The Human Workplace, by Andy Swann

Why I read it…  In autumn 2019, I launched a staff wellbeing research project with a colleague, and we were pointed in the direction of the Relationships Foundation. They were a source of inspiration and knowledge; one of their recommendations was The Human Workplace by Andy Swann, which is a worthy starting point if you’re reflecting on how to build an organisation that promotes connection, relationships and a thriving environment for staff.

In summary:

Swann challenges the reader to review what we deem as success in our work. Results and output? Or putting people first? He defines a human workplace in a few ways: commitment to people and their development; having a clear mission; focus on long-term development through creativity; a safe place to collaborate and communicate openly; being sensitive to the wellbeing and connection of those to the organisation.

Unlike many books of this type, Swann doesn’t rely upon lengthy anecdotes; instead, he includes brief case studies throughout, which are isolated on the page, and are supplementary to his lengthy reflections and guidance.

Key takeaways:

Swann leads a nuanced and comprehensive discussion, devoid of catchy soundbites. This has made it tricky to provide takeaways without sounding vague and cliché – hopefully they will pique your interest enough to read the book!

  1. Connecting with people –many organisations are starting to harness the power of being people-focused. But it has to be authentic. Words are not enough. The organisation must create an environment where people are valued and trusted. How? Well, the book provides plenty of insights, but my key takeaways are: giving staff more autonomy in their work; fostering an environment to share ideas and collaborate – diverse and innovative thinking is only produced in safe places; keeping open platforms of communication. There’s so much I could say here, but, in short, Swann says that in a human organisation ‘enabling people is the only requirement.’
  2. Why change fails – a study in 2008 showed that 70% of change initiatives in workplaces fail. The reasons are interesting: 39% employee resistance; 33% management behaviour; 14% resources / budget; 14% other reasons. Put simply, the overwhelming reasons for change failing aren’t how it is resourced, but a lack of connection between staff and organisation, or the communication/behaviour of the organisation to inspire that connection. Before we try to change, perhaps we should fix connection and mission.
  3. Recruiting with purpose – we tend to create job adverts with detailed specifications of skills, experience, qualifications. But Swann proposes that workers who feel genuine connection with their organisation, and in turn have high morale, will contribute far more than those who have been hired solely for the skills or experience. Therefore, workplaces should look at how to prioritise hiring those whose values are aligned to their own.

Favourite quote:

‘We lump the idea of a business and an organisation together as a single entity. But it’s time for clarity. Your business is what you do. Your organisation is how you do it.’

Swann argues that your business tangibly exists: it’s legally registered, has a shipping address, and a set of products and services. But your organisation is entirely of your own making. How will you structure your organisation, create mission, purpose and connection, in the pursuit of serving your business? I found this contrast really useful: what your business is and does, doesn’t have to reflect the way you create the organisation – any workplace can be people-focused and mission-driven, whether you save lives every day, or sell paperclips.

Favourite moment:

One of Swann’s brief case studies is a focus on Lego and how they created the New Ways of Working (NWOW) programme to increase engagement and relatedness across the company. This included: integrating Lego history and the sense of brand across the company to help staff buy into their values and mission; redesigning work spaces with innovation in mind, so that staff could be creative with the environment they worked within; bringing previously disconnected departments together for collaboration and projects so that a sense of the company’s values and mission became aligned, increasing a sense of togetherness, perspective and identity.

Question and reflect

  • We often focus on what we do, in terms of output: school exam results, sales in a business, number of interactions or users. But can we separate business and organisation, to create our own unique mission, values, and connection with the people we work with?
  • We all say that we care about our staff. Of course we care about them; they might become our friends, we connect with their lives, we often see them more than our own family! But do we demonstrate this care through our actions? Whether that’s championing their development, giving them more autonomy, or providing an open platform for them to share and contribute – don’t talk about it, act on it.

Read this if…

You are reflecting on how we can create mission, purpose, and relatedness in your organisation

You want to engage with a writer who is less interested in soundbites and stories, and more in the substance behind how we can have a huge impact on the lives of those we work with

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