From smart to human: putting people at the centre of our work

We’ve been working remotely over the past year, but it’s not been your usual remote working by any stretch of the imagination. We’d be better describing it as emergency working. Working remotely from home with an intense amount of technology. So it’s important that we don’t think of this as a new way of working moving forward. It’s time to ask ourselves what the future of work will look like.

We were able to keep going at work. For a moment there we risked stopping production lines: we’ve been through – and are still going through – a global pandemic. Everything that made us feel safe and the ability to stay together has been put into question. It’s shaken our individual and collective identities. Over 3.3 million people have died all over the world, and unfortunately the crisis isn’t over yet. We could have stopped what we were doing, but we kept on going. We found refuge in that sense of belonging to a company and to our professions.

Gallup’s recent research calls it “the wellbeing-engagement paradox”. People’s wellbeing got worse, but it didn’t affect their involvement with their companies. It’s the opposite of what happened in the pre-covid world. The science of transitions explains it well. When we go through a transition, our identity dimensions change and we try to orientate ourselves, finding points of reference in the moment. We look for the things that can’t change when we’re in the middle of the tempest. Our work became one of these points of reference. That’s why work doesn’t just give us financial security, but rather it shapes our identity and citizenship too. It makes work a right for all. The right to express who we are and to contribute to something that’s bigger than ourselves.

The word “work” comes from the latin word labor, that means fatigue. Figuratively, it means guiding our wants, desires and intent, or undertaking or obtaining something. So we can define work as fatigue, but it’s also an opportunity to undertake something, create something, to grab hold of something. Grab hold of…what?

Transitions offer us a unique opportunity to go back to the roots of words and definitions. They allow us to ask questions that other people have asked in the past, but that perhaps nobody has ever asked us. Because the only obstacle for change is that which already exists. Simply by existing, it stops us imagining something new. The things that already exist – our pre-pandemic ways of working – respond to questions that were asked before we were even born. But today, we’re the ones asking the questions. We are new people – we were before as well, with our multiple roles in life and the numerous changes that shape our stories. We have the opportunity to access information and interests that haven’t been possible before this point in our history. It’s even more true now, as we’ve seen that everything can change in an instant. There’s not a lot that we have to keep from our old ways of working. We have all the technology we need to change our behaviors and make space for new maps that are able to plot where we really find ourselves.

But it might not happen. Work might continue in the same way it always has. Because to work smart, technology isn’t enough.

“It’s not technology, it’s a way of seeing the world”

That’s what neuroscientist Beau Lotto said in his book “Deviate. The creative power of changing your perception”. Humans’ ability to imagine just can’t be replicated with technology, even if we’ve invested a lot of time and money in it over the past year. That’s why the way that we work needs to capitalize on our imaginations, instead of staying within the constraints of technology. It becomes pretty clear just 15 minutes into a conference call: our computer screens abilitate us, but they don’t confine us. There’s so much more behind the screen. We can start there, from the things that we’ve understood about ourselves. Those things that the frames of the past were unable to show. The way we frame things needs to avoid those limitations. Maybe they are bigger, maybe we need to design them from scratch. Maybe we need to put people at the centre with everything they know. Technology will follow us, adapting and opening doors: is that not why we invented it?

This article was originally written by Riccarda Zezza and published on the Il Sole 24 Ore blog, Alley Oop. To read the original article (in Italian), please click here