effect: 50 lessons for better organizational wellbeing

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