Nature of Work: The new story of work for a living age is very different from the traditional business book. At first sight it looks more like a book about nature with lots of beautiful photos; and the text too demonstrably challenges prevailing traditional organizational thinking, including many passages about the natural world.
But Nature of Work is indeed a business book – and we wanted it to be as practical as it is thought-provoking. One of the ways we‘ve achieved this is by including large numbers of examples of organizations that are living and breathing the Nature of Work. From small start-ups to the largest global brands, there are some excellent examples of companies that are thinking more like a living system than a machine. In the book we’ve styled these examples as ‘biomarkers’.
From a personal perspective, I found researching these case studies both fascinating and surprising. Whether through exhibiting great purpose, having a bold or innovative structure, or simply connecting with their roots, many organizations are starting to think differently. In this post I’m going to cover examples of organizations already living out the Nature of Work across six of the book’s elements. In a future post, we’ll cover the other six elements.
Purpose is actually quite a well-established concept in the world of business, with many internal communicators, HR professionals and business leaders now realizing the importance of the ‘why’ in driving employee engagement and experience. Increasing the profits of shareholders is not something that really motivates employees to go to work each morning.
In Nature of Work we look at ‘purpose’ through the lens of nature, where there is far more emphasis on interconnectedness and the resilience of the overall ecosystem, rather than just individual survival.
One of my favourite examples quoted in the book of a company demonstrating this more holistic sense of purpose is Who Gives a Crap. Founded in 2012, the company manufactures and sells toilet rolls and tissues, which in turn generates money to spend on improving sanitation in developing areas of the world. Working with the strapline ‘Toilet paper that builds toilets’, this is a highly imaginative, eye-catching and irreverent way to raise funds and increase awareness for a critical development issue, offering a clarity of purpose to both employees and customers.
The second element considered in Nature of Work is ‘Roots’ and I think this is one of the most interesting. When we think of nature, for example a forest, we don’t often automatically consider the roots because these are usually hidden from view – but they extend far and wide beneath us and are a core part of the forest ecosystem. As the book argues, root systems are both fascinating and complex, behaving like networks and sharing between trees information that can be critical to their survival.
There are multiple ways in which the concept of roots can be applied to work and organizations. This might mean considering where the boundaries of your organization’s roots extend to, the role that organizational roots play in your culture, or even how knowledge flows through your organization.
One fascinating example featured in the book of an organization that really appreciates the importance of its roots is Proctor & Gamble. The company is very proud of its heritage stretching back nearly 180 years and duly employs a senior archivist. To make sure these roots are kept alive as part of the organizational culture, all new North American employees at the company take a tour of the Archives Center, which showcases the company’s heritage. The company’s history and origins are also often referenced in company purpose, values and principles.
Considering habitats in nature and applying that thinking to where we work means focusing on habitats that are shaped around the needs of how people actually work rather than how others think they should work. In the book we explore habitats that make people ‘feel alive’ and how taking a more ‘living systems’ approach, with the physical and digital workplace in harmony, can impact everything from productivity to diversity.
One of the examples we cover is the digital workplace at Ubisoft, where taking a knowledge management-fuelled approach to managing the environment ensures a more coordinated, unified and consistent digital workplace. With a wide range of ‘best of breed’ tools and a very diverse workforce, the team takes a user-centred view in order to deliver a ‘shared digital habitat’ that is truly wrapped around the needs of Ubisoft employees. Here, there is some excellent work going on in the background, including a carefully maintained taxonomy.
The sheer level of diversity we find in the natural world is difficult to comprehend; look into any natural ecosystem and the variety of very different lifeforms is spectacular. What’s so inspiring is the contribution that each of these lifeforms makes to the balance of the whole ecosystem; the richness of biodiversity is critical to our survival.
Organizations now recognize the power and benefits of a diverse and inclusive workforce, and try to introduce measures that support diversity. This is not however without its challenges, particularly in complex, global organizations where, along with a diverse workforce from a demographic point of view, there may also be multiple locations, roles, cultures, professions, backgrounds and perspectives.
One of my favourite biomarker examples is Oxfam International, based on an interview I did with them for the book. Oxfam International is a confederation of 20 affiliate organizations working across more than 65 countries; ensuring equal representation and influence across all countries and people within the network is an enormous logistical and cultural challenge.
The rollout of Workplace from Facebook across the entire Oxfam International network has made a highly positive contribution, removing some of the barriers to a diverse network working together, and resulting in high levels of collaboration and communication. Some of the detail here is very interesting, for example how the use of auto-translation has given people increased confidence to post in their first language.
Relationships are very important in nature. Many complex behavioural relationships between species can be absolutely fascinating, for example some of the unlikely symbiotic relationships that have evolved between different animals to assist each other in achieving particular aims, often around hunting or protection from predators, or the group relationships that sometimes mirror our own human experiences.
Of course, we’re all used to focusing on relationships at work, mainly with our colleagues, customers and suppliers. But when you start to look at relationships more from the perspective of nature, these relationships become broader. How do we interact with the much wider community and all that is around us?
I like the biomarker we featured about Vitsoe, a furniture design company based in the UK near Leamington Spa, which has taken a more widescreen approach to relationships, for example fostering a strong connection with the local community. When the company’s highly innovative new HQ was conceived, the building was deliberately designed to support relationships; open internal spaces help employees to serendipitously bump into each other. It’s also built to support external relationships, with glass walls so you can see in and see out, encouraging transparency with the local community and even the surrounding natural habitat.
Organizational structures have a significant impact on the way we work. Organizational size, levels of hierarchy and the ways in which teams are structured all play their part in stimulating or stifling particular work processes, for example around agility and innovation. When we look at structures through the lens of nature, often the ways living things come together for survival are more adaptive and driven by the context of what is around them.
The book features a fascinating example of an organization that has used imaginative restructuring to drive better results. Haier is a global manufacturer of white goods headquartered in China. Over many years, the company has boldly restructured through five distinct transformations or ‘regenerations’, most notably eliminating a whole layer of middle management and reorganizing itself into an ecosystem of micro-enterprises which have a remarkable level of autonomy and where employees receive a share of profits. Overall, this more natural way of organizing work has captured the imagination of many in the management space.
‘Nature of Work: The new story of work for a living age’ by Paul Miller and Shimrit Janes is available to buy at www.natureofwork.com