4 Ways To Create A Human-Centered Workplace, Notes From An Operations Manager

Samantha Kawabata
Greater Good Studio
6 min readApr 9, 2019


From my first day last summer it was obvious that Greater Good Studio has a very intentional and distinct approach to work. Rather than telling the team that our office is open Monday through Friday from 9–5, we adhere to a work style called ROWE, which stands for Results Only Work Environment. The basic principle behind ROWE is that staff doesn’t need to be supervised, when given the tools, clear expectations, and deadlines people will not only do their work, but do it better than if they were trying to fit into a mold. Within GGS, this practice is exercised by very diligent calendar management, clear deadlines, expectations on deliverables, and Cookie Rewards (little treats we give each other if we have to move something on the calendar).

Work Smarter Not Harder

The idea that I could choose when I functioned at my best was wild to me. I started my professional career in non-profits at the mercy of time zones and workload. Then moving on to management at Starbucks, it meant more 3am mornings than any human should have to endure. Finally, in the finance world, I worked for a person who started his time in the office at 7am, so that meant I started at 7am as well. My first few months at GGS were spent trying to figure out what time I like to wake up in the morning (the sweet spot is between 7:15–7:45) and convincing myself that there is absolutely nothing wrong with starting your work day at 9:30. In fact, that’s what a lot of other people do too. In addition to start times, I had to wrap my head around what “busy” looked like. Was I making up work to fill the day? Or was I filling the day with work that needed to be done? It feels like the real embodiment of “work smarter not harder” and not glorifying the idea of busy.

What does your version of “busy” look like?

Creating Your Team By Curating Your Team

I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of the hiring process at GGS as we’ve grown. Since last summer we have added three people to our staff. From the very first job post that we wrote, it was clear to me that the goal at GGS was to create an inclusive work environment. In order to create that environment we needed to create an intentionally inclusive hiring process, one where a broad and diverse group of people are not only encouraged, but confident enough to apply. We took off degree requirements and pared down experience requirements so that we could attract people in various stages of their careers. What value does this add? Why would an HR team increase their workload to review 250 applications when it would be just as easy to hand select applicants and only review 25? It’s pretty simple, we’re looking for more than skills. We are looking at each applicant’s past experiences and how their unique voice would add to our team. As I’ve mentioned, we’re only 10 people, so everyone has the opportunity to add input in every level of conversation, from business development opportunities, to final branding guidelines we might be creating for a client. Because it’s a small team, we have to include everyone’s voices so that we are able to utilize the different backgrounds that exist within our team and not create an echochamber within our space. It was a bit of a shock to find myself sitting in a meeting where I was being asked to help pick a font for a branding project. Never in a thousand years would I have thought to add my voice to that conversation. I have zero design experience and still think it’s a little comical to write emails with Comic Sans … but I was able to point out when fonts looked too similar to another brand’s or if they made me go cross eyed, a perspective that was unique to me but helpful to the overall project.

What are the voices at your table saying? Does it feel like anything is missing?

Do You Fit Your Job or Does Your Job Fit You?

Operationally, at GGS I’ve been allowed to mix my previous experience with the fundamentals of ROWE to streamline processes both for me and the team. For most people, expense reporting is the worst and most annoying task that takes up space on our calendars. Even with tracking apps like Expensify there is a level of tedium that cannot be escaped. If I altered the workflow just a bit, I could make it easier for everyone. I explained the change I wanted to make and the why behind it. As far as GGS staff was concerned, it was taking one step out for them, while making it more seamless for me. It was a fundamental process change that I was able to identify, create, and implement mostly on my own. By being encouraged to look at my role, and tailor it to suit my needs, I questioned the status quo, identified the pain point, and fixed it, all while being supported by the rest of the team. This only worked because we had a clear set of expectations, but the flexibility to adjust our path to achieve that end result. Functioning within that mindset allows employees to do their best and most creative work.

Does your workflow work for you? If so, why? And if not, what might you be able to change?

“Whole Self” Is More Than A Buzzword, It’s Part of a Challenge

Outside of the time I spend in our office, I have a host of other interests and hobbies, as does the rest of our staff. For me, I teach writing classes at Chicago’s Second City and host a very niche podcast about Norwegian TV. For others they volunteer at the local animal rescue, participate in triathlons, one coworker runs a pool hall with her husband, and one person is a practicing artist. That’s a deep well of talent and experiences to pull from. When a business says that they allow their employees to “bring their whole selves” to work, what does that really look like? Am I comfortable, or even more than that, am I confident in offering up my writing or editing skills to someone working on a project that I am not directly involved in? Does my coworker feel comfortable being on business development calls, drawing on the experience she has as a small business owner? Personally, I am much more confident in my ability to book travel for a project than I am in writing a blog post. That’s why I work as an Operations Manager and I’m not a freelance writer. But the unique thing that GGS has done is encourage me to flex that muscle and spend work time writing. Writing this blog post won’t reconcile our Quickbooks accounts or book someone’s research travel, but, as George Aye, Director of Innovation argues, it is an exercise in Leadership Development. As a company, GGS not only encourages employees to explore new skills and experiences at work, but also actively invests in each employee’s learning journey.

What unique talents and skills are hiding within your workplace?

Some Closing Questions:

1: What if you were able to set your work hours to guarantee that you’re working when you’re most alert and productive?

2: Think of the last 4 people to join your team, what unique experiences are they bringing with them, and have you asked them to build on those experiences or shut them away and start fresh with your company?

3: Do you feel empowered to adjust processes and workflows if it will make you and your team more productive?

4: What skills do you possess that you wish you could use at work?

These questions are a starting point to help you better understand the culture of your workplace and pinpoint some areas that could help create a more human-centered workplace for you, your coworkers, and your employees.