The Growing Chorus for Humanity at Work

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Thoughts about the future of work are rampant. Executives, employees, politicians and citizens are taking stands across the ideological spectrum, from embracing the change that technology and globalization enable, to wishing that the marketplace could be more protectionist and therefore less volatile.

These conversations are reverberating at the highest policy-making levels. Whether it’s the World Economic Forum capturing these fast-moving trends in their 4th Industrial Revolution worldview, or economists beginning to find growth measures besides the GDP to help quantify the sharing economy, the world finally seems to be waking up to the reality that we need a new vocabulary and common understanding about these emerging market dynamics.

It can be giddying to keep up with all these conversations, and many of them can seem far removed from our daily desires to earn a good living, raise our families and spend time with our friends.

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But when the 4th Industrial Revolution paints a future where our digital, physical and biological spheres are colliding, we’re faced with questions that impact the very fabric of our existence as humans. For instance, engineers, designers and architects are pioneering a symbiosis between microorganisms, our bodies, the products we consume, and even the buildings we inhabit.

Even if we don’t know all the details of these scientific breakthroughs, there is enough evidence in the collective ether to make our hearts and souls nervous. How much more automation will our industries choose to deploy? Technology brings us many conveniences and connections, but will robots and artificial intelligence make our jobs obsolete?

Will we really want and appreciate all the free time and creative potential that technology promises to unleash in our lives, or are we hardwired to want to put in a predictable day’s work and be compensated for that work? Will we be able to fundamentally change our concept of work, to move from a work-for-resources economy to an access-based economy, where everyone deserves to have their basic needs satisfied, not simply because it’s the right thing to do, but because it is possible to do so? Or will the elimination of work all become too much, and will it lead to levels of unemployment and income inequality that will destroy countries and economies?

This time, it’s personal

It may feel like we’re facing unprecedented challenges, but these are not new questions. The technology genie has been out of the bottle for centuries, ever since steam and mechanical production equipment ushered in the first Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s.

What’s different this time, though, is how personal these changes feel. And the ethical Pandora’s box accompanying these changes seems somehow bigger, more complex and more prone to abuse.

According to Nita Farahany, a professor of law and philosophy at Duke University, advances in brain science are helping us monitor brain activity for health & wellness, create smart drugs to enhance performance and develop breakthrough solutions to pain management. But they’re also opening the doorway to misuse of personal information, the risks of brain intervention and even more precise methods of mass terror and torture.

Then there’s the challenge fueling anger and unrest in many Western democracies: the disappearing middle class. As US Vice President Joe Biden put it, the middle class is a values set, an idea and a belief in possibilities. It’s a deeply-held belief about the possibility of achieving a decent life and the dignity and respect that comes with a good job; that it’s possible for anyone willing to work hard to achieve it. For all the promises of free time and the glorious pursuit of meaning that the 4th Industrial Revolution can unleash, our long-held beliefs of the respect that stems from hard work may take much longer to unseat.

In the short term, many of us are grappling with rising income inequality and evaporating self-identities as industries shift, automate or decline. The class struggle is a hot-button topic in the 2016 US presidential race. Lifestyle expectations of the haves widen their empathy gap with the have nots. The real-world redistribution of wealth isn’t happening efficiently or equitably, and it isn’t even being taught or discussed by economics students. Policies that move away from a declining and environment-polluting industry like coal mining, or a politician’s careless remarks about that move, neither acknowledge the pride of being a coal miner, nor validate the emotional toll it takes on communities that have relied on mining for generations.

Navigating this dramatic economic, political and social transition

So, as we make the transition from the 3rd Industrial Revolution (powered by electronics, IT and automated production) to the 4th, what can we do to ease the strain and restore a sense of peace and calm? image from from

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Vice President Biden proposed 5 ways to prepare for the 4th Industrial Revolution:

  1. Advance human potential: Provide universal access to early, lifelong, affordable and accessible education and job training, because cognitive capability is the new means by which you can climb that ladder into the middle class.
  2. Ensure human safety: Continue to ensure basic protection for workers as these changes take place e.g. living wage, payment of overtime, child care, sick leave, the right to unionize, to collectively bargain. Embrace the obligation to your workers as well as your shareholders. It’s good for workers; it’s good for your business; it’s good for your productivity; and it’s good for society. And there’s nothing about it that doesn’t recognize and support and reinforce the capital markets.
  3. Modernize our infrastructure to open up vast opportunities.
  4. Create a more progressive tax code. Not confiscatory policy, not socialism, but everybody should pay proportionately a fair share.
  5. Expand access to capital. Make existing capital and the tools that support entrepreneurship more widely available to people who haven’t had access to it before.

While points #3 & #4 tend to fall to politicians and governments, and financial institutions and venture capitalists hold the key to point #5, individuals and business leaders have the leeway to advance points #1 & #2.

In recent years, many visionary leaders have begun to address the twin goals of human safety and potential. From the Conscious Capitalism movement to the Wisdom 2.0 conference, there is a growing chorus of voices to counterbalance our relentless march into digitization and automation. It’s easy for us to be seduced by the comforts and conveniences of technology, and to forget that we always have a choice to harness that technology in a kinder and more inclusive way.

As Wisdom 2.0 founder Soren Gordhamer states, “It is essential we come together to explore how we can harness the power of awareness and human connection in this time so that technology serves us … and not the other way around.”

Here are two more shining examples where people are actively and successfully pursuing purpose, safety, connection and fulfillment at work.

The Barry-Wehmiller Way

EBC-EP024In his book Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your People Like Family, CEO of Barry-Wehmiller Bob Chapman shares his US-headquartered company’s 40-year journey from being an unsustainable command-and-control climate to becoming a thriving industry leader in global capital equipment and engineering consulting.

With annual revenues of $2.4 billion and more than 8000 associates worldwide, Bob and Barry-Wehmiller place cultural visioning on par with business visioning. Their people-centric approach goes way beyond lip service – it’s a disciplined focus on how the company handles acquisitions, navigates economic downturns, recognizes employees, trains its leaders and consciously remembers to treat its people with respect and dignity.

This people-first principle allowed Barry-Wehmiller to survive the 2009 Great Recession without a single layoff or offshoring its operations to more cost-effective countries. It considered the human toll of letting people go in that brutal economic environment – individuals, families and entire communities would have been devastated. There were no other jobs to be had, and many people would have lost their homes, marriages and the chance for their children to attend college. They agreed on the need for common short-term sacrifice. Everyone agreed to a temporary furlough and suspension of 401 (k) matching, and everyone emerged with their jobs intact.

Take the next step

For more on the Barry-Wehmiller success story, and the transformative impact it’s made on its employees and the communities it serves, listen to my comprehensive take on ‘Everybody Matters’ here.

The WorkHuman Conference

How far can we apply this idea of humanity at work?WorkHuman-bannerad

If you ask Globoforce, the creators of the WorkHuman conference, the answer would likely be “as far as the eye can see, and as much as the heart can hold”.

Globoforce is in the business of employee recognition, and its WorkHuman promise serves to “unlock the future of the human workplace”. This broad and bold vision is gaining ground, with conference attendees tripling year on year. And Globoforce consciously walks its humanity talk, creating a conference experience that’s well-paced and nourishing for head, heart and soul.

If their 2016 conference wrap-up panel is anything to go by, WorkHuman helps create the growing realization that the pursuit of workplace humanity ultimately starts from within. As one attendee summarized, “To me it’s all about the power that every single one of us has to be engaged, and to engage others at work. It’s not an HR program, it’s really the power within all of us.”

Learn more

Read our coverage of the WorkHuman conference here: WorkHuman Spreads ‘Humanity at Work’ Message to a Growing Global Following

Not either/or, but both/and

Barry-Wehmiller and Globoforce/WorkHuman prove that the transition to the 4th Industrial Revolution doesn’t have to be a case of man vs. machine. As countries and companies scramble to upgrade the technical skills of their workforce, we can pursue these skills with the view to work alongside these ever-smarter machines, not to be replaced by them.

More importantly, we have a golden opportunity to focus on the qualities that make us uniquely human – our capacity to empathize, inspire and create. We can reinforce our desire for community and connection, expand our sense of belonging across geographical or business borders and, ultimately, actively pursue the act of caring for one another.

By reawakening our innate humanity, it will be easier for those of us with obsolete skills in declining industries to learn something new. We know we’ll be supported, not shunned, by society as we upgrade our ability to contribute to the new age. Over time, we’ll be able to embrace the lofty ideal of an access-based economy that offers a basal level of safety and wellbeing for all, because we can trust that our businesses, communities and governments will have our back, and that we won’t starve in the pursuit of more meaning.

I believe in the strength, tenacity and wisdom of the human spirit to do the right thing. People like Bob Chapman, the Globoforce team, and many others are leading the way and creating communities of support for this journey of transition and self actualization. Let us all join the growing chorus for more humanity at work, and let us do so with the grace and conviction it deserves.

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About the author

Maya Mathias

Maya Mathias is a peaceful leadership advocate, spiritual biographer and soul guide, with a life and career spanning 3 continents and 5 inspired self-reinventions. She is a global leadership veteran, bringing her unique blend of East & West to her leadership development and innovation management practice. Maya’s life began with a lower-middle class upbringing in Asia, surrounded by poultry & vegetable farms and the ‘simple life’. She doesn’t forget her humble roots, and her body of work seeks to bring more equality, justice and personal purpose in troubling times. Learn more about Maya here.

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