Staff is Not Stuff (Yet)

August 1, 2018

In the midst of all changes we have been living in society, people interactions are probably one of the most challenging and underdeveloped improvement in  life.

Since Industrial Revolutions, governors and business people have been promising to deliver better life standards to all humankind on Earth, by replacing labor intensive activities with technology-based artefacts and systems. According to this futuristic vision, families would enjoy more time for physical activities, entertainment, learning and love. By the end of this fantastic journey, robots would be deployed to all possible technical tasks, keeping people out of any type of work, including manufacturing, farming, management and services. We would finally live as Roman aristocratic nobles – this time with no requirements for human slavery.

So far, even though technology indeed accomplished several goals regarding automation of human daily routines in several aspects of our  life, enhancing by far our living standards, it seems fair to state that we are not working fewer hours to enjoy these wonderful white spaces in our days and nights. I still remember my grandfather closing his small grocery shop by 5pm with no need to attend any new customer request, and my father arriving home around 7pm with no possible connection with his office or his clients.  With the advent of Internet, there are no more boundaries between work and spare times – everything is concurrent, urgent and foggy. Although our brain is not ready to operate in multitasking mode, we are handling dozens of things at the same time and place.

Getting back to people interactions, from late 18th century to the beginning of 20th century, the uprising of large companies structured in layers, spans of control, systems and rules created white-collars and blue-collars human species in the corporate world. Alongside, Maintenance Department focused on machines and equipment;, the Employee Department was created to design policies, define rules, evaluate productivity, train skills, and calibrate compensation.

Eventually, these Employee Departments were relabelled as Human Resources with more sophisticated tools and perspectives. Then, more recently, Human Capital has been the trendy label that encompasses all complexity regarding people management.

Regardless labels and models, at least in my opinion, companies have been facing one big question around people management: Staff versus Stuff.

As one company grows, perspectives between staff and stuff can be blurred. Bosses measure power by the size of their headcount, as if they were counting soldiers or, even worse, cattle. The lack of perspective increases as the distance between layers diminishes affection and human connection. That’s when staff becomes just stuff.

Today, societies, companies and people are dealing with two major drivers of change: digital transformation and social ethical transition. The first has been “stuffizing” everything, by accelerating the replacement of humans by robots boosted with artificial intelligence in all aspects of life – suddenly, in corporate offices, disciplined headcount is losing relevance compared to cloudy algorithms. The second is dramatically changing human perspective about life and death, as ego-centrism overcomes historical individual commitment with families, communities, nations and God – paradoxically, people are seeking their humanity consciousness and cultivating emotional attachments inside mobile phones.

As companies evolve, what will happen with their people? Digital transformation and ethical transition are still just starting to disrupt everything we know about people management. Robots will probably pressure to transform staff into stuff, highlighting efficiency, safety and quality gains. Human talents will fight not to   become “stuffed”, trying to find meaning, relevance and engagement in workplaces.


Daniel Motta is the Founder and CEO of BMI Blue Management Institute, a leading niche consulting firm. He is a global thought leader focused on culture, strategy and leadership. He has a PhD in Economics, MSc in Financial Economics and BA in Economics. He is also an OPMer from Harvard Business School. He is the Managing Director of USA-based VC company White Fox Capital and the Senior Tupinambá Maverick of bossa&etc. He was a co-founder of Brazilian Society of Finance. He currently serves NGO UNIBES as Strategic Planning Principal. He is the author of the best selling books Essential Leadership and book Anthesis. He also has three articles published by Harvard Business Review. He is a Board Member of MASP.