Getting Past the Lip Service around "Human" Workplaces


(Part of the Culture 401 series. The last one is here).

I can’t believe that it’s been EIGHT years since Maddie and I wrote our first book, Humanize. Our deadline to get the final manuscript to the publisher was June 1, so at this point eight years ago we were quite frantic (we got it in a few days past the deadline…phew!). That book laid out our basic philosophy and observation that leadership and management was changing in a big way—away from an engineering- and machine-based mindset, and towards a more human one (you’ll have to dust off your copy to get the details, but we argued that human organizations were open, trustworthy, generative, and courageous).

Since that time, we’ve seen more and more people embracing similar ideas. There are several business books out there now with “people-centric” in the title, and the giant software company Globoforce recently changed both the company name and the employee recognition product name to “WorkHuman.” I’m not sure I would go so far as to call the concept “popular,” but humanism is definitely being embraced.

But like a lot of concepts that get embraced by business, I think it’s mostly just getting lip service. We like to talk about human workplaces, but we’re not so keen on actually changing our cultures to be more human. I think organizations are finding it hard to give up the engineering focus of management and fully embrace a more human approach.

And nowhere is this more apparent than in our office design.


The cubicle is the physical manifestation of traditional management. I read a very cool book a while back about the history of office design, and I learned that the people who invented the cubicle were actually trying to design something that would enable more movement and collaboration among employees in the office. But the purchasers of this furniture (back when “traditional management” was just “management”) had a different idea. They saw a way to efficiently place a large number of workers into a smaller amount of square feet. Since that’s what the customers wanted, that’s what the furniture designers gave them, and they altered the original designs to create what we now know as cubicles.

That’s engineering. It is indeed efficient, and neat, and orderly. It’s just not human. It’s not how we design our living spaces, and it doesn’t accommodate our needs as humans, because sometimes we need privacy and quiet, and sometimes we need noisy collaboration, and sometimes we need to be able to draw things or post things on the walls. Humans are messy. The human experience cannot be molded and controlled like a machine, and creating a truly human organization requires us to embrace that messiness. To work with it. To leverage it.

In our most recent book on employee engagement, we tell a story of an Arizona nonprofit that runs a suicide hotline and how they actually built a gym in the office because it helped their hotline workers quickly release some of the tension and stress that is a natural result of being on the phone helping to prevent people from killing themselves. Adding workout equipment to an office is NOT efficient—but it’s human.

And ultimately, we think it generates a level of power, productivity, and results that you can’t get from efficiency. But if you want that power, you have to be able to embrace this human approach and give up what traditional management tells you to do. Office design is just one piece of that. There are a lot of systems and processes that we take for granted in our organizations that get in the way of our humanness, and we need to rethink them (dress code, org charts, internal communication, project management, employment contracts, just to name a few). Real human workplaces look and feel different. Are you ready for that?

Top photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Image credit cube farm.

Jamie NotterComment