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5 ways to bring your human(ity) to work

When you consider progress in the workplace over the past decade or so, you likely think about technological advances. New software, new ways to communicate, and new perks—all in the name of efficiency and improvement. And yet, many of those “improvements” come with unanticipated consequences and have had an underlying negative impact on the workplace.

Erika Keswin is an author, speaker, and professional dot connector. She began noticing how technology disconnects us from others and set out to find which workplaces were able to maintain their humanness and connection and how they did it. Out of that research came her book, Bring Your Human to Work, which shares 10 ways to design a workplace to be good for people and for the business. That, and it also offers a plethora of entertaining stories.

When I sat down to chat with Erika, she shared anecdote after anecdote of successful businesses making small changes to encourage and create a more human-focused workplace. Here are five ways to bring more humanity into your space.

1. Act your values

Erika says the number one thing companies need to do—“It’s chapter 1 for a reason!”—is to act your values. How do you do that? Get them “off the walls and into the halls.”

“One of the biggest mistakes companies make is they have too many values. When there are too many values, employees either can’t remember them or they’re confused about how to prioritize those values,” she said.

[Related read: You can't delegate company culture. You can't buy it. So, what can you do? Look up.]

Erika recommends that your company should have three to six values. These values are used by employees, managers, and executives to inform decisions, whether that’s employee perks, such as vacation time and parental leave, or how to handle a contentious customer service call, or inter-office communication. If an employee feels uncertain about a decision they need to make, they should be able to look to the company values and find guidance.

If your company has too many values, employees and leaders might not know which value to rely on to make decisions. Too many values muddles the decision-making process and leaves too much room for interpretation or bending of values to fit individual situations.

If an employee feels uncertain about a decision they need to make, they should be able to look to the company values and find guidance.

A company who gets it right: Lyft
One company who relentlessly follows their values: Lyft. One of the ways Erika knows a company is living their values is when she can see physical manifestations of those values. One of the values at Lyft is “create fearlessly.”

As any office worker knows, it’s tough to create fearlessly when you’re constantly distracted by pinging email, Slack messages, and conversations across an open-concept office. That’s why Lyft has a hidden library, a silent space entered through a portrait of Willy Wonka, where employees can focus and be creative. Lyft takes this value into the physical world by creating a space where their employees can go and create fearlessly.

[Related read: How not to be an asshole in an open office]

2. Strive to be a human-focused brand

Millennials and Gen-Xers don’t want to work for just any company anymore—they demand something better than an old, stodgy corporation. They want to work for a company that has values, that’s human, and that cares about its employees and community.

86% of Millennials say they'd take a pay cut to work for a company whose values align with their own.

Both employees and customers are looking for human-focused brands. Don’t believe it? According to LinkedIn, 86% of Millennials say they’d take a pay cut to work for a company whose values align with their own.

And, it can’t be lip service. No matter how good your product or service is, both employees and consumers are researching whether you’re actually a good company and are putting your money where your mouth is.

A company who gets it right: Microsoft
Being a human brand means putting your values and beliefs into action. Microsoft incorporated its values into an internal policy that offers Microsoft employees parental leave. But, through a diversity and inclusion survey, the company found that wasn’t enough. Acting on the feedback, the company created a requirement that stipulated that any contractor who works with Microsoft must also offer their employees 12 weeks of parental leave.

As such a large company, Microsoft has outsized power. And leaders there realized they could do more than simply change an internal policy and made a decision that affects the lives of so many more people and that could potentially influence the technology sector as a whole. If a contractor wants to work with Microsoft, they have to follow its parental leave policy. Now that’s human.

As any office worker knows, it's tough to create fearlessly when you're constantly distracted by pinging email, Slack messages, and conversations across an open-concept office.

[Related read: Being human at work: the benefits of showing up whole]

3. Hold better meetings

When was the last time you sat in a meeting flipping through email or playing a game on your phone because you weren’t needed in the meeting and had nothing to contribute? Unfortunately, I imagine, for many of you the answer is “this week.”

That’s not being considerate to your fellow humans.

There’s a way to make meetings better for everyone. It starts with first questioning whether or not a meeting is necessary. And just because you’ve been holding that standing meeting every Monday for five years doesn’t mean you should continue.

Erika lays out how to have a successful, human-focused meeting using her 3 Ps:

  • Purpose: A meeting should have a purpose. If people aren’t sure of the purpose, you shouldn’t be having the meeting.
  • Presence: Everyone should be physically and emotionally present. Consider tech-free meetings to encourage people to be fully present.
  • Protocols: Lastly, protocols are the rules in place to make sure meetings are on-task and efficient. Setting and sharing an agenda can be a helpful first step.

A pro-tip Erika has learned: It’s helpful to have everyone introduce themselves. If everyone’s voice is heard early on in the meeting, they’re more likely to speak up and share throughout the meeting.

A company who gets it right: Netflix
To ensure productive, respectful meetings, Netflix has created some specific rules that include:

  • Anyone can come to any meeting, as long as they follow the rules
  • You must do the pre-reading sent out before the meeting, which includes a detailed agenda
  • You can’t be a wallflower — you must speak up and share ideas
  • No technology
  • Meetings break every 20 minutes to allow those who are finished to leave and others to join when it’s their turn

4. Offer perks that people want

Employers are beginning to realize that they can’t offer employees one-size-fits-all perk packages. Employees desire perks that reflect their unique needs and interests.

Gone are the days when employees get hired at a company, climb the corporate ladder, and retire at 65. “It’s time for employers to get creative and support employees to grow up, down, and sideways and integrate work into the life they want to live,” Erika said.

[Related read: Loonshots: Making room for innovation as your business scales]

With that in mind, employers need to offer more holistic perk packages that consider all the different ways in which humans need care. These include:

Corporate wellness programs have been around for ages, but employers are starting to recognize that it’s not just about an employee’s physical health. It’s not just about maintaining a “healthy” BMI; employer wellness programs need to go deeper than gym packages and yoga and consider a broader understanding of health. This shift represents a change in perspective, looking at an employee’s wellbeing as a whole, including physical health, illness, mental health, and work-life balance.

Vacation time
The key to a successful vacation policy is that the leaders of the organization must model the behavior. In other words, if you want your employees to take vacation time (and you should!) then your managers and leaders must use their vacation days. While unlimited vacation policies sound great in theory, it’s just that, theory. Erika said that most organizations who’ve implemented them have found they create an adverse effect and employees actually take even fewer vacation days than before.

Employers are beginning to realize that they can't offer employees one-size-fits-all perk packages. Employees desire perks that reflect their unique needs and interests.

Personalized perks
While much of the conversation around employee benefits has focused on parental leave, this is a perk that doesn’t benefit everyone. Not everyone has, or will have, children, but many people need flexible time to take care of themselves, to train new pets, to take care of sick or elderly parents, and so on. Or consider the recent graduates carrying six-figure debt. Offering a matching program for repaying student loans could attract top-notch talent.

A company who gets it right: Google
Google wants employees to use their vacation days, so once an employee’s vacation days reach a certain threshold, the employee receives an email from HR encouraging them to take some time off. An employee will continue to get these emails every 10 days until the number of earned vacation days go down. Google has put their policy and beliefs into action. Vacation time is important to them and they let their employees know that.

5. Build connections—in person

While the original idea behind innovations like email, social media, and Slack was to build better and more fluid connection points, these tools sometimes replace the conversation we might otherwise have had, complete with facial and body language cues, tone of voice, and opportunities to clarify an intention or idea. So while digital tools are great for productivity and flexibility, a human workplace needs human interaction and companies must work to build those connections and relationships with and between employees.

[Related read: As technology advances, we question what it means to be human]

Though hierarchical structure still exists within corporations, it's starting to break down. And, a company happy hour just isn’t enough anymore. Your employees want to know their fellow colleagues and managers as humans, not just as their superiors. “Employees want to work for executives who are real, reachable, and have the ability to be vulnerable,” says Erika.

Erika mentioned Zendesk as a company who gets it right here, citing the company’s weekly happy hour at its San Francisco headquarters. Especially during the company’s earlier days, executives made a regular effort to step behind the bar and sling drinks for employees, creating casual moments for conversation and connection, one human to another.

In today’s tight job market, employees have plenty of choices on where they work. So if your company doesn’t want to bring the human to work—you’re going to have a tough time finding people to work there.