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What Makes A Workplace Human?

A human workplace contributes to a thriving culture and sustainable business, or dare I say, a visionary company. It boosts productivity, creativity, engagement, and leads to higher retention.

First, let's consider what it means to be human. Shall we?

If you discovered that you're going to die one year from today, what would you do? How would you want to be remembered?

Stop. Reflect. Write it down.

The answer to that question is what makes you human. It's your why.

We all possess this humanness. An endless desire for purpose and meaning.

For some, it resides deep within, among the shadows. Forgotten and neglected. For others, it's strong like waves roaring in the Pacific. It's majestic, powerful, and something that you can't contain. For many, it's a small swell gaining momentum as the crosswinds grow stronger.

That why is one of the six characteristics that make the workplace more human. Let's dive in...

#1: You have a strong why.

It's your foundation. Your guiding force. Think of it as the crosswinds that drive the undercurrent to create a mighty wave—the why is what inspires action in companies and teams, just as it does in your life.

Simon Sinek's Golden Circle explains that you can differentiate your brand from others by communicating your why. The why is your purpose. Your reason for existing. Your meaning. It's the thing that motivates you to wake up and commit yourself to something greater.

That's why it's vital to communicate the company, team, and individual whys clearly. You'll inevitably face challenges—getting funding, losing top talent, breaking into a new market (or defying an old one), or facing a global pandemic—the why is what helps you overcome any challenge. It makes the struggle worth it. It creates a space for post-traumatic growth.

#2: You design your company holistically and intentionally.

Organizational design is a set of frameworks, tools, and methods to make the unseen things visible (e.g., power dynamics, collaboration, motivation). When you design your organization well, it:

  • makes people feel enabled, empowered and motivated to hit audacious goals

  • allows teams to get more done together, rather than trying to get it done alone. It also promotes trust and autonomy

  • improves the ability to identify, analyze, and solve for misalignments

  • helps make better, quicker decisions

You can incorporate humanness into your design. Want to learn more? Here are two frameworks to get started with:

  • Jay Galbraith's Star Model = leads to higher alignment, which means more effectiveness. The goal of this model is to diagnose and adjust to keep the organization aligned continually.

  • The Five Milestone's Process = This iterative model is a holistic, inclusive, and rigorous process to design your organization.

#3 You've moved away from human and towards being.

Most of us can agree that the term human resources doesn't evoke feelings of empowerment, growth, and flexibility in many cases. Instead, feelings of bureaucracy, mistrust, and rules (think Toby from The Office) emerge.

We could redefine the term, but why not just throw it out altogether? Start from scratch.

I urge you to move away from the idea of human and towards being.

What does it mean to be beyond the fundamental concept of existence? When we're 100% present, observing with curiosity and withholding judgment, we're being. This being allows us to tap into something more profound. It creates grounding, clarity, choice, calm, and confidence.

How would the world change (and subsequentially business, or vice versa) if we came from a place of grounding, clarity, choice, calm, and confidence every day?

Think about it.

Mindfulness can help you move towards being. Weave aspects of mindfulness into how you work. A few examples include asynchronous communication as the default, an emphasis on deep work, listening to understand, deep breathing, and an in-house mindfulness program or app membership.

#4 You put people first.

To foster a human workplace, it begins with the people who make your products or services. You need the right people, and you need to unlock their potential.

Unlocking potential happens at the highest level, Level 5 of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Which level best matches your company's design and culture today?

  1. Level 1 (Lowest): Physiological Needs. These are the fundamental issues, like base compensation and secure employment.

  2. Level 2: Security Needs. The work environment feels stable. You have competitive benefits, a physically safe work environment, and equitable work practices/policies.

  3. Level 3: Belongingness" Needs. The workplace culture has psychological safety, acceptance of calculated risk-taking, and cross-team collaboration.

  4. Level 4: Esteem Needs. You, teams and individual team members, possess a positive self-image and feel respected. You're recognized for your work. Realize this level through recognition practices, promotions, and stellar workspaces, to name a few.

  5. Level 5: Self-Actualization Needs. You can achieve it when you have deep trust, workplace autonomy, challenging work, and the ability to master your craft.

Now that you have your level baseline, validate it and build it into the organizational design and culture. Think company values, employer branding, the hiring process, performance management, recognition, career development, and strategic business goals (pro tip: connect it to the why).


💡Thought experiment! Think of potential as a plant. You have two options: 1) You can buy an already potted indoor plant. It's healthy and doesn't need much care, but it'll never grow larger than the pot that it lives in. 2) You can buy a packet of seeds and a starter kit for the same plant. You need a stable growing environment, a lot of care in the beginning, and enough time to grow into a small plant that you can transplant outdoors. You need to choose the right location to transplant it and make sure invasive species don't harm it. After surviving the transplant, the weather tests and develops its resilience. Over time, the roots dig deeper into the ground, and the foundation grows stronger, allowing the plant to shoot towards the sky and bare fruit. Which option do you choose? If you picked option one, your approach isn't people-first. If you picked option two, your approach is people-first.

#5: You grow your team's skills.

Learning and development opportunities are one of the top reasons for retention at companies today. It makes sense. Maslow's self-actualization needs show that you can achieve that level when you have challenging work and the ability to master your craft.

How can you do that for your team? Encourage and facilitate balance among:

  • Cognitive intelligence. The ability to learn, problem-solve, and make sound decisions.

  • Technical skills. Having the core abilities or knowledge used to perform a given role.

  • Emotional intelligence/leadership skills. Having and building a broad toolbox that includes things like self-awareness, emotional regulation, compassion, communication, etc.

Design career development plans, learning and development opportunities, visible growth at all levels, a culture of feedback, etc. to grow your team's skills.

#6: You see leadership and people ops as partners.

Lastly, people operations (or HR) can strategically bring humanness to the workplace. It can connect and advance business goals through understanding business, change management, organization design, culture management, people analytics, employer branding, and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

How do they do it? People ops rely on understanding what motivates leadership, their company vision and goals, growth trajectory, and current challenges to design a workplace that cultivates happy, high-performing teams who feel connected to their why.

To Sum it Up

There you have it. These six core characteristics can make your workplace more human.

Now I want to hear from you. What are other characteristics that can make the workplace more human?