Blog: Bringing Humanity Back to the Workplace


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Jack Van Tiem

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Last month as we celebrated one of my team member’s service anniversaries, it struck me that I was witnessing a quiet revolution. Artificial intelligence and machine learning may be transforming every aspect of every industry, but people at all levels — in offices, factories, and workspaces across the country — are craving authentic and respectful connections.

It’s a simple premise for these complicated times: Treat colleagues with respect and take a genuine interest in their lives. So how does it go so wrong, so often? Less than half of U.S. employees feel engaged in their work, turnover is rampant across industries, and companies find themselves scrambling to teach their leaders to “be authentic.” In this climate, managers and supervisors have tremendous opportunity to bring humanity back to work through simple, practical steps:

Stop asking, “Did you have a good weekend?”: This might seem like an odd place to start, but this question — and all the other well-intentioned but meaningless close-ended questions give leaders a false sense that they’re being “human enough.” It’s critical to go the extra step of getting to know employees as humans, not just human resources. It only takes a few attentive moments to learn whether team members have families, hobbies, pets, or all the above. That information enables simple shifts that create more genuine connections: Consider the difference between asking, “Did you have a good weekend?” and “How did your daughter’s basketball game go?” or “What are your thoughts about that doggie day care center you’ve been using?” It’s equally easy to swap out the usual orientation/team-building questions with others that let people share what makes them tick. There are countless respectful, non-invasive ways to show employees they are valued as people with their own interests and lives outside of work.

Don’t let technology become an excuse to “opt out” of humanity: With more than 43 percent of employed Americans saying they spend at least some time working remotely, there’s no question that email, instant messaging, and text are enabling new levels of freedom and flexibility. However, remote work can also be a slippery slope that diminishes human connection if not managed properly. Online communities, virtual water coolers, and “in the office” team days can help bridge the gap, but it sometimes requires stepping outside of your comfort zone. Case in point: after some initial resistance, I’ve come to appreciate the value of mandatory Skype video calls for virtual business meetings. It was a surprising lesson that reaffirmed the value of looking people in the eye and focusing on what they’re saying as they speak — one of the most primitive ways to build a human connection.

Insist that all leaders put humanity at the core of their business: Anyone who has direct reports needs to treat those workers with humanity and respect, regardless of salary, skill level, employment type (temp, full time, etc.), or position on the org chart. This should be a non-negotiable requirement of holding a leadership position. Ideally, companies should already be hiring and promoting for aptitude and attitude on their leadership team. But even a tenured “no-nonsense” supervisor can learn to apply some of the simple steps above or find valuable takeaways from leadership training and start making a difference with their teams. The key is to set clear expectations that humanity at work is important; model those behaviors; and then assign exercises and follow up on the result.

It’s ironic that in today’s hyperconnected world, so many people are still longing for a sense of connection at work. The good news is that we carry our humanity with us every day. By simply choosing to extend humanity into the workplace, we can improve the lives and livelihoods of countless workers and families.   

Jack Van Tiem is the Detroit territory vice president for Kelly Services in Troy, a global leader in providing workforce solutions. He oversees the staffing and business solutions operations for Kelly throughout metro Detroit, with a focus on staffing for automotive, manufacturing, retail, financial services, and technology.

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