What Does It Mean to Make Work “Human?”

Make work human.

This has been my professional purpose for over a decade now.

I’m encouraged by all of the conversation recently about creating more human work experiences. I hope that it isn’t simply the latest marketing strategy, a new way to package the same stuff we’ve been doing for years. Time will tell.

If we are to make real progress in this effort to humanize the workplace and ensure that it’s more than simply talk, we need to be clear on what we are trying to accomplish.

What does it mean to make work human?

I recently realized that despite talking about this issue for years, even I wasn’t clear on exactly how to answer this question. Having clarity of definition and intention is critical.

So, in collaboration with my friends and colleagues Christina Boyd-Smith and Joe Gerstandt, we wrestled this question to the ground in an attempt to create clarity. Here’s what emerged for me.

Making work human means achieving organizational success by creating work experiences that meet the most important human needs of each employee.  

There are a lot of implications of this definition for us as leaders. It means, most fundamentally, that our primary focus must shift from organizational needs to the individual’s needs. This requires that we gain a more robust understanding of human needs.

There are a lot of models out there that parse human needs through various different lenses: Maslow, Max-Neef, and Carol Ryff to name a few. Some are very complex and detailed. Others are almost overly simple. We didn’t feel that any one of them represented a model that was both complex enough to be comprehensive, but simple enough to apply in the workplace.

So, we combined the research and insight from these various models to construct a tool that we feel is practical and actionable for shaping a human work experience.

The Leading Humans Model of Motivating Human Needs

Authenticity: Living and being embraced as a whole, unique person.

Connection: Having quality relationships and intimacy with others.

Freedom: Having and exercising choice in our lives. Influencing our future.

Growth: Making progress towards a better version of ourselves. Moving towards our potential.

Meaning: Knowing our actions matter. Feeling part of something bigger than ourselves.

Safety: Feeling protected from danger or harm. Having a sense of security. Being free from fear.

Health: Maintaining a well-functioning mind and body. Managing our energy and balance.

This model was designed for practical application. A supervisor can use it to understand the needs of her employees. An HR manager could use it to design a new hire onboarding experience that is incredibly motivating. A leader could look at this model to understand the strengths and gaps in the organization’s culture.

Granted, not all of these needs are easy to recognize, assess, or satisfy. We are talking about humans after all. Humans are messy, emotional, amazing creatures and when you get a bunch of them together, the messiness can feel overwhelming.

To make work human is not an easy or simple task. But it is a noble and worthwhile task to be undertaken by those who plan to succeed today and in the future.

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