How to make a people-first culture permanent

Lisa Dodman Profile picture for user Lisa Dodman December 14, 2021
Businesses are relying more than ever on the employees who provide a people-first service. Lisa Dodman of Unit4 shares the recipe for creating a people-first culture that can be embedded within your organization.

Office life diversity and inclusive people-first culture leadership concept © Nadia Snop - Shutterstock
(© Nadia Snop - Shutterstock)

The past 18 months have shown us all we can change faster and look after people better than we ever thought possible. Our next challenge will be learning how to maintain the flexible, caring, and empowering culture that so many organizations have had to develop. Keeping up the good work will take a more conscious and deliberate effort in culture management going forward.

This is especially true for people-centric service organizations including those in the public sector, professional services, higher education and nonprofit. They, more than anyone, rely on their people. These organizations need to master the culture management approaches that will help their people be their best selves and do their best work – to better help their clients serve those they serve.

Here’s my recipe for making a people-first culture permanent.

Anchor values in business strategy

Your organization needs to have a simple, relatable set of values that are integrated into everything you do. Help your people understand how to live the organization’s values in their role. Communications are important, not just to tell people what the values are, but also to test their understanding through reviews, feedback, and community discussions.

Leaders should show vulnerability

Showing vulnerability is traditionally seen as ‘a bad thing’, a sign of weakness and not a quality you’d expect of a leader – but I think it’s crucial. Leaders have to show their teams that they’re human too. We shouldn’t be afraid to make mistakes or see them as necessarily negative. Fear of failing stifles any organization.

Be authentic and inclusive

Encourage people to be who they are and be proud of it. Our leadership community has guest speakers talking about topics that reinforce an inclusive culture, like promoting the role of women in the technology sector. It’s a leader’s job to bring out the best in people, not add to their stress by making them feel they should be something they’re not.

Leadership is different now

Employees have changed a lot in the last year. Some have adapted well to home working; for others, home is not conducive to concentration. Now leaders have to deal with more well-being concerns. Change the terminology: speak of “leaders” rather than “managers” – there’s a big difference.

Let people leave

In 2020, people stayed in their jobs; 2021 is the year of The Great Resignation. Organizations need to accept that this is the reality, not fight it. Don’t see leaving as a bad thing. If people want to leave, so be it – our job is to support them to give value while they’re with us.

Communicate – the more the better

Make communications regular and meaningful. Use engagement technology to do weekly pulsing – it makes communications real-time and two-way. Also, people have different communications preferences, so give them a choice of formats and styles – top-down CEO comms, people comms, sales bells, communities, etc.

Embrace feedback – good or bad

Ask your people what’s working for them and what’s not. Then act on their feedback and tell them what you’ve done. It encourages people to speak out if they know their voice will be heard. At one point, our people said they weren’t able to give enough time to learning, so we held a Learning Festival, which helped scale learning and nurtured a culture of personal growth. It also showed people we listened. 

Look after people’s well-being

Physical and mental health are critical, especially when people are under pressure. We rolled out a raft of initiatives during the pandemic – online fitness classes, a well-being app, MoveSpring, a steps challenge app as well as kid’s activities – and we’ve not only kept them going but extended them to customers.

Empower true work-life balance

We operate a blended, hybrid way of working for a “better normal”. We’ve said to our people: you decide what’s best for you, work from the office or at home as you wish. Do the school run, go to the gym, take a conference call while going for a walk. Don’t apologize if a child or pet appears in the background. This makes business sense – if you take away the stress, people will engage more and deliver better service to customers.

Making it work in your organization

You may be thinking “That’s all very well, but it wouldn’t work at my company”. Certainly, some organizations, countries, or industries may not be ready for this type of approach. So how can you translate these ideas into something workable in your organization?

I believe every business can anchor its values in its strategy, and every organization can communicate and listen to its people. The trick is to pick your battles – take small steps in the right direction, depending on what your people need.

If your workforce profile is older, they may be more concerned about pensions; if it’s predominantly 20s and 30s, then gym membership and social interaction may be more important. Give priority to whatever it is your people need to be their best selves and do their best work.

To achieve any of this, People Success teams need a seat at the boardroom table and be on an equal footing with other senior leaders, and the leadership team needs to be bought into the idea of a people-first culture. 

The organization’s leaders all need to share the view that if people have a good experience at work, they’ll be engaged and do great work, which will deliver value to customers and the organization. Then, bit by bit, you can create a people experience that’s right for your organization, and make it permanent.

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