If the stony-faced shoppers I saw in London this week are anything to go by, the Christmas spirit has not, so far, spread far and wide this year. But grim physiognomies are hardly a reliable economic indicator. Maybe it's just Christmas shopping that makes people look like that.

Why the long faces? It has been an exhausting year. And this, remember, is supposed to be a "recovery".

Christmas 2014
'The Christmas spirit has not, so far, spread far and wide this year' (Reuters)

More than six years after the financial crisis struck, markets are still nervous, deflation looms in Europe and the oil price has halved.

Yet, in the UK at least, unemployment has fallen and there are more people at work than ever before. (There are also more people here than ever before, so perhaps some of these statistics are not as startling as all that.) Wages are flat, as are prices. It is not a lot of fun.

If this is the "new normal", managers are going to have to be imaginative if they want to get their people to muster any enthusiasm for the work in hand.

But enthusiasm, engagement, morale – call it what you will – it is this missing X factor, along with skills shortages, that keeps productivity, and wages, low. Aggregate GDP growth may be recovering from a very low base but per capita GDP is not. There is a productivity crisis.

Talk of machines replacing human beings may sometimes be overdone. But humans who do not want to be replaced by machines will have to show how what they do is better than what any computer, robot or algorithm could do in their place. Otherwise further automation and computerisation will not be held back.

These are bleak thoughts in the bleak midwinter. Is there an antidote to them? There is – and it comes from the same Christmas carol that invokes the "frosty wind" and the "earth stood hard as iron" – the words of the poet Christina Rossetti, which inspired this popular carol in the first place.

The last verse of this poem/carol imagines the thoughts of the innocent witness to Christ's birth:

What can I give Him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb;

If I were a wise man I would do my part;

Yet what I can I give Him – Give my heart.

That word "heart" does not feature on a lot of board agendas or team meeting flip-charts. But it should.

Forget the rise of the robots

We are not machines, we are people: warm-blooded, sentient human beings – as are our customers. In our drive for efficiency, in the war on waste, the human factor can be neglected.

But switch roles for a moment and imagine being a customer of the business you work in. How does the company's treatment of you make you feel? Would you shop there again? Are you getting service with a smile, or with a sneer? Is nothing too little trouble to keep you happy?

Workers in Canary Wharf
'Do not be afraid to recognise and acknowledge the human needs of your colleagues' (Reuters)

It is not feeble or sentimental to argue the heart has gone out of business. Yes, competition is fierce, and intensifying, and the pressure on costs is relentless. But it is in that relationship (or lack of one) between employees and customers that value is created, or destroyed.

So it follows, as Vineet Nayar, the former chief executive of Indian IT firm HCL Technologies, has argued, that leaders should really worry about their employees' well-being and performance, because otherwise customers will not be served well. He calls this the "employees first, customers second" approach. And it makes sense. It is business with a heart.

If I have any words of encouragement or advice for the new year, then, it is this: do not be afraid to recognise and acknowledge the human needs of your colleagues.

People are under all kinds of pressure at work, and bring the concerns from their home life into the workplace with them. They have caring responsibilities and worries about their financial future too. They read the papers, listen to the news and know that the world is an uncertain place. On top of all this, who really needs an asshole for a boss? There is enough to worry about already.

So in the new year, embrace and celebrate the human and put your employees first. Have a heart.

Stefan Stern is a business, management and politics writer. He writes for The Guardian and The Financial Times and is a visiting professor at Cass Business School.