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In this guide, we’ll examine the nine key characteristics of a people-first workplace and how to advance each one in your organization. Salo’s proprietary people-first workplace model is designed to help organizations create people-first workplaces where talent and businesses thrive. It gets to the heart of what it takes to create meaningful work experiences—which, in turn, creates business results.
The foundation of this model is purpose: a persuasive reason why the organization (and each person’s work) makes a difference in the world.
Set up talent for success and satisfaction on the job by providing these foundational elements:
Inspire people to do their best work by creating an environment that emphasizes these cultural factors:
People-first work isn’t a trend or an anomaly. It’s here to stay. And the best part is: it’s good for all of us. It leads to better business outcomes, better work-life balance, and more fulfilling careers.
Running a business is increasingly complex and unpredictable. Traditional wisdom tells you to concentrate on products and profit but, in today’s world, there are so many other priorities—from health crises and technology transformation to sustainability and social responsibility. It’s hard to know where to focus first. Organizations need to be agile, innovative, authentic, and fiscally successful. But how?
It’s a deceptively simple idea. When you focus on serving people—your customers, employees, and community—your focus shifts from “How can the business succeed?” to “How can people benefit?”
Organizations that empower talent have improved creativity, increased employee motivation, more trust in leadership, and are up to 21 percent more profitable.1 Organizations that don’t evolve will be left behind. There’s no longer a choice between people, productivity, and profitability. Instead, satisfied, fulfilled talent resources are the key to productivity and profitability.
Making work purposeful makes work meaningful
Purpose is the anchor—or core—of any people-centered model. It literally puts people at the center by answering questions such as:
Purpose challenges the organization to go beyond thinking about “What are we good at?” and start thinking about “What good can we do?” Purpose isn’t bound by limits of the organization; it provides license to break through them.
Purpose-driven companies have employees that are four times more engaged than other organizations.2 That’s because a compelling purpose is both aspirational and immediately active. It gives employees the meaning they crave and inspires innovation around:
In concert with your vision, purpose sparks innovation, increases resilience, and keeps your team motivated.
Purpose can’t be an exercise done once and put on a plaque on the wall. It needs to be infused into every decision the organization makes. To become truly purpose-driven, you need to walk the talk by:
Based on 73 responses
With purpose, work becomes more than getting paid or making a profit: It becomes a legacy. A purpose unifies your organization behind the common good and common goals—making everyday work more meaningful and rewarding.
Set talent up for success
Want employees to trust you? Trust them.
In today’s competitive talent market, top candidates want a say on a wide variety of issues—from where and when they work to what kind of work they do and who they do it with. But an empowered workforce is more than a good talent acquisition and retention strategy; it’s critical to advancing your business. Empowered employees are more innovative, nimble, confident, collaborative, and 67 percent more willing to put in extra effort on the job.3 It’s a win-win situation.
The question is: How do you empower people effectively? Unfortunately, you can’t just give people autonomy and wait for the magic to happen. Creating a lasting culture of empowerment requires hard work from organizational leadership, managers, and each employee or talent resource.
Implementing empowerment isn’t easy. We think about empowerment as giving people new choices and opportunities. But it’s also about giving people new responsibilities. And that’s where things get tricky.
In traditional workplace models, organizational leaders are responsible for setting goals, generating plans, making decisions, and assigning tasks. The employees are there to support the leader’s agenda. In an empowered workplace, that paradigm flips. The leader is there to support the employees and their work—they become mentors more than managers. Leaders set goals or define challenges, but it’s up to the employees to figure out how to get the work done.
This major shift in responsibility can be uncomfortable for everyone. Leaders often have a hard time letting go—it’s tempting to override employee choices or fall back into command-and-control mode. Employees, meanwhile, worry about keeping up with new expectations and testing the boundaries of their newfound freedom.
The root of the discomfort during the tricky transition period is a lack of trust. Leaders aren’t sure they can trust employees to get the job done. Employees aren’t confident leaders will give them the space and support they need to succeed.
The only way to achieve empowerment is to build trust on every level. The first step is for leaders and employees to acknowledge that this change is challenging (and exciting). With everyone in the organization learning a new role, people will make mistakes. The only way to get to an empowered workplace is to keep working at it.
Organizational level: Leadership team members can set the stage by:
Managerial level: Supervisors can set up employees for success by:
Individual level: Employees need to collaborate with their supervisors and colleagues to:
If we’ve learned one thing over the past few years, it’s that people can thrive in a wide variety of working arrangements. Now it’s time for companies to step up and formalize empowerment. By communicating, learning from mistakes, and assuming goodwill, teams will learn how to make empowerment the default, not the exception.
Create a future worth working towards.
A vision, sometimes called a strategic vision, is what a company wants to become in the future. And what it wants to be is the organizational equivalent of a Super Bowl-winning quarterback or a Nobel Prize winner. Vision is about dreaming big. It’s a story that everyone on the team wants to make come true. Said another way: A vision is what success would look like if the organization’s goals were accomplished.
Purpose and vision—each in their own way—give employees something to believe in. Unlike a mission which describes what an organization does now, purpose and vision are active investments in the future. Vision imagines the future of the company, while purpose envisions the future of the people the company serves. Unlike a purpose, which is infinite, a vision can be completed. (Sometimes a vision becomes reality!) And, when the vision is achieved or outgrown, the organization can replace it with a new one.
Although these days it might feel ridiculous to envision what will happen 5, 10, or 30 years from now, a vision provides tangible goals and reduces day-to-day uncertainty. Organizations may not need a formal vision statement anymore, but they do require motivational, energizing ideas that the team can get excited about.
Creating a vision of where the company is going—even if everyone knows it will change—gives employees a way to see how their personal role impacts the company’s success. It empowers employees to make suggestions, be proactive, and work more agilely. And, most of all, it helps people envision themselves at the organization for the long haul.
Vision is about creating a story employees want to be a part of. So, let them be “part of it” from the beginning. Instead of having leadership or internal communications develop, present, and sell a vision to the team, encourage employees to help create it. Each employee looks at the company through their own vantage point. By incorporating employee input and ideas, the vision becomes more inspiring for the whole team and more vivid for each person.
Vision, like purpose, is something that should be part of each employee’s everyday experience. Keeping vision top-of-mind is critical to its effectiveness. To implement a vision successfully:
Although the vision is the big dream for the organization, it often helps employees dream big in their own careers—seeing their own path for success in the business.
Go beyond culture, create community.
We all have an innate desire to belong—to be included and appreciated, to be part of a group, and to be part of something that’s bigger than ourselves. Organizations that create that sense of connection have a distinct advantage in the marketplace and become a destination for top talent. So, how can you make your organization one of them?
Organizations spend a lot of time on creating a corporate culture, but culture alone isn’t enough to create meaningful connections. Why? Company culture is about (you guessed it) the company. Maybe it’s based on the founder’s philosophy or maybe it’s an agreed-upon set of behavioral expectations for a respectful workplace. Regardless, culture is defined at the organizational level and enforced by company leaders. This can leave some employees feeling like cultural misfits.
Communities, however, are an expression of the people within them—they evolve as people come, go, and grow. Because the people in a community are united by shared interests, goals, and values; they care about their coworkers and the work they do together. Leaders can only facilitate community, not control it. As a result, community adapts easier to social change—creating a more sustainable, authentic, and inclusive workplace experience. Culture sets interpersonal expectations, but it’s community that makes people truly feel connected, recognized, and understood.
A healthy community relies on a wide variety of factors—such as communication, collaboration, and company purpose. However, two factors—sociability and solidarity—are particularly important to community building. Sociability is about how friendly people are to each other. Solidarity is about how well people unite behind a common objective (whether they like each other or not).
Both sociability and solidarity have advantages and drawbacks. For example, people who enjoy working with their coworkers are more positive about their job, but too much sociability can lead to cliques or favoritism. If solidarity brings people together to accomplish a mission, but no one keeps in contact, it’s a community fail. One of the best ways organizational leaders can cultivate community is by helping people find a good balance of sociability connections and solidarity challenges.
Working together effectively requires a level of familiarity and trust. As more people interact, the workplace community becomes more valuable.
However, in today’s world, when people are not always in the same room (or country), creating relationships can be tricky. So, organizations need to work harder to make relationships a priority. It’s important to set aside time for people to just be people—to get to know each other on a human level:
When it comes to innovation, being together is invigorating. Of course, there are brainstorm meetings and strategy sessions, but often eureka moments happen during casual encounters with colleagues at lunch after the meeting. Whether you’re in-person or thousands of miles apart, make time between meetings to just chat.
Based on 55 responses
Small businesses and startups are often great at community. They have a committed and close-knit group of employees that “feel like a family.” But as organizations grow, community becomes harder to maintain. It’s difficult to be close-knit with 10,000 people dispersed around the world.
For large organizations, it’s often easier to build micro-communities of people who work closely together—then combine them.5 To forge a company-wide community, the organization needs to create opportunities for two or more established micro-communities (or their representatives) to work together—creating a web of community that stretches throughout the organization. In the best-case scenario, community ties extend to the organization’s customers, partners, and the greater community the company serves.
Turn jobs into vocations.
We all spend about a third of our lives at work. So, it’s important for work to be engaging—fulfilling, interesting, meaningful, and full of growth opportunities. Unfortunately, only 35 percent of employees in the U.S. feel engaged at work.6 Organizations need to do better. Increasing engagement is vital to retaining talent. Here’s how to get started.
It’s important to remember there’s a difference between people who are comfortable at work and people who are really immersed in their job. Ideally, your employees have both:
Although every employee has different priorities, there are several surefire ways to attract today’s talent and keep them committed to your organization. For example:
People do their best work when the organization has their best interests in mind. Giving your talent “a say” in their (current and future) work will lead to a more committed and engaged workplace community.
Salo’s 2021 Talent Trend Watch survey4 found: Employees report personal job satisfaction is the number-three thing they look for when searching for a new job (after compensation/benefits and work/life balance—which are both aspects of job satisfaction). But once they’re on the job:
Finally, engagement is more than something you measure once a year with a survey. Creating a truly engaged work environment requires continuous dedication and collaboration between supervisors, employees, and organizational leaders. Fortunately, focusing on engagement is another way to increase engagement, so it’s all time well spent.
Based on 55 responses
Inspire people to do their best work
Create confidence in the future.
Optimism is defined as “expecting positive outcomes.” In the workplace, optimism comes from having consistently positive experiences—such as enjoying working with your colleagues, doing rewarding work, or even having respectful (and productive) conflict.
However, workplace optimism doesn’t just happen, it requires active participation. Sometimes that’s going the extra mile to make someone’s day easier or coming prepared to a meeting. Other times, that’s giving coworkers the benefit of the doubt. Regardless, “looking on the bright side” is a cultural behavior that needs to be modeled by leaders and cultivated across the organization through training and practice.
Finally, at its core, optimism is confidence. When people have empowerment and vision, they feel confident about the organization’s future and their place in it. They expect good things to happen because they make them happen.
Increase creativity, productivity, and faith in humanity.
Putting people in the center of the work means fostering a workplace community where everyone feels empowered to help realize the organization’s shared vision.
There are many types of diversity in an organization, and they all play a role in helping the company thrive. Research shows that high-performing teams are demographically and cognitively diverse.8 Demographic diversity includes factors such as race, sexual orientation, and age. Cognitive diversity refers to diversity factors like education, past experiences, and types of mental frameworks people use to solve problems.
When all of this diversity is combined with inclusive business practices—businesses and their employees reap the benefits.
Appreciate and motivate.
Everyone likes to be praised once in a while, but did you know recognition is a workplace superpower? When people feel valued, they do their most valuable work.
Studies show 74 percent of those who say they receive praise also strongly agree that they “have the feeling that what [they are] doing at work is valuable and useful.”9 And, on the flip side, 79 percent of people who quit their jobs say “lack of appreciation” is why they left.10
Luckily, recognition is also inexpensive and fairly easy to implement.
When people get (and give) honest and authentic recognition from members of their workplace, they become more engaged with their work community and the job they do.
Make people feel accepted and respected.
People need to feel safe to be engaged in their work and empowered to make choices. Psychological safety—the belief that you can speak up, make reasonable mistakes, and bring your true self to work without negative consequences—has always been important. But today, as organizations try out different ways to work together—such as work from anywhere or fractional consulting—it’s paramount.
According to The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation, people experience four levels of psychological safety:
To make people feel safe—at any stage—organizations need to make safety a clear priority.
Organizations need to create space for new ideas, encourage people to speak up, and openly discuss how failure is handled. Only then, will people truly reach their full potential.
At Salo, our purpose is to build a world that works better together.
As a nationwide talent firm, we have a unique insight into the business challenges our clients face each year. This model is based on knowledge collected during our nearly 20 years in the talent industry.
In today’s market, talent is an organization’s biggest competitive advantage, the not-so-secret weapon, and the scarcest resource. We hope this model—with its focus on putting people first—will help your organization attract (and retain) top talent, achieve your vision, and fulfill your purpose.
Salo’s can help your organization become a people-first workplace. Our consultants can work with you to:
At Salo, when we match an expert in finance, accounting, and HR with an organization that needs their help—we propel both forward. We call these interactions “Meaningful Experiences™.” With every interaction or engagement, it’s our goal to Make it Meaningful™.
Our services solve business challenges and make a difference—simultaneously. We help organizations get the get the interim or project-based help they need. And we empower talented professionals by helping them build impactful consulting careers that allow them to lead fulfilling and purposeful lives.
1. Achievers.com; Employee Empowerment: Definition, Benefits, and Factors
2. McKinsey; More than a mission statement: How the 5Ps of purpose deliver value
3. Smarp; Empowerment in the workplace
4. Salo; Talent Trend Watch Survey 2021 (see below)
5. Peter Block, Community: The Structure of Belonging
6. Gallup; What is employee engagement and how do you improve it?
7. Gallup; Managers account for 70% of variance in employee engagement
8. Deloitte; The diversity and inclusion revolution: Eight powerful truths
9. Gallup; Add praise to your employee recognition toolkit
10. OC Tanner; Performance Accelerated (pdf)
This survey, conducted with 2,194 professionals nationwide, provides insights on how the employer-employee relationship is changing in real time—driven by employers, employees, and world events. The results presented in this report were weighted to be representative of the overall population. Of respondents:
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