Designing Workplaces to be More Human

by Jeff Haanen

We spend about a third of our waking lives at work. And yet, for the majority of people, work is not much more than a paycheck. We feel lonely, especially men. We feel like there’s a gap between our job responsibilities and our own potential. We often feel exhausted and question whether our work is making any meaningful difference.

How might we reimagine what it means to be fully human in our working lives?

Here are five aspects of what I think it means to be human, and, as a result, what I believe we need to focus on if we’re going to build workplaces that really invest in human potential.

Humans are emotional and spiritual.

It’s tough to avoid it. Fear, anger, joy, surprise, sadness, disgust, elation – every day we’re a mix of emotions. My guess is that today, before leaving for work, you experienced at least a few of these emotions. One philosopher has made the case that fundamentally, we are creatures of desire. Dostoyevsky said it well: we crave nothing so much as something to worship. Our emotional and spiritual lives are woven tightly together.

Yet how many workplaces really acknowledge – and embrace – the fact that that we feel, we believe, we worship? Even rarer: who really takes the time and effort to invest in the deep emotional and spiritual health of their employees?

We see the cost when our co-workers are unhealthy – disengagement, addiction, distraction. A full 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year. But do we deeply care about facing our own shadows honestly and creating workplaces where our hearts experience deep peace? 

Humans are relational.

From our very first breath to our last, we are surrounded by people. Relationships are both the greatest sources of joy and pain in our lives.

The ability to relate well to others – what workforce development professionals call “soft skills” – is consistently the most important skill employers are looking for. Emotional intelligence also happens to be the skill needed for high level leadership.

Yet, how difficult it is to work alongside other human beings!The inability to deal with conflict, our own lack of self-awareness, and a growing loneliness epidemic in America all contribute to the deep challenges we face in our families and workplaces.

Yet each of us longs for community; we long to know others, and be known. We weren’t designed to be alone. 

Humans are makers.

From the earliest recorded history, humans made things. Tents, musical instruments, tools, weapons, pots, homes. “We are made in the image of the Maker,” says dramatist and playwright Dorothy Sayers. Work is, and always has been, a fundamental part of what it means to be human. Culture is made by what we make, and the meaning we derive from what we’ve made.

In the modern world, we’re constantly surrounded by other people’s work. Coffee cups, drywall, iPhones, books, concrete, electrical outlets, mops, pacifiers. Though some may imagine a day when machines take all of our jobs, history just doesn’t bear it out. Every time technology displaces jobs, we find other things to create. We are creators by nature.

Yet again, there’s so much that hinders our ability to do good work. Distraction, lack of autonomy, insufficient time, low wages, unequal access to opportunity.  To make things worse, professionals especially have nearly divinized work as our sole source of worth and identity. 

Who are the employers who invest in people’s ability to do excellent work, while holding work in its proper place alongside family and community?

Humans are thinkers.

As young children, each of us were naturally curious about the world. We wanted to know. We wanted to learn. And now, as adults, we are in a constant state of debating what is true and good. Ideas matter.

In the circles I run in, it’s now out of fashion to acknowledge that we’re intellectual beings. But any cursory reading of history shows us that ideas matter. Just a review of the wars of the twentieth century – what some have called the age of ideologies – shows this to be true. Those who claim they just want “practical action steps” and don’t care much for “heady matters” are often the most controlled by the ideas of those who’ve gone before them.

In a global economy that changes so quickly, none of us can afford to stop learning. Yet in our jobs, more often than not, we become technicians. We become good at one thing – like processing mortgages or writing marketing copy – yet often are in the dark about the majority of the world. It’s hard to find opportunities to become generalists, and recover the range that we delighted in as children.

Where are the workplaces that encourage curiosity? Where are the organizations that ask employees to read outside of their field, listen to lectures on a regular basis, and really encourage broad, diverse thinking?

Humans are city-builders.

This, too, is ancient. Not only do we work, but we work together. And as soon as we work, we form companies. And when we form companies, we realize that we need governments to safeguard those companies, and the rights that underpin them. We also need systems of education to form the next generation of workers and citizens. We need doctors to heal, craftsmen to build, and salesmen to sell. Before you know it, we have built cities.

As much as I’d like to avoid politics, we really can’t. Humans naturally form a polis when we work together. We must find ways to understand each other, live alongside each other, and provide for the needs of each other. “All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” said Martin Luther King Jr. “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Aristotle once said, “Man is a being best suited to living in a polis [city].”

Humans are intrinsically civic creatures. So, we’re forced to ask questions about not just our own needs, but also the needs of others. What does it mean for us to build just systems? What is a good society? And a question I often ask myself: are our workplaces a part of that answer, or are they a part of the problem?

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At Denver Institute for Faith & Work, we built our five guiding principles around each of these five elements of what it means to be human. We also designed the educational program of the 5280 Fellowship around each of these principles as well. Here’s a brief overview:

My question for you is this: are you thinking theologically, embracing relationship, creating good work, seeking deep spiritual health, and serving others sacrificially?

Though in a secular workplace, you can’t always use theological language, you can take a look at your work environment or company and ask good, honest questions, such as:

  • Do we invest in deep emotional and spiritual health?
  • Do we encourage real friendship and relational wholeness?
  • Do we create conditions for people do their best work?
  • Do we stimulate broad thinking about the key issues of our day?
  • Do we really care about our city, especially the vulnerable?

Sometimes integrating faith and work can seem overwhelming. But you do have a choice. You can shrink back, or you can act. You can accept the status quo, or you can choose to be motivated by doing your small part in the healing of God’s broken world. You can assume “work is work,” or you can imagine, in community, what might be.

You could even print off these five questions and bring them up at your next team meeting. It may just convince them that work can be more than a paycheck. 

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Jeff Haanen

Jeff Haanen is the Founder of Denver Institute for Faith & Work and the 5280 Fellowship. He contributes to various magazines and publications, including Christianity Today. Jeff attends Littleton Christian Church with his wife and four daughters.