People-First Cultures are the Future: Here’s How to Build One

5 min read

People-first cultures are a powerful business strategy if you want your business to succeed, perform well, and grow.

HappyHQ recently spoke with Platf9rm to share advice and tips on how to establish the right foundations to create a people-first company culture. Here’s what we shared:

Why people-first?

The conventional 9-to-5 routine is evolving into a more adaptable, comprehensive approach to work. In this modern employment landscape, employees are seeking more than just monetary compensation – they’re drawn to a company’s culture, core values, a balanced approach to work and life, transparent communication, and opportunities for both professional development and personal satisfaction.

For companies, in today’s dynamic business environment, your path is typically shaped by your strategic initiatives. Yet, even the most meticulously designed strategies can be thrown off track by a culture that doesn’t quite gel. Inconsistencies in decision-making, hiring missteps, and little evidence of daily values being embodied can all hint at a culture that’s out of sync. To put it simply, culture can either be your biggest asset or your biggest risk.

Practical steps for building a positive, people-first culture

As we navigate towards a more human-centric future of work, building a culture that prioritises people becomes ever more crucial. Applying HappyHQ’s Culture Model – we can simplify the complex concept of workplace culture into eight guiding principles; Wellbeing, Purpose, Communication, Leadership, Connection, Empowerment, Appreciation, and Belonging. Each principle is grounded in what people genuinely need to thrive and excel at work.

People-First tip one: Prioritise health and wellbeing

Today’s employees want flexibility and consistent wellbeing support over ‘one-off’ mental health days, which offer little long-term support. The key is to create a supportive environment where employees feel comfortable discussing their health concerns, which can be achieved through regular and intentional wellbeing checks.

To build a culture that cares about people’s wellbeing, prevention is always better than cure. A question we should be asking employees is; what one thing would make the biggest difference to your sense of well-being at work? 

Understanding mental health as a continuum, not something that can be ‘fixed and forgotten’, is crucial. 

This is the approach successfully adopted by the creative events agency, Halo. They started by asking every team member whether they agreed that ‘mental health and wellbeing is openly discussed and supported’. Following this, they put an action plan in place that focused on ‘safeguarding’, frequent check-ins, open dialogue, and mental health first aiders, and more. 

As a result, they improved their culture audit score in mental health and wellbeing from 42% to 94% in 2023. Now in 2023, 94% of their team feels that mental health and wellbeing are openly discussed and supported.

People-First tip two: Be purpose and values-driven

Take a moment to reflect on your company’s values. Are they clear, compelling, and authentic? Do they resonate with your team? Are they embedded in your daily operations? If not, it’s time to re-evaluate. 

In the UK, the highest-ranked factor contributing to workplace happiness is ‘doing meaningful work’ and ‘feeling connected to a purpose’. The next-gen, in particular, are motivated and inspired to work for companies with a clear vision, mission, and values – especially if they’re contributing to the greater good. 

Ensure your company’s mission and values are clear, compelling, and consistently communicated. Align business goals and behaviours with these core principles because actions speak louder than words. It’s not enough to simply declare your purpose and values – they must be reinforced through consistent action through values cheerleaders and multipliers. 

Image via Platf9rm coworking

People-First tip three: Open and Collaborative communicators

It’s an open secret that most of us are drawn to companies that champion honesty and open communication. The leaders of tomorrow truly grasp the vital role of transparency and collaboration, cultivating spaces where thoughts and ideas are shared openly and without hesitation.

To meet this demand, it’s essential to keep a consistent flow of information that’s readily available, whether you’re at the office, home, or on the move. Make it a habit to ask for feedback and act on it visibly. This underlines your commitment to an ongoing conversation, constant growth, and attentive listening.

In practical terms, establishing a culture of effective communication means evaluating the efficiency of your meetings, keeping your team regularly updated with company news, and considering which channels and tools are best for centralising information and tasks. 

At KOTA, the creative branding agency, as they’re a remote-first team, they start each morning the team gathers virtually to discuss tasks, share updates, and address any issues. This ritual not only keeps teams aligned with collective goals but also encourages a sense of camaraderie and mutual support.

People-First tip four: Clear structure and opportunity

There’s a compelling allure to companies that boast authentic, empowering leadership. The forward-thinkers of tomorrow understand that the essence of leadership is about steering others towards shared goals, not about flexing power.

Effective leaders are those who lead by example, showcasing the values they desire in their teams. They embody humility and authenticity, unafraid to admit their mistakes openly. Take, for instance, Airbnb’s CEO Brian Chesky. When faced with pandemic layoffs, he provided clear, honest explanations, managing to maintain trust and credibility amidst challenging times.

Laying the groundwork for positive leadership and a vibrant culture involves leaders embracing feedback and nurturing self-awareness. As an authentic leader, it’s crucial to view feedback as an invaluable tool that’s there to be welcomed. People don’t expect leaders to be flawless – they appreciate transparency and growth. So, embrace the feedback, learn from it, and let it fuel continuous improvement.

People-First tip five: Genuine, authentic people and friendships

People are experiencing a growing sense of disconnection and isolation from their colleagues, with younger generations being particularly affected. A connected workplace is filled with meaningful relationships, kindness, caring, shared experiences, fun, and laughter. As well as being great for idea sharing and collaboration, connected workplaces also have the benefit of being more productive, inclusive, and engaged.

Culture audits engage every team member by posing the question: “What is one initiative you believe our company could undertake to enhance your sense of connection with peers, colleagues, and managers at work?” The responses we receive are always brilliantly in sync with the companies culture and its context.

Here, we can take inspiration from Sweden, a country renowned for happy workplaces, their culture has a ritual called Fika (translated to describe a “coffee and cake break”), which many Swedes consider to being an essential part of the working day. IKEA even says some of its best ideas and decisions happen during their Fika breaks!

People-first tip five: Flexibility, tools and trust to thrive

When individuals are given the autonomy to determine the most effective methods for achieving their goals, they often feel a heightened sense of accomplishment, are more challenged, and consequently, experience growth. However, this does not imply operating without distinct job descriptions or objectives.

Empowerment involves clearly articulating expectations while supplying the necessary tools and flexibility for individuals to excel in their roles.

An excellent strategy for empowerment is to highlight people’s core strengths instead of consistently trying to correct weaknesses. Over the past few years, there has been a remarkable surge in the study of character strengths in the workplace. This approach identifies people’s strengths and encourages them to concentrate their efforts on tasks they naturally excel at. The result? A team that acknowledges your dedication to growth opportunities, which subsequently enhances their loyalty and engagement.

Image via Platf9rm coworking

People-first tip seven: Strong sense of recognition and value

In the hustle and bustle of escalating work demands, the importance of employee appreciation can, unfortunately, fall by the wayside. However, acknowledging achievements isn’t just about fuelling morale or fostering a positive work environment – it’s a strategic move to reinforce those behaviours that propel a company towards its goals.

During HappyHQ’s culture audits, they pose this question: ‘What one thing could your company do to make you feel more appreciated at work?’ The responses we get are enlightening. Today’s employees desire more than a mere pat on the back. They want consistent recognition over sporadic acknowledgements, which can often come across as fleeting and superficial.

Take inspiration from I Love My Job, a leading recruitment company dedicated to driving positive change at work. They’ve developed a unique appreciation program called ‘Values RECognition’, via their digital hub on Notion. Team members have the opportunity to shout-out their peers who exemplify one or more of the company’s values through attitude or actions. This approach not only lays the foundations for a strong sense of recognition (from all team members as opposed to just line management) but also ingrains the company’s values into everyday work and culture.

People-First tip eight: Championing inclusivity and a sense of pride

The final principle we will explore is belonging. As social creatures, we humans require a sense of belonging in our workplaces to fulfil our innate need for camaraderie. 

To prevent employees from feeling alienated, undervalued, or misunderstood, there is an increasing shift from a ‘Culture Fit’ mindset to a ‘Culture Add’ perspective. ‘Culture Add’ hiring strategies not only align potential employees with the company’s core values but also welcome fresh ideas and unique perspectives. This can be through diverse experiences, distinct skill sets, or innovative thought processes. When employees are confident that their views will be respected regardless of their background or experience, it facilitates more productive conversations.

By creating an environment where all voices are heard, and everyone feels comfortable expressing ideas without fear of judgement or criticism you’re creating a culture where people can do their best work.

Your next step in building people-first culture foundations:

Every business, whether consciously or not, creates its own unique culture but positive, people-first cultures don’t just materialise ‘by chance.’ They’re the result of thoughtful intent, strategic planning, and consistent effort. With the right approach and guidance, it’s a journey that can transform your business into a thriving, people-first company. 

Through culture audits, workshops, and consultancy, HappyHQ partners with companies to create bespoke strategies and frameworks that support people-first cultures. Book a free and informal culture discovery call.

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