Human-Centric Organizations: A Positive Result of the Pandemic?

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

This week we take a peek into the idea of creating human-centric workplaces. Before I worked at a Quaker school, I had never really had the experience, and it was lifechanging in so many ways. I am optimistic that this Great Pause will help to bring some empathy to those who carry the mental workload of home into work as everyone is having to deal with home issues now. Hopefully, advocates for change can be better heard now.

Remote work has revealed what most women have always known. Trying to work with the blur of home responsibilities and interruptions is hard. For the most part, women have carried that noise in their heads as they went about their workday. Now men are experiencing it first hand as they are managing Zoom calls around dogs, children, interruptions, and deliveries. While this is an over-generalization regarding gender roles, the statistics of who is in the C suite lend it credence. While the COVID  pandemic is beyond horrible, this flattening of the workspace offers opportunities for executives and leaders and manages to consider everything their employees deal with regularly. Perhaps we can use this new way of being to inspire the creation of more human-centric organizations. 

In my own experience working in both public and private schools in several different states, I saw a huge difference between school systems that were human-centric and those that were not. The first two school systems in two different states were on the small side. Because I was a special education teacher, the department was even smaller. I knew the district level supervisor by name and knew that I could call on her if needed. When I moved to North Carolina, however, I landed in the 14th largest school system in the country. There was a large bureaucracy, and I felt like a number and that no one had my back.  There was little to no effort to connect individual teachers to the larger school system. I felt like a cog in a big machine.

But in 2011, I obtained a position at Carolina Friends School, a private Quaker school, where on my first day of orientation, the head of human resources told me that the school was interested in supporting their employees in their wholeness and recognized that we are individuals with individual needs. What a breath of fresh air that was! And for the seven years that I worked there, it was true. The Quakers have what they call testimonies, two of which are the belief in equality and community. These are played out in their decision-making processes. When they hold a “Meeting for Business”, all employees are expected to be there and participate in decision-making from the principal to the landscaping crew. Everyone has an opportunity to weigh in and the Clerk of the Meeting makes sure that no one takes up all the oxygen in the room. According to the American Friends Service Committee, “To be effective, the Quaker process requires that everyone come ready to participate fully by sharing their experiences and knowledge, by listening respectfully to the experiences and knowledge brought by others, and by remaining open to new insights and ideas. This powerful combination of grounded experience and spiritual openness, rationality and faith, allows a deeper truth to emerge. When everyone present is able to recognize the same truth, the meeting has reached unity. The clerk’s job is to sense emerging truth and labor with those present to put that truth into words.” I am not going to lie, Quaker decision-making takes a long time and may not be appropriate for corporations, but the fact that everyone is included and heard is what makes it human-centric. We don’t need to necessarily be a practicing Quaker to understand that a human-centric approach makes for happier employees and customers.

What does it take for an organization to become more human-centric? Where do you begin? According to Banafsheh Ghassemi, CEO & Cofounder of Tangerine Lab, “A ‘human centered’ organization creates solutions to challenges by placing the perspective of the involved and affected humans in the center of the solution creation process.” This would include every single employee and the customers or constituents they serve. Michael Groves writes, “A human-centric organization (HCO) views the individual as the core of value creation, not job titles and organization charts.” Perhaps taking Mabel Abraham’s advice as an Assistant Professor of Management at Columbia Business School, “When proposing a new policy, ask how does it affect ALL of my employees? Is it necessary? Does it make it harder for women, minorities, or others? Or asking questions like the one Ara Tucker, SVP, Head of Talent and Culture at Audible, Inc. posed in a recent Ellevate workshop, “Who do you have onboard already? Who is missing?”  Human-centric organizations look at the whole person and their needs as a human. Do they need some flexibility due to a sick child or parent? Could we consider offering short sabbaticals for those who do not have children but want to explore other interests? What do our employees and customers need to be fully present as an employee?

Creating a human-centric organization requires the creation of a community with a shared sense of values when it comes to the workplace. That is not to say that everyone has to be the same. In fact, Ara Tucker argues that it is important to move from the concept of “culture fit” to “culture add”. She recommends meeting people where they are and giving them a vision of what you hope for them career-wise. But how do you create that community? It is not easy and takes a lot of time getting to know your employees and your customers using innovative tools. It requires frequent checking in with your employees, especially during these trying times! It requires telling stories to foster connection. It sounds like a lot of work because it is. But as someone who worked in an organization that is human-centric, I can tell you that it is worth it. Everyone working at that school was on the same team espousing the same values, and most were not Quakers. And of course, there were disagreements and everything wasn’t perfect. We are talking about humans after all! But each person felt seen and heard, which I know is a cliché, but when it is a real phenomenon, you know you are in a special place. 

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Resources if you are interested in exploring this concept further:

An overview of Human Centric Organizations