being more human at work

I went to see Steve Hilton talk about his new book, More Human at the RSA last night. I was sufficiently inspired to buy his book and I’ve just finished the chapter on government – so only just started really.

As I read it I keep flip flopping between feeling hopeless and excited. Hopeless because the future he imagines requires such enormous changes in both government and society that – as good as they may be – how will they ever happen? And excited that there is someone who is as relentlessly optimistic as me, who seems to think that if you just say it often enough and clearly enough, perhaps enough of the right people will listen and do something sensible to radically change the world we live in so that it is fit for purpose for now and the future.

Then I thought about my little personal rule:

If the process insists that humans act more like machines/robots/spreadsheets than real human beings, challenge that process.

Don’t just accept that the process is right. That the way you’re doing your business planning and budgeting (something that’s on my mind at the moment) is actually sensible just because it has a form you fill out and makes numbers in the spreadsheet that create the impression that we have a process that ensures the most important things get funded.

Don’t just accept that the performance review process is right just because it appears to enact a policy that is theoretically designed to be fair and equitable and that gives the managers graphs that makes them feel as though they understand how people in their organisation are performing.

Just because it appears to be rational doesn’t mean that it is not entirely insane – and the best predictor of insanity in business process is a person who is still thinking and behaving like a human being. (Too many of us get trained out of keeping our humanness in the workplace – I’ve heard it’s a good way to get promoted.)

Consider every business process as a (usually) poorly solved design problem and approach it like a design team should – firstly understanding the what the actual problem is then thinking about different ways it could be solved, and then choosing the one that actually solves the problem – remembering that businesses are really nothing but groups of humans trying to work together to do something great. (There’s that relentless optimism again)

Insist on speaking and acting like a human being, especially in the workplace. Any time you’re not listening or not being heard, or being forced to communicate in a method or manner that doesn’t feel natural, throw up the red flags.

It will make you a right pain in the arse to work with, just ask any of my colleagues, especially my bosses. But it is the right thing to do.

If more of us challenged and fixed small things to make them more human then I’d have a lot more hope that the world that Steve Hilton envisages – a world where people come first – might ever come into being.



Visa-eve. Anxiety.

I’m taking my kids out of school tomorrow afternoon to go to the Home Office in Croydon to – hopefully – get our Ancestry visa renewed so we can remain in the UK for another four years.

I say ‘hopefully’ because, despite having checked and rechecked the paperwork – to the point that it has almost become a nervous tic – and paid an enormous fee, over £4000 in advance – you never know what will happen on the day.

And I am nervous.

I’m not nervous for any particular reason, except that this process is almost entirely out of my control and is not governed by logic but by however the person we end up having in charge of our application tomorrow interprets ‘proof’.

And because, and perhaps I am making this overly dramatic, if things go wrong, it feels as though it could have a life changing impact on my entire family.

And I can’t assume that anyone involved will just apply common sense.

After all, this is the organisation that insists that every four years we reproduce a piece of paper, my husband’s birth certificate, to prove that his ancestry has not somehow changed in the intervening years.

I’m acutely aware of this requirement because the first time we applied for an ancestry visa we were in Australia. We had to apply to get copies of both my husband and his late grandfather’s birth certificates. Having acquired our visa, we gave both of these documents to my mother in law (who is good at not losing things, and who lives in Australia) and emigrated.

The first time we renewed our visa, we turned up to the Home Office in Croydon without the birth certificates – after all, they’d already granted us an Ancestry Visa – surely it was unnecessary to prove an ancestral relationship to the UK again. We were sent home without being able to even lodge our application, and to make frantic phone calls to mother in law to have the birth certificates express couriered to the UK while the expiry date of our current visa rapidly approached.

This time around, the documents are in the UK but we don’t have Pauline to rely on to not lose them. Of course, when it comes time to gather the paperwork, the grandfather’s birth certificate was there in the ‘birth certificates’ folder of the filing cabinet, but the husband’s birth certificate was nowhere to be found.

Background anxiety turns to mild panic.

Gradually I start to run out of places to look and wonder if some how it has been thrown out with the recycling. I look into options for getting another copy made and sent here – there is no way to get it here fast enough. I call the Australian consulate to see if they’ll accept a faxed copy from Births, Deaths and Marriages in NSW. Only for an Australian passport application, they tell me – apparently the Home Office won’t accept a certified but faxed copy.

I start to wonder how hard it could possibly be to forge a birth certificate.

I almost citizen arrest myself just for thinking this. I am a ridiculously law abiding citizen. How has it come to this?

Days pass. The birth certificate can not be found. I can’t sleep. After a few more days I start getting severe diarrhoea (Sorry, gross I know, but who knew this was a really common manifestation of anxiety. Not me.) I start to get really dehydrated.

I think about what will happen if I can’t find that birth certificate – I will lose my job. Might my family be deported? Or detained? I worry about my children.

I already feel like a bad parent for deciding it is too ridiculously expensive to get us all Indefinite Leave to Remain, then citizenship. We’d planned to do that so the boys, who were born here, might have the right to live in the UK even if we return to Australia at some point.

Then they put the fees up again in April, and at over £7000 just for Leave to Remain and the rest to get Citizenship a year later… for us it is too much.

All that time I’d spent making a spreadsheet of the times we’ve traveled out of the UK in the last nine years (frequently!) has been wasted. I will probably put our UK Knowledge Test certificates in a frame somewhere though, as a memento of all the random British trivia we now know.

So, I threw out the paper form for the Leave to Remain application, printed out the 70 odd new pages of the FLR(O) paper form, and switched to just renewing our Ancestry visa.

And, after a final weekend spent searching, the birth certificate reveals itself.

That bloody birth certificate that they shouldn’t need to see yet again.

Sleep returns and after a few days my digestive system returns to normal.

But, until we get those new Biometric Residents Permits in our hot sticky hands, I will be feeling anxious. Muscle clenchingly, stomach sickeningly anxious. As I have, to varying degrees, for weeks now.

I’m an educated, English speaker who can afford (just) to pay the fee to renew our visa and a little extra to get an appointment to get it done on the day.

I can’t bring myself to send all our identity and travel documents off for an indefinite time having heard so many horror stories of lost passports and visas that take a year to be granted.

I’m pretty good at handling stressful situations, I don’t tend to suffer from anxiety in every day life.

If I feel like this, if I can get ill from this process, how do the very many people who have none of these advantages feel as their visa expiry date approaches? How do those who are more vulnerable financially and emotionally manage?

I can hardly bear to imagine.

These things, these ‘government services’, they are life changingly important.

Devastatingly important in many cases.

They are process diagrams and routine tasks for people on the inside, but when we are on the other side of the counter they are the exact opposite of routine and mundane transactions.

It is a powerful reminder of why I do the work I do, and how very much there is left ahead of us.


(Embargoed until after we successfully returned from the Home Office, because, you never know…. Turns out we still have to wait a while for the BRP cards to be sent out.

Already I am post-rationalising this experience and wondering why I was so worried about it. From your distance you might do the same. Doesn’t change the fact that, rightly or wrongly it was a hugely stressful experience.

Anyway, Britain, you are stuck with us a while longer. Thank you for having us.)

Words matter. Thinking about how you talk about jobs if you want more women to apply.

Every now and then I see someone who has the best of intentions but who promotes job opportunities that will send most potential female candidates running for the hills.

It’s easy to do, especially if you’re passionate about the job and your team. And especially if your company is a bit blokey. (That is, you’ve already got lots of men and not so many women).

Happily, lots of people have been doing some great work to try to help us all write about our jobs in ways that are more attractive to female candidates. This is a good thing because it means that you’ve now got the attention of 100% of the possible candidates for your job, not just the fellas. Your chances of getting a good candidate are greater.

(Also, we know that having senior women in your organisation seems to contribute to its overall success. So increasing your chances of hiring a woman could help make your business more successful. Double yay.)

The short version:

“Men apply for jobs when they meet 60% of the criteria, while women wait until they feel they meet 100% of the criteria.”

This is the main thing you need to know.  What you need to do because you know this includes:

  • only make something a requirement of the job if it is absolutely essential that that person already knows how to do that before they start. Key your list of ‘need to know/do’ requirements as short as possible.
  • don’t make it sound like you have to be the most awesome person at the job ever to be able to apply. Men tend to think that they awesome well in advance of actually being awesome, where as women tend to have to convinced that they are awesome long after they’ve actually been awesome. If you know what I mean.So, even though you and I know that you’re after a ‘shit hot, ninja, thought leading <name of role>’, we should keep that to ourselves when we’re writing our job spec and promoting our job, if we want more women to contemplate applying.

If you want to know more about how to do this well, there are some really good articles and tools you should take a look at here:

Can a few well chosen words improve inclusivity

25 Tips for Diverse Hiring

Why we removed the word ‘hacker’ from Buffer job descriptions

Hire more women in tech

Not everything is awesome

Why women don’t apply for jobs until they are 100% qualified

Job listings that don’t alienate

Gender Decoder for Job Ads  (tool)

Job lint (tool)

and Alice Bartlett has a great list over here with some of these and even more.

So, there you go. Talk about jobs well. Get more women (and promote them when they’re doing good work). Profit (and other good things).

Many thanks to everyone who wrote these things up and pointed me to them on Twitter.  You are awesome. No, really, you are.

Don’t give up.

Don’t give up.
Don’t let yourself be convinced that this is just the way it has to be.
Don’t stop asking questions.
Do ask for what you need to do the job well.
Do trust your instincts and your experience.

Pay attention to red flags.
Work with people who care.
Conduct experiments.
Don’t take yourself too seriously.
Remember that confidence and competence are not always related.
Always be learning.

Ask dumb questions.
Maintain naivety.
Be able to explain what you’re doing to a five year old.
Make sure you know why you’re doing it.

Your life is a design project.
There are many possible solutions.
Don’t just accept the default settings,
be creative, imagine alternatives.

Don’t give up.

I wrote this for the Pastry Box at the end of 2012 and accidentally stumbled on it today.  I still say most of these things to myself most weeks.