Thing-ification: why the human face of work needs to be brought back in
At work, do you feel like a disposable financial asset, or part of a family; a cog in the machine, or a human being on a team? How your company treats you can have a huge effect on your well-being and the success of the firm. The novelist Terry Pratchett wrote that “evil begins when you begin to treat people as things”. Perhaps companies start to fail when they do the same?
The people running the workplace have to watch out for this “thing-ification” – where people become objects. All too easily structures can emerge that mean individuals are lost sight of and are left feeling disgruntled and demotivated. Work then feels like a production process where staff exist merely to make the lives of others more convenient and pleasant. Sound familiar?
Thing-ification plays out in different ways. The new precarity of employment is one factor borne out in statistics, which show that only 42% of the world’s workforce is on a permanent contract. Non-standard forms of employment are associated with inequality and poverty in many countries.
More fundamentally, the stripping away of employees’ individuality comes from treating an organisation like a machine, where employee voices only interfere with its orderly function. In that way of thinking, dissent makes it harder to execute a strategy and so corporate rules are enforced which prevent employees from challenging the status quo.
Céline Schillinger, who works at improving corporate engagement for pharmaceuticals group Sanofi Pasteur, wondered in a recent article how employees could express their voice in the world of business:
Raising your voice comes with risk, makes you an outsider and slows down your career. Most workers understand this all too well and so just shut up.
You might hope that we had moved on from the regimented drudgery that Charlie Chaplin sent up so memorably more than 80 years ago in Modern Times, but still we read news stories which highlight workplace compassion is missing. Perhaps most recently, Elisa Steele, the chief executive of tech firm Jive Software argued that companies are creating “zombies”.
In some cases, people leave their real selves at the door of their office, warehouse or factory. Their emotional well-being is squashed and instead they end up resembling a corporate clone which has been defined by decades of self-serving leadership where pressure for output is the only concern. Petra Wilton, director of strategy and external affairs at the Chartered Management Institute has argued that poor management is currently costing the economy £84 billion each year and that the UK lags behind when it comes to people skills.
One survey from 2015 conducted by business-to-business services group Expert Market, found that half of UK senior managers would not feel guilty about replacing a human job with a robot. We have got to the point, perhaps, where this no longer seems odd as we buy into the push towards “smart” technology and the Internet of Things.
Stemming the tide
There are efforts to halt this slide towards thing-ification. Britain’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), which issues guidance for NHS professionals, recently published a new quality standard aimed at creating healthy workplaces. Managers are provided with measurable advice and guidance on how to integrate human well-being into the organisational agenda. The worry is that such interventions arrive too late – once compassion deteriorates and people are seen as things, it’s easy to abuse them, to dismiss them, to marginalise and to hurt them.
We see hints of this kind of wholesale dehumanisation in newspaper reports about working conditions at Amazon, where the talk is of “Amazombie” employees working long hours and facing intense scrutiny over breaks and workload. One employee told the New York Times: “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.”
Amazon says that it is trying to do big, innovative things, and argues that “shooting for the moon” demands a challenging work environment. But dehumanising employees by rigidly sticking to a sometimes brutal regime can hinder productivity. Paul Polman, the CEO of consumer goods giant Unilever, reckons people achieve more when you don’t tell them what to do. US think tank Rand looked at the data from a 2014 competition to find Britain’s Healthiest Company and found that workplace environmental factors, such as unrealistic time pressures, corporate attitudes to wellbeing and work relationships, were significant predictors of productivity loss.
Employees who feel engaged, have an input into decision-making and an effective work-life balance, while getting justly rewarded for their efforts, are likely to be motivated and hard-working. Employers in turn will see less staff turnover and retain their best and brightest employees. The trick to avoid thing-ification is to make well-being at work a long-term initiative which is embedded in strategy – not an add-on which gets dumped when budgets are tight.
Accountants PwC might be a good benchmark. The company’s initiative known as “The Deal” has been going since 2014 and aims to boost employee well-being by designing buildings to make them more people-friendly and providing opportunities for staff to express their views. Human resources trade body the CIPD has reported that major tech firms such as HP, Microsoft and IBM are using social media to make provide a dialogue channel for voices that were once not heard.
It is a hard trick for businesses to pull off. In the headlong rush for profits and growth, organisations can easily become soulless places where workers end up feeling brutalised at the place where they spend most of their waking hours. Instead of treating people like things, the corporate world should focus on enabling employees to live more by the advice of early 20th century investor and politician Bernard Baruch: “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind”.