People-first organizations: what they mean and how to win at them

Ghina Fahs
November 23, 2022
People-first organizations: what they mean and how to win at them
Employee experience
Best practices

We’ve arrived. The era of digital nomads, cryptocurrencies, robots, and the metaverse. Sadly, no flying cars yet (we all thought that would be a thing by now, didn’t we?) but times are changing and they’re changing fast.

After the past couple of years, most of us, especially the younger generations—whom the future of the world is highly dependent on—agree that we wouldn’t want to work for a company that doesn’t place the right value on its building blocks, the very heart of its success: its employees. Not only do we agree, but we’re empowered enough to say it with our chests. With that, companies are at high risk of losing their best talent if they don’t nurture their people properly; that is, if they don’t put people first.

To dive into the subject, we attended a fantastic webinar on the topic of people-first organizations hosted by UNLEASH’s Kate Graham, featuring economist Daniel Thorniley and industry leader Ian Mcvey.

In this post, we’ll save you the FOMO by sharing some of the most insightful highlights with you, including tips on how you can run a more people-centered organization and win at it.

What does a “people-first organization” look like?

In the simplest of terms, a people-first organization is an organization that puts the people before the business, because it understands that it’s the people that make the business. As wisely stated by one of the webinar attendees, “Employees are the secret sauce to success and they must be attended to.”

A Forbes article summed it up this way: “The leaders of people-centric organizations understand that it’s people who make their company successful. These companies realize that when people feel valued and cared for, they do their work with stronger intrinsic motivation, a deeper sense of meaning, and a greater level of engagement. They go the extra mile simply because they want to contribute to an organization that cares about them,” and here’s the equation: happy employees = happy customers and clients.

Cultivating a people-first culture can look like this:

  • Offering employees the option of hybrid and remote working conditions to enable them to do their work in the ways that suit them best, giving them the freedom of choice.
  • Encouraging work-life balance by allowing unlimited PTO, mental health days, and flexible working hours so that they can attend to their personal needs outside of work.
  • Investing in their well-being and encouraging them to lead healthy lifestyles. For example, offering free healthy catered meals, reimbursing their gym memberships, covering costs of therapy, holding in-person or virtual sound baths, offering a healthy cooking series or classes, office yoga sessions, and much more.

What’s driving companies to become more people-centric?

As we continue to go through rapid collective change, the workforce is inevitably being dragged along to keep up. Our parents and their parents were likely working for strictly hierarchy-style organizations to make an income, without further exploring whether these organizations truly cared about them and their needs on a more personal level. They did what was expected of them; they settled for little flexibility and work-life balance, took what was offered to them with few demands, and hardly any room to explore an alternative way of being. They were conditioned to think they needed their employers more than their employers needed them. This was the norm for decades.

However, the tables are turning. Ian explained, in the year 2000, there were around 200 million companies globally; now, we have over 350 million—more than a 50% increase. Taking this into consideration with the decreasing number of children per family, down from 5 to around 2.5, this means we have a lot more jobs, and significantly fewer people to employ.

Daniel also added, “The power was with the employer from 2010 to 2020, but after Covid, the power went to the staff and labor force. Today, we’re at a tipping point: where does it go from here and where does the power stay? With the employer or the employee?”

Today, job seekers have a lot more options on their plates, and employees are feeling more empowered than ever. The pandemic brought to light numerous realizations and shifts in the collective sense of purpose. People want to tend to their mental and physical health, they want more freedom, flexibility, and autonomy, and now they know that it’s within reach.

Job seekers are more inclined to turn down a seemingly great job offer not only because the chances of them getting another great offer are very high, but also because it’s not just salaries that people want out of a job anymore. In other words, if your people strategy sucks, the talent pool will know they can find a better one elsewhere.

But have salaries even been up to par? Daniel explained, in 2022, companies didn’t increase pay enough to match the rate of inflation, and as a result, workers are highly likely to respond with a lousy 2022, which means employers will need to make up for that in 2023. CEOs and boards get so obsessed with saving money by keeping tight wages without realizing that well-paid staff results in wealthy consumers that trust your business.

Here’s what all of this means: if companies wish to succeed, they need to up their game and focus on their people in order to attract and retain the best talent. Not only do employees need (and deserve) good salaries, but they also need work-life balance, autonomy and flexibility, quality of life, and a general sense of security and well-being. After all, their talent, their time, their efforts, and their energy are all worth more than just material compensation, and they know that.

How to become a people-first organization and win at it:

Gather data and leverage the appropriate tools:

People analytics! Gather as much information and feedback as possible. Listen to your people, really listen.

Ian elaborated, “control your controllables, focus on where you can have an impact and can make a difference. Understand the people, their motives and the metrics around them; employee listening, manager effectiveness, employee engagement scores, HCM systems metrics, attraction rate, attrition rate, and more.” Look at the number of new joiners vs. the number of people leaving; why are they leaving? What’s the average pay? How are promotions happening? Leverage the emerging technologies that can help you get the answers you need to act accordingly.

Data-driven HR is crucial in being able to execute the following steps.

Move with purpose:

Establish your values, be clear about them, and act accordingly. 

While the idea that working for a company should be more than an economic transaction has been around for a while now, there’s been a significant evolution in what employees expect out of their organizations. Tom Rath, author and researcher of workplace issues, articulates this point; “when you look at a more macro level of how we as consumers and citizens view big companies and brands, there’s also a similar push there where large organizations, in particular, are going to need to demonstrate and prove that they’re actually a societal good and they’re not just selling products or services that are bad for people,” he continued. “Organizations will need to prove they’re good for the environment, they’re good for their customers, and they’re good for the communities they reside in.”

Ian also explained how we’re seeing a generational shift and societal shift where purpose has a lot more meaning. As a company, you need to know your purpose and know what you’re about, making your mission a conscious and intentional one is a great way to attract and retain talent beyond rewards and pay.

Kate chimed in, ‘We're seeing some trends emerge in recruitment where organizations with strong purpose or strong CSR propositions are attracting top talent ahead of the competition.”

How can your company exist with more purpose?

Create the right environment and culture:

Meet their needs, and be open to unconventional ways of making that happen.

Today, the workplace sees members spread across four very different generations: Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen Zers.

Naturally, the different generations will have different needs that companies should cater to accordingly. Cultivating the right environment and culture is a picture that can be painted in various ways. The first step to getting there is to understand who is under your wing. While Gen Xers might value flexibility, Gen Zers have shown a strong emphasis on opportunities for growth and development. How do you accommodate that?

Take advantage of the technology at hand. “While there’s a lot of uncertainty, there’s also a lot of great things going on in the world,” shared Ian, “there’s incredible innovation happening around technology that is enabling hybrid work and tons of new business models.” Technology is bringing about a fundamental shift that’s enabling new business models and types of work that we haven’t historically seen.

To conclude

To sum it up; running a people-first organization means you will need to work through your people strategy, remember that data-driven HR is key, and ask the right questions. How are your people impacting your business and how is your business impacting your people? And how is technology going to be leveraged in this case to achieve the right kind of impact?

Ian has a positive outlook on the direction we’re headed in. “We’ve got a much more fluid workforce nowadays that companies have to be cognizant of. If people are meeting their objectives and doing what needs to be done, so they leave a little bit earlier to go tend to their lives, that’s fantastic if we’re able to live in a world that enables that.”

And to close off the webinar with a piece of advice, Ian reminded us that enabling a people-first organization that meets employee needs will also depend on each individual. We're more empowered and capable now of having more autonomy, so we have to be aware and think about what we want from our lives.

Here’s a good prompt to start: what are your intentions on an individual level and how can the organization you work for help you better live in alignment with those intentions?

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