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Is the Old Workplace Broken?

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 or Amazon). They are also realising the importance of building a thriving and diverse 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 the problems caused by the traditional workplace culture, 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 workplace wellbeing and 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 and transparency in the way they work. They want 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 or moving away from that traditional workplace culture, we’re seeing disengaged employees, increasing challenges around mental health, and leadership struggling with workplace happiness and productivity. Simply moving to open offices and adding a few plants to the workplace isn’t going to cut it, I’m afraid.


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 with toxic work cultures – 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, and we’re constantly connected, constantly 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 poorly, drinking more, sleeping badly, doing less exercise, ruminating more, worrying more, thinking more, and resting less. Not good! People have sacrificed their personal time too — with family and friends suffering. We’re too distracted with what we need to get done to recognise that 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 it too. In light of recent corporate failures, internal work conflicts, and growth in reports of toxic workplaces, it’s clear that company cultures need to change. They need to be more transparent and accountable to their employees, customers, suppliers and shareholders. There is now a requirement for limited companies in the UK with more than 250 employees to report on how they are engaging those employees.


My fear is that producing a statement on engagement activity will not fix the problem, but at least it puts it on the agenda.


Back in 2017, the UK government released the Thriving at Work report. This resulted in a series of recommendations being made to encourage and enable organisations to make changes that would make a positive difference:


  • Employees in all types of employment will have “good work”, which contributes positively to their mental health, our society and our economy.
  • Every one of us will have the knowledge, tools and confidence, to understand and look after our own mental health and the mental health of those around us;

  • All organisations, whatever their size, will be:
    • equipped with the awareness and tools to not only address but prevent mental ill health caused or worsened by work;
    • equipped to support individuals with a mental health condition to thrive, from recruitment and throughout the organisation;
    • aware of how to get access to timely help to reduce sickness absence caused by mental ill health;

  • We dramatically reduce the proportion of people with a long term mental health condition who leave employment each year and ensure that all who can benefit from the positive impacts of good work.

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


  • Poor mental health costs employers up to £45bn each year (up 16% since 2016)
  • Presenteeism (showing up to work and not being productive due to poor health or mental wellness) is rising by up to £29.3bn each year.
  • Seven of the nine days of absence per employee per year is due to presenteeism.
  • £1 invested into workplace wellbeing could yield a return of £5 or more

From well-being programs for employees to more transparency in the workplace, the facts speak for themselves. Happier employees are more productive, more loyal, and more creative.


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 a mental health perspective from a critical assessment of the way they operate and how it could be improved. Everyone is human. Even when working in the best teams, we’re always learning more about each other, how to support each other, how to be at our best.


As teams evolve and grow, and as there is more focus on personality and cultural diversity in the workplace, 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 a toxic work culture can cause. 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 negatively affected. It’s why more leaders are recognising the importance of building a thriving and diverse 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 for 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. We face a problem in organisations: 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. This means they create working practices that allow people to work flexibly by recognising that a constant throughput of work and continually working long hours don’t produce sustainable results.


Flexibility allows people to take care of their needs inside and outside of work, and they don’t need to have 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 and seeing them 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 stresses. 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 contributions. They want to feel like their opinion matters. So they listen. They act on the ideas of people at all levels of the organisation, even the most introverted. And they regularly and consistently recognise where people are delivering. It is not just at a functional level either, but delivering the values that are important to the organisation — they call them out and celebrate them.


They create a clear vision, purpose and values, and celebrate the benefits of cultural diversity in the workplace. These 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 generate 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.

A new approach to the workplace is fast becoming a business must-have. If you want to find out more about developing the right workplace wellbeing focus, contact us today. Together, we can turn your workplace into a byword for transparency that drives growth.