Which comes first: employee experience or workplace culture? While it could be the basis for a lively debate, I don’t think chronology matters.
That’s because we’re focusing on the wrong thing. Workplace culture and employee experience are equally rooted in your people—and that’s what matters.
In case you're wondering, I consider workplace culture to be the artifacts, rituals, social context, and other evidence of the existence of a group of humans coming together for some work purpose. Employee experience is the feeling that people have when exposed to or immersed in those aspects that make up workplace culture. Neither could exist without people.
So, before you invest time, resources, and brain power on building your culture and shaping your employee experience, think about your people. If you put people first and focus on their needs to succeed and thrive at work, culture and experience will be the happy product of your efforts.
Workplace culture and employee experience need people first
Trying to build workplace culture and shape employee experience without looking after people first is a bit like trying to sail around the world without a boat. You can attempt to swim, but you won’t get very far.
Adopting a people-first perspective requires real intention and interest. Think about what it feels like to be part of your organization. I’m not talking about wearing swag and drinking your Kool-aid. I mean the actual feelings your people have when they wake up and think about going to work, the thoughts they have during the day about their work and the way it’s done and recognized, and the emotions they experience when engaging with others.
Once you start to explore and experience your organization as a collection of living, feeling, and thinking beings, you can more easily see why shaping culture and experience requires a people-centered approach.
You don’t need a PhD in organizational behavior to put this into action. Here are six areas to consider that all start with basic decency and awareness of others:
Be human at work
It’s obvious: a people-first approach asks that we’re all people first. Each of us has a life that surrounds work, and emotions to go with it. And very few of us can actually shut that off the minute we arrive at work (and especially not in the context of a global pandemic). As leaders, the call to action is to be vulnerable, authentic, and compassionate ourselves. That will encourage and give others permission to do the same.
Being human at work also means being able to be yourself fully. True people-centric work environments welcome every person’s unique life experiences, talents, preferences, and ideas. Does your workplace really encourage everyone to be themselves? You might start by asking employees how they’d answer that question, and then be prepared to act.
Relationships transcend the office
As remote work is becoming normalized for most knowledge workers, companies have to shift the emphasis from in-office perks and gimmicks to other ways to engage employees. What this means is that relationships are now critical for building culture and defining the experience people have during their workday. Let’s be honest: this has always been the case, since meaningful and lasting culture and experience have never been about in-office perks. Fortunately though, this pandemic-induced shove from the universe has forced us away from crutches of culture to enablers of relationships.
Regardless of how and where you work together, the way that people communicate, relate, and support each other is more powerful than any ping pong table or beer tap. There’s an argument to be made for the benefits of in-person work, such as combating loneliness, spurring creativity, and the buzz of socializing. But remember, even those aspects rely on relationships first.
Part of relating is connecting. In a recent remote work study by Jostle and Dialectic, we found that over 83% of respondents were feeling disconnected from their workplace culture. Not only that, 61% feel that remote work makes them less connected to their co-workers. There’s also less socializing, with most interactions transactional, not relational.
The core of people-centric workplaces is the quality of connection that everyone has to peers, projects, and purpose. This is what strengthens bonds and makes it possible for psychological safety to thrive. As leaders, we need to seek out any and every opportunity to connect with people and nurture a mindset of over-emphasizing connection.
Include and recognize everyone
Inclusion and recognition are extensions of being human at work, but they deserve special consideration in the context of people-centric workplaces. Inclusion is particularly topical right now, and rightly so. However, saying you’re inclusive, and acting in an inclusive way within your business, are two different things. Look at everything from language to policies to rituals to decision making to meetings, and see how inclusive you actually are. Be prepared to change by asking others to help shape what inclusion means for all.
Recognition is one of the simplest ways to make someone feel noticed, appreciated, and supported. On the other hand, lack of recognition is one of the quickest ways to alienate, disengage, and deflate your people. Meaningful recognition shows that you understand what drives each individual and that you care. This bolsters both relationships and being human at work.
Equality and fairness always
Even though I’m advocating for individual understanding and connection, it’s equally important to be equal and fair in how you recognize and support people. This isn’t always straightforward. However, if you respect everyone, with no favouritism and preferential treatment, you’ll be off to a strong start.
Equality and fairness show up in practical areas like working hours, access to technology, safety provisions, and perks and benefits. But unfortunately, inequality and unfairness are often evident in promotions, compensation, and opportunities. People-centric workplaces and their resulting cultures and experiences, strive for equality and fairness on every measure.
Create space for individual needs
If the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that we all have different life circumstances and needs. Those of us working from our homes suddenly put parts of our life on view, like never before. Peers and managers became acutely aware of all sorts of life happenings and complications for their co-workers.
On the whole, I think this has been good for us. Hopefully we’ve become more understanding and compassionate. After all, people have never wanted to be treated like a number or an input in the machine. It’s imperative to create space in workflow, work hours, and output expectations for individual needs and preferences. If we embrace life plus work, instead of lifeless work, our people will be happier and businesses more successful.
It’s not that culture and experience don’t matter
Let me be clear: as a people-first advocate, I’m not suggesting that workplace culture and employee experience are of little consequence. On the contrary, they’re the product of your people-centred practices. Every action (and inaction) with and towards people in your organization amounts to an overall feeling of what it’s like to work there. It also influences whether people want to stay in your organization.
But, as much as you should focus on people first, the trouble is that none of this has a defined start or end point. Workplace culture and employee experience are happening every minute of every workday (and beyond in employees’ lives). Thus, if you want a specific culture and experience that aligns with your purpose and values, both require intent and active work within your organization, and by your leaders.
Furthermore, culture and experience are intricately intertwined. So much so that it’s hard to determine which comes first, as I postulated at the start. You’ll even find that working definitions of either necessarily include the other. Therefore, if you pay attention to one, you impact the other. Neglect one, and the other suffers too.
So, put people first but keep the texture and tone of your culture and experience in focus at all times. That requires listening, observing, asking, and taking action. People do indeed come before workplace culture and employee experience. But, if you ignore the latter, you’ll have nobody to work with.