Nature of Work: An interview with Cotswold author Paul Miller

An image of a beautiful stream in the forest on Dartmoor National Park, Devon, England, UK. A slow s

We can learn a great deal from the symbiotic way in which the natural world operates - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Katie Jarvis talks with one of this year’s speakers, social entrepreneur and author, Paul Miller

Burford Literary Festival: September 23-27

Walking through the Cotswolds one day – as he so often does – Paul Miller was pondering his next book. The founder and CEO of Digital Workplace Group (DWG), he had already written various tomes on technology and the workplace. What might his next subject be? ‘More technology? AI? Smart machines? Automation? I didn’t get very excited because, even though those are part of our future, they’re stories we can already get our heads round,’ he recalls.

Instead, as Paul contemplated the beauty – even on this cold February day – of the woods and the fields around him, he suddenly realised what a resource the natural environment could – and should – be. Rather than being separate from the world of work, the countryside through which he was walking had a great deal to teach corporations and other organisations.

It was a light-bulb (or, more aptly, a ray-of-sun) moment. As a result, he and Shimrit Janes, DWG’s director of knowledge, started putting together a new philosophy: overlaying aspects of the natural world onto the world of work.

To their dawning surprise, they realised that synergies and metaphors from nature could help create a way forward for commerce and industry, contributing not only to a more successful and fit-for-purpose future, but for happier, healthier employees.

Their co-written book, Nature of Work: The new story of work for a living age, explores 12 elements they identified as essential to the workplace, including: health, habitat, regeneration, intelligence, relationships and purpose.

Nature of Work: The new story of work for a living age, by Paul Miller and Shimrit Janes

Nature of Work: The new story of work for a living age, by Paul Miller and Shimrit Janes - Credit: toastdesign.co.uk

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Paul, you live in the Cotswolds, where I know you often walk Hector, your Welsh terrier. Tell us more about the influence your home has had on your new ways of thinking…

One of the walks I like to do with Hector – around Fulbrook, where I live – is through a little copse called Widley. I was listening to the sound of the birds, one day; looking at the beautiful trees and ground-cover and thinking to myself: In what way is this forest different to a company or organisation? On the one hand, they’ve no relationship to each other… And then I thought: Hold on a second! Beneath the ground, there are roots. And the roots of this forest are invisible to me, but they are interconnected; they influence deeply the health of the forest. If you are IKEA or Vodafone, which parts of your organisation are beneath the surface, hidden from view? Culture. Habits, Behaviours. Even infrastructure: there’s a lot of technology you can’t see. There are patterns of behaviour that are invisible but everyone can feel them.

How did you turn that initial thought into a philosophy and, indeed, a book?
I started to build on that. In Widley Copse, there are different seasons; different life cycles; there’s migration. There are animals that live in the forest; there are animals that pass through. That’s a bit like the gig economy; that’s a bit like part-time workers. There’s a cycle of things. I started talking to my colleague, Shimrit Janes, and we realised there was a lot of mileage in this. Organisations talk about relationships, collaboration, resources, health. And we’re very used to talking about financial health – but what about all the other indicators of health? Innovation health. The ability to recruit and retain good people. Productivity. Creativity. All the things that make for a healthy organisation.

We have, for decades, been distancing ourselves from the natural world – as though anything natural is too unsophisticated. Why does allying our work-selves to nature give us insight?

For 250 years, the story has been based on the organisation as a machine or as a technical system, which has no need for nature apart from as a resource; as a fuel. I think there are two things going on, currently. The rise of environmental awareness, which has been building for decades: In 2019, there were school strikes; Greta Thunberg had become more visible. So there was a growing understanding of the importance of nature.

The other one is that nature crosses politics and values. It doesn’t matter if you’re the wealthiest person; the poorest; left or right – we can all agree on the beauty of the natural world: everybody gravitates towards fields, woods, streams, rivers, oceans. It’s a very neutral, non-threatening system. Also, it’s been going for billions of years on Earth, and has an enduring beauty and regenerative value. So when you start to think of an organisation as being alive in the same way a forest is, you find these metaphors.

I spend my time talking to people at the UN, the IMF, Volvo, Estée Lauder. What I noticed was that, once you start to talk to them about bringing the world of nature and the world of work together, their eyes light up.

Paul Miller

Paul Miller - Credit: TECL Publishing

So what can nature teach us about work?

For example, we’ve heard a lot about fatigue: overwhelmed, exhausted employees. In nature, when animals are tired and exhausted, they sleep. Whereas in the work-world of the machine, when people are exhausted, they carry on; then they get sick; then they get burnt out. Human beings in work don’t follow a natural cycle. In the company where I am CEO – the Digital Workplace Group – we have 120 people and we’ve just given them a week’s paid holiday for free. Lots of organisations are giving people extra time – half days on Fridays; summer working hours; there’s experimentation going on with four-day weeks in Iceland and New Zealand.

Or, as another example, if you start to think about leadership: Is there one tree that’s in charge of all the other trees? No. They are working in a cooperative way. There are certain species that are more dominant than others – so there is a hierarchy; but it works in a symbiotic way.

You and Shimrit, as you mention, write about following people’s natural cycles. For women, that might be recognising, within a work environment, the impact of menopause or monthly cycles. I’m wondering if men have also been overlooked as living, breathing beings, even though one could argue they played the major role in designing the work system in the first place. 

I think men have developed organisations that have become prisons for them – prisons of the ‘work until you drop’ [mentality]. They’ve then suffered through all the same stresses and burn out. To some extent, it’s an age thing – the younger generation of men tend to have a different view. When my kids were growing up, it was quite unusual for fathers to be very involved with their children and to have certain roles in the family that are quite common now. If we’re going to build healthy organisations, it’s health for everybody, and for the nature that enables these systems to exist.

Shimrit Janes

Shimrit Janes - Credit: TECL Publishing

I’m interested in the language you use. Language shapes how we think.

Organisations talk about innovation or upgrades – that’s a machine language. I’ve heard people talk about bullet-points: the language of war – not even of machines; we’re weaponising things.

Think about regeneration, instead.

We live next to the Carpenters Arms in Fulbrook. During lockdown, the couple who run it, along with their business partner, did an awful lot in the local community: home deliveries; subsidised food, etc. They really regenerated during the lockdowns. They wanted to keep functioning as a business, but they also wanted to do good within the community. They have used what I would regard as a regenerative way of thinking and operating as being about community, health, security for people around them, and economic health.

Once you start to think about purpose, relationships, lifecycle, health, this is a different type of language. One of the most powerful receptions we’ve had to the book has been around the value of introducing new language. 

Many people are now working from home. Does that tally with your approach?

One of the pandemic-accelerating effects is the localisation of life and work – so I think we’re going to see an economic renaissance across the Cotswolds. You’ve got a whole number of people with more money not travelling into London/Birmingham/Oxford; not getting on planes overseas. And they’re going to be wanting services locally.

In nature, things are local. Animals are not upgrading from one forest to another; if they do migrate, it’s for specific reasons. 

Amazon has been hugely successful online, yes; but now it’s possible – as I do – to buy books online where the money goes to your local bookshop. I want two things: the book; but I also want to support my local bookshop and not Amazon.

I’m not saying these are huge trends yet, but they are significant. They are ways of disintermediating and localising, and it creates a healthier system: Not only am I buying a book but I’m supporting a local business.

Are your ideas easier to get across to certain types of organisations than others?

I’ve been surprised at how universally people have got this idea. For example, I did a lot of my writing at the Fish Hotel, near Broadway. People would ask, ‘What are you working on?’ and I’d say, ‘Writing a book called Nature of Work, about organisations as being alive’. And they’d just get it like that. I said the same thing to the head of the IMF, the CEO of Estée Lauder – and they also get it like that. Implementing it across Estée Lauder, and implementing it in the Fish Hotel, are different propositions. But I think the concept of seeing your organisation as being a living system, with its own health across a number of metrics, is the same for a large organisation as it is for a small one. I have to say, even my mum, who died at 98 last year, got it very quickly.

Paul Miller and Shimrit Janes will be speaking at Burford Literary Festival about Nature of Work on Saturday, September 25 at 12 noon. To book tickets, visit burfordlitfest.co.uk

For more on Paul and Shimrit’s book, log onto natureofwork.com 

Burford Literary Festival

Burford Literary Festival - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto