people first culture

May 09, 2024 •

11 min reading

Putting people first: Business success with a human-centric approach

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It's no secret that many employees feel unappreciated and undervalued in today’s workforce. Competition for good jobs is fierce, AI will replace some jobs in the coming years, and the size and complexity of some businesses makes some employees feel insignificant. Embracing a "people-first culture" has become vital as modern talent won't hesitate to seek better benefits and flexibility elsewhere.

What is a people-first culture?

Organizations must adopt a human-centric approach to workforce management to counteract today’s uncomfortable, and sometimes even toxic, employment landscape. Many studies show that humanizing the workplace improves engagement, innovation, productivity and retention. While failing to provide a humane work environment causes low morale that leads to a variety of negative impacts, ranging from low engagement and productivity to poor customer service and high turnover rates.

This article explores key factors for building a people first culture, trouble-shooting problem examples, and strategies that leaders can implement to tap into the power of putting people first. By prioritizing inclusion, development, wellbeing and work-life balance, companies can unlock their workforce's full potential.


Key factors for creating an employee-first culture

Fostering an inclusive, diverse culture

Embracing diversity and creating an environment where all employees feel welcomed, valued, and heard is foundational. Inclusive teams demonstrate higher productivity, innovation and engagement. Hiring, retention and training initiatives should promote diversity, while leaders must model openness to varied backgrounds and perspectives.

Empowering employees and promoting autonomy

When staff have autonomy over how they contribute, they become more motivated and productive. Providing flexibility in when and how work gets done, enabling employees to make more decisions independently, and supporting professional growth all demonstrate trust in people's abilities.

Prioritizing growth, learning and development

Investing in upskilling, mentorships and continuous education makes employees feel valued and keeps skill sets relevant amid constant change. Development programs focused on future-proofing workers ensure an adaptable, competitive workforce.

Cultivating empathy, psychological safety and wellbeing

Leaders should foster a supportive environment where people know mistakes won't be punished, can voice concerns safely, and are treated with compassion – even, and especially, in trying times. Promoting mental health and modelling empathy enhances psychological safety and care for the whole person.

Enabling work-life balance and flexibility

Respecting boundaries and allowing staff to balance their professional and personal priorities boosts morale and health. Remote work options, generous time-off policies and flexibility accommodate diverse needs and responsibilities outside work.

Building trust through transparency and open communication

Honest, frequent communication makes people feel informed and involved. Sharing company goals openly, gathering input, admitting shortcomings quickly and facilitating open dialogue fosters trust and community.


Strategies to humanize the workplace

Promote diversity, equity and inclusion through hiring, retention and training practices

  • Ensure job postings attract diverse candidates and interview panels represent different voices and perspectives to promote diversity, equity and inclusion through hiring, retention, and employee programs.
  • Seek regular input from staff at all levels on ways to strengthen inclusion company-wide and implement their suggestions.
  • Conduct unconscious bias and diversity training to raise awareness of how to foster equity.
  • Support employee resource groups that empower underrepresented groups to build community, share concerns, and participate in outreach initiatives.

Create spaces for open dialogue, feedback and idea exchange

  • Host skip-level meetings and open office hours where managers and direct reports can speak openly outside normal reporting lines.
  • Conduct regular town halls for senior leaders to update staff on goals and gain anonymous input on improving culture.
  • Administer anonymous surveys to monitor employee satisfaction and encourage suggestions.
  • Gather input from all levels on improving culture.
  • Dedicate time for giving peer feedback and exchanging ideas. Maintain an open-door policy and dedicate office hours for staff to share ideas and provide feedback.
  • Provide digital tools and platforms enabling employees across locations to freely collaborate, communicate, and exchange concepts.

Invest in professional development, mentorships and upskilling programs

  • Offer tuition and skills training reimbursement, industry conferences, seminars, and growth opportunities to help employees continuously develop new capabilities.
  • Allow staff to actively chart their own career paths and pursue roles that align with motivations by providing rotational assignments.
  • Pair junior employees with mentors and coaches for guidance on accomplishing goals.
  • Hold managers accountable for supporting development through regular check-ins and progress conversations.

Support work-life balance through remote work options and flexible schedules

  • Give staff autonomy over when and where they work by embracing asynchronous collaboration and output-based performance measures.
  • Avoid imposing rigid policies around hours worked, vacation and sick time.
  • Promote mental health days and model healthy work-life boundaries at the leadership level.
  • Continually evaluate demands placed on people's time and adjust workloads to prevent burnout.
  • Invest in an efficient, equitable scheduling tool that uses AI to make and manage employee schedules.

Recognize achievements and show appreciation for staff contributions

  • Beyond highlighting accomplishments in meetings and newsletters, send individuals handwritten thank you notes or small spot bonuses unexpectedly.
  • Survey staff anonymously asking how they most like to be shown appreciation.
  • Avoid tying recognition solely to output because intrinsic motivation is also key.
  • Praise effort and good intent as much as results.

Encourage creativity, innovation and risk-taking without repercussions for failure

  • Challenge teams to regularly generate bold ideas that could significantly advance strategic company goals.
  • Foster psychological safety to voice unconventional concepts and pay attention to respond in a meaningful way.
  • Allow experimentation and iterate solutions quickly.
  • Understand that innovation inherently involves trial and error.

Foster empathy and care for people's overall wellbeing

  • Proactively check in on staff one-on-one to show you care, especially when noticing possible distress signals like disengagement.
  • Lead with emotional intelligence, avoid interrupting, practice active listening without judgement, and respond with compassion.
  • Openly discuss mental health to fight stigma.
  • Model healthy work-life integration and taking advantage of time off yourself.
  • Provide access to mental health resources and venues for staff to confidentially ask for support when facing personal or professional struggles.

These multilayered strategies require some investment of time and resources, but they also deliver exponential returns by empowering people.


What are some examples of employee-first culture problems and solutions?

The following stories and examples come from real-life situations that have reached the ears of our editorial team. All names and positions have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals who shared their experiences.

A cold reception interview

Jeremy applied for an IT position with an IT outsourcing company, and he’s excited to have his interview. But when he arrives, the setting is unwelcoming, the team leader seems burned out and uninterested in him, and the HR specialist asks him questions that give him doubts, such as: “Do you feel you can function in a high-stress work environment?” and “How do you deal with conflicts with team members?” He decides the place really isn’t for him and turns the company down when they offer him the job.

Suggestions: From the very first contact with a job candidate, companies must put their best foot forward. Employment is a mutual agreement, so both parties need to feel comfortable and like they are going to benefit from the relationship.

  • Avoid overly complicated application processes, harsh interviewing techniques, asking for salary expectations too early.
  • Don’t ask questions that may throw a negative light on the expected work environment.
  • Choose the first contact people wisely, as poor first impressions may send candidates running for the hills.
  • Fix the toxic settings first: If a department or team has a history of mistakes, burnout, and high turnover, it’s better to figure out who or what is causing the problem and make repairs before trying to hire someone new.

Inexistant or insufficient onboarding

Sharon started her new job in customer service a few months ago, and things aren’t going as planned. Nothing seemed ready when she arrived. The training process was almost inexistant or mainly based on reading manuals. The team is so busy they can’t really take the time to show her the ropes. She’s stressed because she doesn’t have enough real work to do, doesn’t understand the processes, and feels they expect her to know things she doesn’t. She’s regretting her decision to join this company and already wishing for something new.

Suggestions: This is a common pitfall in many organizations. A human-centric approach to onboarding means putting lots of attention into making the person feel welcome, getting them settled in their environment and team, and making sure they receive appropriate training before they are expected to start doing the work.

  • Have a thorough, documented onboarding procedure with a checklist.
  • Include fun, ice-breaking team activities for new hires.
  • Have frequent check-in meeting with managers and new hires to ensure things are going smoothly.

The importance of onboarding

  • Only 43 percent of employees surveyed had an onboarding experience consisting of more than a one-day orientation.
  • The risk of employee turnover is highest within a person’s first 45 days on the job.  
  • 51 percent of employees say they’d go “above and beyond” in their work if they had a good onboarding experience.

Toxic workplace cultures, attitudes & people

When John joined his new team, he noticed some negative office behavior. A few of his fellow employees sometimes openly express disdain for certain cultures, make fun of other team’s members, and use foul language. He doesn't share their opinions, is uncomfortable in the open space they share, and finds their banter offensive. His company doesn’t really talk about topics related to professional behaviour, communication, diversity and inclusion.

Suggestions: A culture of respect should be visible and mandatory in all workplaces, from the moment an employee joins the company, they should know what type of behaviour is expected and what to do if they see or hear things that don’t seem right.

Make expectations for professional conduct clear and put it in writing in their employee manual.

  • Take a positive, proactive approach by impressing upon all new hires that the company has a culture of inclusion and respect.
  • Offer (or even make mandatory) training for all employees and managers on the subjects of workplace wellbeing, cultural sensitivity, and sexual harassment.
  • Have zero tolerance for insensitive, rude, or aggressive behaviour. One time gets a warning, two times and they’re out. Document all interventions.
  • Have an anonymous help line or drop-box where employees can share their concerns without fear of backlash.

For more information about this subject, check out this mini-series on detoxifying toxic workplaces produced by expert faculty members at EHL.

The micromanaging manager

Maria joined a communications team over two years ago, with plenty of experience, and yet her manager still treats her like she just started and micromanages her assignments. She doesn’t get to share any of her work or make any decisions without prior approval from her manager. She wonders if she’s even useful since she isn’t allowed to do anything alone.

Suggestions: This common example reflects a dysfunction in the way that individual responsibility and accountability is delegated and encouraged. Some managers may seek to control everything their team does, without seeking to help them grow and mature in their roles. For employees to feel empowered, they must be trusted and allowed to take initiatives, even if it means they sometimes make mistakes.

  • Establish job descriptions and performance reviews that set SMART objectives.
  • Outline a path for growing employees’ responsibility and role assignments after the initial trial period.
  • Make empowering and developing skills in subordinates a goal for managers. Set clear objectives for them to hire the right people and develop and promote members of their team.
  • Make sure employees receive frequent, relevant and constructive feedback that helps them to do their work with confidence

The dead-end job

Sarah has been working in a marketing team for well over five years, but her job and salary has changed very little since the beginning. She still gets delegated the low priority, low impact projects and sees younger, more educated coworkers pass before her for promotions and new initiatives. Her boss says she’s doing fine, her performance reviews are average, but she gets the feeling she’s missing out.

Solution idea: Sometimes it takes more than just self-determination for an employee to reach their full potential. Managers and leaders should be attuned to the career status of their employees and recognize when someone is stagnating or underperforming.

  • Make career planning a regular part of performance reviews. If an employee has a map to success, they are more likely to follow the right path.
  • Identify skills-gaps and offer upskilling courses for employees at all levels.
  • Promote continued education for managers and executives by offering support for master’s degrees and professional certificates.

Some of these examples may seem exaggerated, but they are all too common in the workplace. Employees just don’t feel comfortable talking about these problems. To find out if any of these types of situations are occurring in your workplace, you may want to establish some anonymous reporting tools and learn to read the signs of trouble before they become engrained and create a toxic work environment.


The bottom line: Why workforce humanity matters

Tangibly investing in workforce humanity delivers measurable business benefits:

Improved engagement, satisfaction, productivity and retention

Employees feel valued, motivated and committed when organizations demonstrate genuine care for their wellbeing and growth. This drives higher performance, morale and loyalty. One survey found 89% of employees at companies that support wellbeing are more likely to recommend their company.

Greater innovation, creativity and exchange of diverse perspectives

Inclusive teams encourage sharing unique ideas, sparking innovation. A study by BCG found diverse management teams boosted innovation revenue 19% more than less diverse teams.

Direct revenue increase through enhanced employee performance

Companies that prioritize workforce humanity see a direct impact on their bottom line through improved employee performance and customer satisfaction. Organizations with highly engaged teams report a 23% increase in profitability compared to those with lower engagement levels, according to Gallup. This direct revenue growth is attributed to the heightened productivity and efficiency of a workforce that feels supported and valued, leading to superior service delivery and customer experiences.

Stronger trust, relationships and community among staff

Initiatives fostering openness and care build camaraderie and collaborative spirit across the company. Employees feel comfortable being themselves and connecting authentically with colleagues.

Enhanced capacity to attract top talent

Human-centric cultures appeal to in-demand candidates, especially Millennials and Gen Z, seeking empathy and flexibility from employers. Building a reputation as a caring, ethical workplace strengthens talent recruitment and retention.

Overall competitive advantage powered by an empowered, human-centric culture

Leading with humanity ultimately fuels business growth by unlocking workforce potential. Companies with happier employees outperform their peers according to Fortune, who teamed up with Thrive Global, SAP SuccessFactors, and Qualtrics to build the Thrive XM Index, a ranking of companies with the best employee wellbeing.

Key takeaways

After exploring key factors and actionable strategies to enhance workforce humanity for mutually beneficial outcomes, it’s clear that when organizations demonstrate genuine care, build inclusion, support development and empower staff, they tap into the multidimensional potential of their people. Leading with empathy and humanity pays dividends through strengthened trust, innovation, productivity, and reputation.