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Crafting a People-First Culture
for Stronger Employee Engagement

A group of silhouettes of diverse people.
Hacking HR Team

Posted on June 13, 2024

When you hear “People-First Culture,” what comes to mind? Ping pong tables and free snacks every Friday? It may be a no-brainer to know that putting their needs and motivations at the core of your employee engagement strategy is the way to go beyond any incredible perk and benefit. However, the reality is far from that, as some companies keep piling up resignation letters and low eNPS scores every quarter because their employees are disengaged, sleepwalking through their workdays, and costing them a lot of money due to low productivity.

In reality, nearly 50% of people are considering leaving their jobs in 2024—more than during the ‘great resignation.’ Such a mass exodus of talent is more than a minor inconvenience; it can harm your employees’ ability to innovate and grow. Hence, what if the key to unlocking a workforce that's not just productive but passionate lies in something far more fundamental?

9 Ways a People-First Culture Transforms Your Workplace

The Great Resignation has exposed a stark reality: employees no longer settle for toxic environments or uncaring companies. They're demanding more: purpose, belonging, and fulfillment in their work.

And, of course, it also comes with great benefits for the company in many ways, which we’ll explore below:

  1. Enhanced Employee Engagement: When employees feel valued and heard, their engagement soars. A people-first culture fosters a sense of belonging and purpose, motivating employees to go the extra mile. Research by Gallup consistently shows that companies with engaged employees outperform those with lower engagement levels by a significant margin.

  2. Increased Productivity: Engaged employees are more productive employees. A people-first culture creates an environment where individuals are eager to contribute their best work, leading to improved efficiency and output. A study found that happy employees are up to 20% more productive than unhappy ones.

  3. Reduced Turnover: High turnover can be costly and disruptive. A people-first culture helps retain top talent by creating a workplace where people want to stay, as companies with solid cultures experience significantly less turnover.

  4. Stronger Employer Brand: A strong employer brand is essential in today's competitive talent market. A people-first culture makes your company more attractive to potential hires, giving you an edge in recruiting top talent. A LinkedIn survey found that 75% of job seekers consider an employer's brand before applying.

  5. Improved Innovation: Innovation thrives when employees feel safe sharing their ideas and taking risks. A people-first culture encourages creativity and experimentation, leading to breakthrough solutions. A study by McKinsey & Company found that companies with inclusive cultures are more likely to outperform their peers in profitability.

  6. Better Customer Service: Happy employees lead to happy customers. A people-first culture translates into a more positive customer experience, as employees are more likely to go above and beyond to meet customer needs. A study by Harvard Business Review found that companies with engaged employees have higher customer satisfaction ratings.

  7. Higher Profitability: While it may seem counterintuitive, investing in your people can boost your bottom line. A people-first culture creates a virtuous cycle of engagement, productivity, and innovation, ultimately leading to increased profitability. A Great Place to Work Institute study found that companies on the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list outperformed the S&P 500 by a significant margin over 25 years.

  8. Resilience in Challenging Times: A people-first culture provides a strong foundation during difficult periods. Companies with strong cultures are better equipped to adapt and overcome challenges when faced with adversity. A study by Deloitte found that companies with strong cultures are more resilient in the face of economic downturns.

  9. Positive Social Impact: A people-first culture extends beyond your organization's walls. By prioritizing the well-being of your employees, you contribute to a healthier and more equitable society. A study found that companies with strong social responsibility practices have higher employee morale and engagement.

Therefore, a people-first culture is a win-win proposition, benefiting your employees, your customers, and your bottom line.

The 6 Pitfalls of Neglecting a People-First Culture

While the benefits of a people-first culture are undeniable, neglecting this approach can lead to many challenges. Let's examine some common pitfalls organizations encounter when they fail to prioritize their people:

  1. Disengaged Employees: When employees feel undervalued or unheard, their engagement plummets. This can lead to decreased productivity, increased absenteeism, and a higher likelihood of errors. A study by Gallup found that actively disengaged employees cost the U.S. economy between $450 billion and $550 billion each year in lost productivity.

  2. High Turnover: A lack of a people-first culture can trigger a mass exodus of talent. Employees who feel disconnected from work or colleagues are more likely to seek opportunities elsewhere. Remember that replacing an employee can range from 50% to 200% of their annual salary, a significant hit on your company’s finances.

  3. Damaged Employer Brand: Word travels fast, especially in the digital age. A negative employee experience can tarnish your company's reputation, making it challenging to attract and retain top talent. A Glassdoor survey found that many job seekers would only apply to a company with positive reviews.

  4. Missed Opportunities for Innovation: Disengaged employees are less likely to share ideas or take risks. This can stifle innovation and hinder your company's ability to adapt to changing market conditions. A study by Boston Consulting Group found that companies with diverse and inclusive cultures are 19% more likely to experience above-average innovation revenue.

  5. Decreased Profitability: Neglecting a people-first culture can ultimately impact your bottom line. Disengaged employees, high turnover, and missed opportunities for innovation can all contribute to reduced profitability.

  6. Negative Social Impact: A company's culture can have a ripple effect on society. Organizations prioritizing profits over people can contribute to social inequality and environmental degradation.

12 Actionable Steps to Cultivate a People-First Culture

Creating a people-first culture requires intentionality and consistent effort. Here are 12 actionable steps you can take to foster this transformative approach within your organization:

  1. Define Your Values: Clearly articulate your company's core values, ensuring they align with a people-first philosophy. These values should serve as guiding principles for all decisions and interactions.

  2. Listen deeply to your employees: Go beyond surveys and focus groups. Engage in meaningful one-on-one conversations, actively listening to their concerns, aspirations, and ideas.

  3. Empower and Trust Your Employees: Give them the autonomy and resources they need to excel. Trust them to make decisions, take ownership of their projects, and learn from their experiences.

  4. Recognize and Reward Meaningfully: Celebrate individual and team achievements in ways that resonate with your employees. Tailor recognition and rewards to their preferences and values.

  5. Invest in Holistic Development: Offer diverse learning and growth opportunities for professional and personal development. Support their well-being and career aspirations.

  6. Champion Work-Life Integration: Encourage a healthy integration of work and life, recognizing that employees have commitments outside of work. Offer flexible work arrangements and promote well-being initiatives.

  7. Cultivate a Thriving Community: Create spaces and opportunities for employees to connect, collaborate, and build meaningful relationships. Foster a sense of belonging and camaraderie.

  8. Lead with Authenticity and Empathy: Ensure leaders at all levels embody the people-first values. Encourage open communication, active listening, and empathetic leadership.

  9. Prioritize Transparent Communication: Keep your employees informed about company decisions, challenges, and successes. Foster a culture of open dialogue and feedback.

  10. Embrace Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: Create a workplace where everyone feels welcome, respected, and valued for their unique contributions. Foster a sense of belonging for all.

  11. Measure and Learn: Track critical metrics like employee engagement, turnover, and well-being. Use data-driven insights to refine your people-first strategies.

  12. Adapt and Evolve: A people-first culture is not a destination but a journey. Regularly assess your progress, gather feedback, and adapt your approach to meet the evolving needs of your workforce.

Action Plan for Implementing a People-First Culture

  1. Assess Your Cultural Landscape: Conduct a comprehensive assessment of your existing culture and employee experience. Gather feedback through surveys, focus groups, and individual interviews to understand the current state.

  2. Craft a Compelling People-First Vision: Define a clear and inspiring vision for your people-first culture. Articulate the values, behaviors, and experiences that will define your workplace.

  3. Identify Key Focus Areas: Based on your assessment and vision, pinpoint the areas where you need to strengthen your people-first practices. Prioritize initiatives that will have the most significant impact.

  4. Engage Employees in Co-Creation: Involve your employees in shaping your culture. Seek their input, ideas, and feedback to ensure your initiatives resonate with their needs and aspirations.

  5. Implement High-Impact Practices: Choose and implement practices that align with your people-first values and address the identified focus areas. These could include leadership development programs, flexible work arrangements, or recognition initiatives.

  6. Equip Leaders for Culture Change: Provide your leaders with the training, tools, and support they need to champion the people-first culture. Encourage them to model the desired behaviors and values.

  7. Monitor, Measure, and Adapt: Continuously monitor the impact of your people-first initiatives. Track critical metrics, gather feedback, and be prepared to adapt your approach as needed to ensure ongoing success.

Key Insights

  • Employee and Company Success Are Intertwined: A people-first culture recognizes that employees' well-being and success are inextricably linked to the organization's success.

  • Employee Experience Drives Engagement: Employees' day-to-day experiences within the culture directly influence their level of engagement and motivation.

  • People-First Applies to All Organizations: Regardless of size or industry, every organization can benefit from adopting a people-first approach.

  • Start from Where You Are: Even small, authentic actions can create momentum and lead to meaningful cultural change.

Key Questions

What is a people-first culture?

A people-first culture is a workplace philosophy that prioritizes employees' needs, well-being, and development to create a thriving and fulfilling work environment.

Why is employee engagement meaningful?

Engaged employees are more productive, innovative, and committed to their organizations. They are also more likely to stay with the company, reducing turnover costs.

How can HR build a people-first culture?

HR professionals play a crucial role in creating a people-first culture by embedding people-centric principles into all aspects of the employee experience, from recruitment and onboarding to performance management and development.

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