Putting the human back in the corporate

The pandemic forced home and work together, for the first time in two centuries. Now we've developed a taste for a more human working life. And that changes everything about business.

In times of profound change, you need to look for stability where you can. Some will reach for the clean, clinical familiarity and reassurance of process and structure. But others — the ones likely to win the competitive edge as we edge towards the middle decades of this century — will take a different path. They realise that the one constant in all business is people. And they focus on getting them back into the heart of the company — and the products. 

One of the polite fictions that keeps many offices thrumming has been the idea that, somehow, our work and our private lives are utterly unconnected. We are one person at home, and then we put that persona aside, and step into the office where we adopt our professional selves. We put on the suit, and we take off the suit. 

The commuting human

That’s a fiction that’s been able to develop because home and work were, for most of us, geographically distinct. However, it’s been on the wane for some years. Many workplaces are significantly more casual than they would have been only a generation ago, and while kids in the office is still uncommon, seeing dogs curled up under someone’s desk is an increasingly familiar sight. And, guess what? It’s good for lowering stress and increasing productivity

There’s both fairness and wisdom to this. The internet has allowed work into the home more than in the days when you took a few papers home in a briefcase. It seems reasonable that your home life should infect the office a little, as recompense. But equally, we need to acknowledge that this home/office distinction is a relatively new development in human society, and perhaps we’re not well adapted to it. 

If the fiction was fraying before the pandemic, the last 18 months tore that fiction to shreds. And then it threw away the pieces. As many of us were pushed into long-term working-from-home, and suddenly work tunnelled into our homes through our computer screens. Every meeting was now a videoconference, and every one was liable to unexpected interruption by pets, neighbours getting on with some DIY or children, finding much-needed distraction from homeschooling in annoying their parents. 

We were no longer commuting. Thanks to digital tech, work was telecommuting to us.

The digital human

The digital revolution hasn’t always been kind to the human in the corporate machine. Stories abound of content moderators, under incredible time and psychological pressure, for precious little return. Or of delivery drivers, who don’t have time for toilet breaks

Unexpectedly, though, power is shifting back to the worker. The changes in workforces created by closing borders and people moving from the cities have disrupted once predictable labour markets. In both the US and the UK, some businesses are struggling to recruit, especially in jobs with unsocial hours and low pay. Even Germany has not escaped this reality.

Sure, market forces will eventually smooth out some of these changes. Right now, though, there’s a selection pressure for business with a more humane approach to Human Resources. We’ve had a taste of a better life, and we’re not giving it up easily. Well over half of workers who’ve been remote during the pandemic don’t want to go back to the old ways. They’re quitting companies that don’t support this. 

Treating your employees as rounded humans, and considering all aspects of their life has just become mission critical. Talent is likely to be all in an increasingly AI-driven workplace. The creeping integration of automation into all that we do is acceleration with the growth of AI. This Assistive Intelligence forces us to rethink who the people in our organisation are. As we automate more processes, people who can perform the remaining essential tasks are more valuable. Those people who are good at the creative, the relationship-driven, the perceptive, become more precious. Businesses like these need new types of leaders, as Martin has explored. And those new CMOs will create a more rounded, whole brain, workplace

The human-centric product

But the human needs to come into the equation in the other direction as well. Your customer, your consumer, is human too. And their lives, working days, and needs have been reshaped by the pandemic just as much as ours have. Some old demographic assumptions were decaying before the pandemic, and now they’ve been swept aware, as households reconfigure themselves. 

Multi-generational households are a growing trend. The young are staying at home longer, and the middle-aged are welcoming their parents back into their homes. Those Zoom calls run all the more smoothly when grandpa can run interference and stop little Elsa interrupting the big client pitch… 

The home hub is no longer a digital device, it’s the kitchen where the family gather between stints of online working or education. The new water cooler for family units is the fridge and the kitchen tap. The parallel to the work water cooler is exact — the casual moments of social contact that refresh you for another bout of work. 

As our work moves more fluidly between the office and the home, our social touch points will become less clearly defined by hours of the day. As we say goodbye to the 9 to 5, we create an inherent flexibility in many people’s workdays that accommodate the complexities of family life. People are demanding hybrid approaches to work simply because, as they’ve discovered, it’s just more human to mix the varied demands on your time that make up a fulfilling life. 

New world, same old people

But this has implications way beyond the Human Resources challenge of managing a hybrid workforce. In our future where work reaches into the home, and the home reaches into work, we’re going to need to rethink our products and services for new demographics, new ways of living and new ways of working. 

As our regular co-host David Martin is fond of pointing out, the world changes, but people don’t. At any inflection point, you need to focus around the solid ground, and assess the shifting sand around you from there. Right now, the solid ground is the people in your organisation. Their voices will help you reshape the products that are needed for the post-pandemic age.

Photo by BRUNO EMMANUELLE on Unsplash