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We are in the middle of the biggest shake-up in working life in over a century. The compounding effects of the climate crisis and the global pandemic have driven massive changes in the way a lot of us now work. Many of these changes – like remote working, and flexible working – are long overdue. But we can, and must, go a lot further.

The reality is that work isn’t really working anymore. Many current business models are hangovers from the 20th century (or even further back), when humans were considered a resource to be controlled to ensure productivity. It’s time to move on.

Becoming more human
The current upheaval in the world of work is providing us with the perfect opportunity to move decisively towards what we call the more ‘human organisation’. Human organisations have a clear purpose. They free up employees to use their imaginations and skills, to connect with each other and with customers, to open up to new ideas, and to collaborate to bring their shared purpose to life.

For an organisation to become more human it needs to understand people. So, let’s start with a question: Do you agree with the following statement?

The success of my organisation is down to our people.

If you answered ‘of course’, ‘absolutely’, or even ‘yes, in part’, then you really should also be able to answer these simple questions too: What motivates people to act?; How do people make decisions?; How do our senses and emotions support action?

Choosing to act
Let’s start with motivation: Everything we do is underpinned by our motivation to act. How we grow, buy and eat food. How we build and live in homes. How we make, buy and drive cars. And yet, as organisations, we don’t do the obvious: we don’t translate our strategies into what we want employees, suppliers and customers to do. We don’t know our way around motivation and what persuades different people to take different actions. We can absolutely know this stuff; the insight is available. We just need to make the decision.

What about decision-making? When it comes to our choices, the brain’s operating system has a four-fold approach:

  • The conscious me: the very few things that we can hold in our working memory at once.
  • The unconscious me: the mental shortcuts that enable us to make the required tens of thousands of daily decisions.
  • The unconscious us: the innate drivers to fit in, that stem from us being a social animal.
  • The conscious us: when we choose to work together on shared activity, like being a good neighbour or vaccinating the world.

Our experience of our world (and our work) is constantly shaped by all four of these modes. Organisations need to understand this operating system if they want to tune into it.

Uncommon sense
There is a societal and organisational tendency to try to separate reason from emotion, how we think from how we feel. Senses and emotion have increasingly been designed-out from the ways we work. Why?

How we think and feel is shaped by our sensory input. Let’s look at some typical workplace stimuli:

  • Hearing: Too much noise reduces concentration. Conversely, while music demands our attention, it also releases dopamine and oxytocin (happy hormones), builds a sense of identity and improves health.
  • Sight: Artificial light, and a lack of visual contact with the outside world negatively affects us. We also know the power of the eye from our investment in the visual design of brands, products and services.
  • Touch: We find drafts, temperature variations, unergonomic desks and chairs, and the locations of doors, to be uncomfortable and distracting.

The senses, and how they stimulate emotions, makes us human, just as much as our capacity for reason. They trigger innovation, they lead to action. Or, as neurologist Donald Calne puts it: “The essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action while reason leads to conclusions.” So let’s start to design-in to the world of work these essential things: our body, our senses and our emotions.

    John is Chair of Corporate Culture. He has been a consultant to dozens of organisations over more than 20 years.

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