Book review: The Human Workplace by Andy Swann

What do visionary firms get right on employee engagement, and why don't the rest of us follow suit?

Andy Swann, KoganPage, £19.99/£12.99 e-book

A whole industry has sprung up, Andy Swann notes with weary disdain, to instruct us how to harness new technologies and methodologies to make employees happier and more productive. But in this refreshingly jargon-free book, Swann does more than just show us why the future of work is simpler and easier than we ever imagined – he also gives us the tools to get there.

The Human Workplace’s central premise – that organisations thrive by treating people with respect and empowering them to make decisions – is HR 101. But why, Swann asks, don’t we ever get on and do it? He lists and dispels a number of our hang-ups, starting with the concept of thinking like a start-up, which he believes to be a dangerous distraction; so many new businesses fail, he points out, while larger firms make huge leaps that go under-reported by comparison.

Hierarchy is also given short shrift. It’s not a bad thing in principle, but too often it’s a way of strangling innovation with bureaucracy. And don’t get him started on recruitment, where our slavish devotion to filling holes retrospectively stops us picking up truly talented people for the future.

Swann proposes cutting to the chase by creating organisations with “just enough structure to thrive”, using the best design theory, communicating better and even treating the workplace as a ‘clubhouse’ where people really want to be. He talks to HR leaders at visionary firms across the world about their experiences, and delves deep into the principles and processes behind the big ideas.

The Human Workplace will thrill OD professionals tired of theory and pretension. But it also deserves to be read by anyone interested in building something genuinely different that doesn’t involve an office slide and exposed lighting.