Perspective - The reset we need: restoring humanity in the workplace

By Michelle O'Keeffe | 8 December 2023
Michelle O'Keeffe CEO of Engaging.

The AdNews end of year Perspectives, looking back at 2023 and forward to next year.

In the tumultuous whirlwind of recent years, we've been bombarded by a relentless barrage of 'outside noise.' Pandemics, wars, segregation - disasters beyond our control have left an indelible mark on our daily existence, wreaking havoc on our lives, businesses, and even our basic human connections.

This chaos is amplified by our immersion in the virtual echo chambers of social media, and a media landscape that seems hell-bent on squeezing every last dollar out of fear and sensationalism. It's a world where fear and judgment are served up in abundance, and independent thought and questioning are met with scorn or even pure hatred. It's a stark binary: conform or be cast aside. You're either with us or you're against us.

Through an anthropological lens, it's clear that Western society teeters on the edge of a profound transformation in societal, economic, and power structures. The average person feels overwhelmed, marginalised, and disempowered in the face of the harsh realities of survival in today's world.

I feel it, my friends and family feel it and I know that my colleagues feel it also. It’s no longer useful to pretend our employees, clients and partners aren’t impacted by these challenges at work. How can we not be affected at work? So why not look at how we can support each other in the work environment.

I remember March 2020 - the beginnings of Covid lockdowns. We had no idea how far the changes in our lives would go, we didn’t know if our business would survive. With many employees' family members being instantly laid off or salaries severely cut, everyone in our team at the time knew we all depended on each other to work as hard as we possibly could for each other. And that’s exactly what we did.

Everyone was kept on full wages, we put some of our clients on payment plans - those whose ability to trade were completely dependent on the platforms we were building for them - not because we had to, but because it was the right thing to do. We had the opportunity to help, to contribute, even if we weren’t financially rewarded, we felt good because we were making a difference. That time was the proudest I’ve ever been at work. And a distant second to that, the business very much survived because of it.

When adversity strikes, we tend to reevaluate our priorities and focus on what truly matters. It's high time to extend this critical perspective into our workplaces, whether as leaders or colleagues. Not just when disaster hits us, but always. Let’s not go back to ‘business as usual’.

Dare I say it. Money is not the be-all and end-all. Happiness and community are meaningful and are found in the day to day, in the journey, not the destination.

So let 2024 be the year we breathe life back into our workplaces. Many in our industry talk a good game when it comes to delivering a holistic and empowered culture, the reality though can be disappointingly different.

It's a chance to truly see one another, to actively listen, and to create an environment where admitting mistakes and embracing growth is not a sign of weakness, but a testament to our collective resilience. It's an opportunity to build a safety net of support for our colleagues and lift them up when they falter. To let them be human in the workplace.

Creating a workplace centred around humanity and compassion sounds simple, but it is not without its challenges. Challenges which are further compounded with remote working, which really begs a different question entirely. What is a workplace in 2024?

Company culture requires focus. Engagement and interaction require deliberate action. Compassion requires compassionate people in the right positions in an organisation. It's unrealistic to expect HR or P&C teams to address and solve all these issues.

These are big, hairy and difficult problems that require company wide focus to resolve. There is no going back. What used to work 10 years ago won't work now. The world has changed. People have changed. The world of work has changed. Any business trying to fix new problems with old ideas will come unstuck.

It's scary, not knowing what the answer is, but there's excitement there too. Shiny, glittering hope filled excitement. We have the opportunity to change. Evolve, improve. There are plenty of people with their glass half full right now. We just need to show them they're holding the wrong glass.

In the midst of the external chaos, we possess the power to fashion a workplace that embodies empathy, camaraderie, and genuine human connection. Let's prioritise our shared humanity, as it's never too late to begin. And as an added bonus, it just makes good business sense.

Michelle O'Keeffe, CEO of Engaging.

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