Last week, my Humans Being At Work co-director, Jen West, and I flew back to Brisbane after presenting at the Oceania International Association of Facilitator’s conference in Melbourne. It was a great conference with many great speakers; we ran a session on ‘Facilitation in Post Contemporary Organisations’. During that Qantas flight home I listened to ‘Talking Business’ on the inflight entertainment system – always a favourite. One of those interviewed was Deanne Stewart, the CEO of Metlife Insurance. Metlife operates in 50 countries, has over 100 million customers, 65,000 employees and serves 95 of the top 100 Fortune 500 companies – impressive credentials!

Ms Stewart articulated what many of us already know – the world of work is getting a bit crazy! (my words, not her’s).  She reported that ‘stress and anxiety in the workplace is at an all-time high’, and commented that many of us now are ‘always on’. This is having some unwanted consequences. Mental health claims have gone up 33% in the last four years; organisations are becoming more ‘driven’ and focused on the bottom line; pressures to perform are mounting; and many organisations are operating in a culture of fear.

The results indicate that this is not working and it is not sustainable.

Many of us know, first hand, that work is getting busier. The world of work is changing – and fast. Increasing globalisation and technological capability are changing the rules of business – Airbnb and Uber are current examples of this. Competition and ‘business disruptors’ are now coming from all directions; from around the world and from suburban garages just around the corner. If you are in the finance sector, type ‘blockchain’ into your favourite search engine to see what is in store.

So how do we operate successfully in this new dynamic environment?’ A natural reaction is to ‘do more with less; work harder and smarter’. However, Ms Stewart’s figures would suggest that stretching the rubber band is not the answer. Surely there is a limit to how much more we can do with less. Whilst each new version of our laptop hard-drive might be bigger, faster and more capable, our brain capacity is pretty much the same as our grand-parents’.

Neuroscience tells us that we work best when we feel calm and relaxed (not stressed). When we are stressed, our hypothalamus prepares our flight or fight response, our blood flow reduces to our neocortex, impacting our judgement and creativity. Despite our best intentions, working harder and faster in this state of mind won’t produce the results we are hoping for.

Canadian physician, Susan Rosenthal points out that while the physiological construct of our brains has not changed, how we use them has. Humans have pooled their experiences and accumulated knowledge, and the human mind has developed to create new social arrangements and new cultures. Tapping into this knowledge and creativity is the key. Rosenthal maintains that the answer to organisational success is not focusing on increasing profit, but on developing human potential.

This is a new way of thinking underpinned by a very different intention, but one which is gaining increasing prominence. A well-publicised example is Google (named the most sort after employer in the US – again!). Google has ‘nap pods’ and treadmill desks; it maintains 1,000 bikes on its main campus and gives workers their own garden space to grow vegetables. The Zurich office has ski gondolas, the Dublin office has a pub-like meeting room and the Istanbul office has a sidewalk café style meeting areas. Google’s vice president of Real Estate & Workplace Services says that ‘casual collisions are what we try and create in the work environment. You can’t schedule innovation, you can’t schedule idea generation … we’re really looking for little opportunities for engineers or for creative people to come together’[1].

Not all workplaces can have a ski gondola in the office (and they might not need one), but every leader and manager in every workplace can adopt a mindset which focuses on developing human potential; on seeing employees not as ‘resources’ but as human beings, at work. This is the essence of ‘enlightened leaders’ – they lead with ‘heart’.

[1] CBS News