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February, 2017
Humanising Work - some great examples
Humanising Work - some great examples of what can be done


 For the last 10 years I’ve been involved with a social enterprise called Afghan Action, working in Kabul in Afghanistan. Talk to any Afghan child about their aspirations and they’ll say – “I want to run a business” or be ”a doctor”, or “a lawyer”, or “a teacher”. In a film made about our work, one of our trainees, a young woman called Zakia, speaks beautifully about the education and training she’s receiving and what she’s learning. The interviewer asks: “what do you want for the future?” And she replies “I want to further my education and become a General”.

 Ask British children what they want to do when they grow up and the chances are they’ll say “I want to be on X Factor” or “I want to be a millionaire”. One of the great ironies of our present situation is how people moan about “all these immigrants coming in to take our jobs” - but too few of our young people have the skills needed for the thousands of vacancies, especially in things like construction and engineering… or even aspire to such work - though maybe the tide is just starting to turn a bit.


 Our schools and universities desperately seek to outperform each other in the league tables while producing well educated young people who can’t get a decent job – 40% of all the 2013 arts graduates are working in jobs which don’t actually need a degree…  And far too many others are still unemployed.

 Talking of unemployment, nearly 20% of young people under 24 are unemployed, and it’s 1 in 3 from black and Asian and minority ethnic groups.

 So – should young people just take any old job that comes along? And does it actually matter whether you enjoy your job, whether you’re well motivated or feel fulfilled? Or is it just a necessary evil, a means to an end, the best way to have money in your pocket for the weekend or help you pay for what you really feel fired up about?

 Many of us spend an awful lot of our time at work.. 40 hours a week, 40 weeks a year, 40 years of our lives.. Our work determines how and where we live, what we are able to do, it affects our aspirations, our dreams, our hopes for our families and children.. So it’s a pity if it has no meaning, no sense of vocation and purpose.

 Ironically, a major bit of research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation looking at trends over the past 10 years found that there are more working families living in poverty than families who have no one employed. So does this mean work doesn’t even pay?  

Let’s ask a ridiculous question. Is it possible to humanise work? Or is that just an idealistic pipedream, a ridiculous aspiration for most of us? Here and there, there are companies and organisations which have managed to buck the trend and make work meaningful, fulfilling, good...


 I’ve written a short book called Humanising Work and start off by describing a Brazilian company called Semco . At Semco, there are no job titles, no written policies, no HR department, staff set their own salaries and working hours and everybody shares in the profits. Managers are elected by their colleagues and their performance is evaluated publicly. And these are the rules:

 •             Forget about the top line

•             Never stop being a start-up

•             Don't be a nanny

•             Let talent find its place

•             Make decisions quickly and openly

•             Partner promiscuously 

 Semco, by the way, isn’ some little tin pot organisation. Its turnover last year was $240 million and it has 3000 employees.


 Or take a Dutch company called Buurtzorg, which means “neighbourhood care”. It provides nursing for elderly and sick people in their homes.   The system goes right back to the 19th century, when local neighbourhood nurses worked with family doctors and hospitals. 

In the 1990s, the Dutch health insurance system came up with a sensible, logical idea. Let’s group the nurses into organisations so we benefit from economies of scale and can ensure cover when a nurse is sick or on holiday. And let’s develop nursing specialisms and improve the daily schedule and plan the travel routes between patients. Oh, and let’s set up a central call centre, and improve our planning and budgeting, and study how long it takes to make a cup of tea or change a bandage. And of course the system needs to be properly managed. So we need managers who can organise – because nurses can’t do that. 

In 2006, one nurse, Jos de Blok, decided he couldn’t change the system from within. So he set up Buurtzorg. Its nurses work in teams of 10 – 12, serving about 50 patients in a small, well defined area. They’re a self organising team, they don’t have managers and call centres, they choose who to work with – doctors, hospitals, health providers – and, most significantly, each patient sees the same one or two nurses and relationships are built up. 

What a sweet, old fashioned system! A study by the accountants Ernst & Young in 2009 found that Buurtzorg requires, on average, 40% fewer hours of care per client than other nursing organisations. That’s ironic. Buurtzorg nurses spend time with their patients, get to know their families and neighbours - and patients stay in care only half as long. 

Buurtzorg now employs two thirds of all neighbourhood nurses in the Netherlands -  that’s 7000 nurses.


 In 1943, a young Catholic priest, Fr José María Arizmendiarrieta, set up a technical school in Mondragon in the Basque region of northern Spain. To generate the investment he needed, he left collection boxes at street corners. When the technical school opened, the students themselves had to raise funds to make sure the school survived.

 For Fr Arizmendi, the key concept was the humanisation of work – humanity at work has become the Mondragon brand. In 1956, after a long period of training and formation, he helped five young apprentice engineers to start the process of forming a co-operative business called ULGOR, making paraffin heaters. It quickly grew. The model was simple: those who work in the enterprise should own it. Capital should be subservient to labour.

 I was working in Hartlepool, in NE England, in 1980 and discovered Mondragon through a BBC2 documentary shown that November. By then there were 18,000 members of the Mondragon co-ops covering manufacturing and service industries, farms and shops, schools and colleges, a development bank and a welfare insurance system. I hired the BBC film and showed it 25 times in a month around Teesside, including to the full Hartlepool Borough Council. The Mondragon co-ops now employ over 80,000 people in nearly 300 companies and organisations across Spain and the world.

 Back to Hartlepool. The local Churches, the local Council and the Government’s Co-operative Development Agency together set up the Hartlepool Co-operative Enterprise Centre in 1982, based in an old factory on one of the town’s industrial estates, providing 50 young people with work in six embryonic co-ops ranging from bike refurbishment to toy making to the repair and recalibration of industrial equipment. The local Churches raised £5000 to start the process and we got another £1/2 million from national and local Government and Europe.

Within a year, we’d gone bust… 

 But you learn a lot from failure.  And I’ve learned this. If you don’t try and model different ways of doing things, nothing changes.. and things just get worse. We’ve got to challenge the dreary management thinking which pervades so much of our working culture. The idea that you can bribe, cajole and bully people into giving of their best is not only singularly ineffective but it’s demeaning and counter-productive… and terribly old fashioned! 


I’m a part time parish priest in a small town near Milton Keynes. We’re a growing community with a big new housing estate at one end, and the Churches have set up a community project called Love Woburn Sands. We’re teaching older people to use IT. We’ve set up financial literacy classes in the two local schools and have a Reading Army of local and company volunteers helping children practise their reading. Last November we had Bananas Day and our community worker spent the day dressed as a banana. A local store donated 1200 bananas for all the kids – and provided healthy eating classes in the schools. We’re starting a community cinema soon and developing lots more. We’ve also set up a print shop. It’s a social enterprise. It provides a community service and it’s created, so far, a couple of part time jobs. Last month it moved for the first time into profit. 

There’s been a long but not very well known Christian tradition of action and reflection on economic matters, rooted in the values of love and justice but also thoroughly pragmatic and committed to making things happen. Father Arizmendi’s co-op ideas, for example, grew out of Catholic Social Teaching. 

At its best, it’s an open, generous tradition, keen to work with everyone regardless of faith, ethnicity or anything else, and built on the understanding that human beings are infinitely creative and well able to rise to the challenge of tackling poverty and producing enough wealth for all. And, by the way, it has a great vision for the workplace – as somewhere we can discover our true vocation, sharing with others in providing what the world really needs. And finding a real sense of meaning and purpose and hope for the future.

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