By Sandy Wilkie, Engage for Success, Thought & Action Steering Group.
Of course, we’d like to think that the Orwellian vision of repressed and repetitive workplaces have, like William Blake’s dark, satanic mills of the early 19th Century, passed into history. But have they really?
‘People in the Records Department did not readily talk about their jobs. In the long, windowless hall, with its double row of cubicles and its endless rustle of papers and hum of voices murmuring into speakwrites, there were quite a dozen people whom Winston did not even know by name, though he daily saw them hurrying to and fro in the corridors or gesticulating in the Two Minutes Hate.’ — George Orwell (1949), 1984
In some of our contemporary workplaces, labour is still very much subdivided and employees are given narrowly defined roles with daily targets. Evidence of this can be found not only in large-scale manufacturing, but also in the call centres associated with mobile phone companies, banking or financial services. It seems that despite the introduction of automation and technology, we are not always able to feel as free as humans should.
A little more history
My grandfather on my mother’s side of the family worked for the Singer Sewing Machine Company in Clydebank, Glasgow, in the 1930s. Although he died before I was born, my aunt recalls with fondness his coming home after work, speaking warmly of his workplace. The managers knew every worker on first-name terms. Birthdays, marriages and christenings were all celebrated in a way that made the staff feel part of a workplace family.
Even when the Singer factory was converted to make munitions during WWII, there remained a real sense of a community. This echoed the philanthropic values seen in the work of Robert Owen at New Lanark and in the approach of Joseph Rowntree in his factory in York. These workplaces recognised the benefits of social support for their workers, treating them as human beings.
Searching for utopia
From wartime Clydebank, we move forward 70 years and across continents to New Zealand. In a series of rich Twitter debates that took place across Auckland, Christchurch and the UK in 2013–15, the #nzlead community of HR, OD and workplace practitioners held regular discussions about the future of work. This culminated in the publication of The Humane Workplace by community lead Amanda Sterling in 2015.
The book suggests that sterile and toxic workplaces were on their way out. Although on one level, social technologies were reducing the reliance on face-to-face interactions, in another sense they arguably opened up greater opportunities for communication, collaboration and community. This offered us hope of making our workplaces more humane.
Earlier in May, the RSA (Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) has been focusing on the concept of Good Work for All. Globalisation, de-industrialisation, automation and the implications of Brexit have all had a disruptive effect on traditional jobs and working practices.
So there has been renewed interest, including on the part of the CIPD, to ensure that we can make work more meaningful for everyone. But how can we do this? One approach is to focus on values.
The value of values
In my work at Bolton NHS Foundation Trust, we have been doing work around values and culture. We used the Barrett Centre model to design and launch our new Trust Values in April 2016: Vision, Openness, Integrity, Compassion and Excellence (V.O.I.C.E). We then completed a Cultural Values Assessment (CVA) in September 2016 using the same Barrett model to build a cultural map of the organisation and identify supportive interventions.
The NHS as a whole tends to illustrate many of the elements of a ‘Level 3’ culture — with emphasis on processes, performance, systems and measurement. This is not surprising given that many of the national targets set by government relate to waiting times, referral to treatment times and financial performance.
Yet, the majority of staff come into the NHS because they have clear personal values around compassion and care. Harnessing that energy by building a values-based organisation makes a lot of sense. NHS staff engage with the concept of values — and using tools like the Barrett CVA enable us to understand how personal values align with current/desired culture.
At an organisational level, the work to embed our new Trust Values is helping us understand and strengthen the workplace culture at Bolton NHS Foundation Trust. At an individual level, the move towards values-based decision-making and leadership is also helping emphasise that values can be shared or diverse/complementary. Enabling our staff to understand their own personal values is helping to remind them that our workplace can be compassionate and humane despite service pressures on the wider NHS system.
We plan to complete another CVA survey in 2018 to assess the level of cultural shift here; continued measurement and action planning are important elements of our journey to be a values-based healthcare organisation.
Humane or in vain?
In this discussion, we’ve journeyed from a dystopian vision of workplaces to a utopian one. Are we any closer to the concept of a humane workplace, or are we striving for something perfect that doesn’t exist?
At the heart of this lies some fairly simple principles which should guide employers who wish to develop a humane workplace:
- Get to know your staff as individuals, they all have unique talents
- Understand their values and what excites them to learn and perform
- Offer meaningful work that plays to their strengths
- Give them authentic recognition and appreciation
- Listen to their ideas, encourage their suggestions
- Provide opportunities for them to get involved and make improvements
- Help them feel empowered
- Have conversations about their future aspirations
- Use storytelling and paint an engaging workplace vision
- By all means harness technology, but remember to put people first
If we can all help cultivate a more humane workplace, it will lead to a better quality of working life for more employees. In 1984, Orwell’s main character eventually found a forced sense of peace; if we create more humane workplaces, that sense of peace and happiness will come more naturally.
‘The Chestnut Tree was almost empty. A ray of sunlight slanting through a window fell on dusty table-tops….Winston sat in his usual corner, gazing into an empty glass……Unbidden, a waiter came and filled his glass up with Victory Gin, shaking into it a few drops from another bottle with a quill through the cork. It was saccharine flavoured with cloves, the speciality of the cafe.’ — George Orwell (1949), 1984