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Rethinking the relationship between people and the workplace

Graham Barkus
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Written by Graham Barkus, Managing Director | The Human Factor Ltd

I am based in Hong Kong, where I have been for over 30 years, punctuated with a few stints around the region, including Singapore, Taiwan and Japan. For the last two decades more or less, I have been occupied with guiding personal, organisational and systemic change, in senior organisation development roles and as an external coach and consultant.

Most of the work I have done in some way or other involves spanning boundaries of language, culture, structure, interests and habit, to help drive change in individual and collective performance. In more recent times my focus has concentrated around helping people – individually or collectively – close the gap between ‘resolve and results’, navigating the path from knowing what is needed and even being committed to doing what is needed, to actually making it happen to deliver and sustain improved performance, in both professional and personal domains.

As AI and machine learning take over more and more of the ‘routinized’ aspects of work, what’s left for us as humans to do is increasingly about complex problem-solving, creativity and innovation, and collaboration.

The ‘elevator pitch’ version of this is that I help people improve professional and personal wellbeing. I think there is a fundamentally important connection that is too often missed, between executive and organisational wellbeing, and ‘hard’ performance metrics. Get the people stuff right, and business performance naturally follows. Get it wrong, and the cost of delivering performance ultimately – and increasingly quickly – becomes unsustainable.

This is becoming even more important as the nature of work changes. As AI and machine learning take over more and more of the ‘routinized’ aspects of work, what’s left for us as humans to do is increasingly about complex problem-solving, creativity and innovation, and collaboration. All those qualities flourish in certain conditions and shrivel and die in others; if we want people in organisations to be brilliant in these areas, we have to do a better job of looking after wellbeing at work.

By this, I mean something more than doing mindfulness seminars at lunchtime, or having a yoga mat in the corner of the office. Don’t get me wrong, these are good things to do in their own right, and I would rather workplaces had them than not. But if we are serious about improving and sustaining the kind of performance that ‘future work’ requires, we need to take a more systemic and systematic view.

I believe that if we get this right, the potential for the human factor to be a sustainable source of advantage in the new world of work, could be ‘unlimited’.

We need to look at the whole dynamic of how people work together, how managers interact with their teams; the clarity and alignment of purpose in the organization; how well the work space itself is able to support the various types of work that need to happen – from team-based collaborative creativity, to analytical, focused ‘deep work’. If the office itself cannot provide all these environments, how well do we enable people to work in other places, better-suited to the tasks at hand? What’s the overall level of organisational stress like? How much change is happening – and (therefore) how much more can we load onto the same people?

All these factors come together in what I have called my practice: The Human Factor. Unlike the company name, which ends in ‘Ltd’, I believe that if we get this right, the potential for the human factor to be a sustainable source of advantage in the new world of work, could be ‘unlimited’.

Getting there isn’t always simple, and requires experimentation, guidance and coaching, and working through some tricky challenges and obstacles. But if the predictions about where work is going are right – and it looks increasingly like they are – it is essential that we do crack this challenge and rethink the nature of the relationship between people and the workplace.

Our future might just depend on it.


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