At Elabor8, we promise ‘the freedom to move’, and that doesn’t just apply to our customers. We want our people to also feel they can do the same.
As professional coaches and advisors, each of our Elabor8ers is responsible for uplifting, and inspiring change in others, and that’s very powerful. It’s important to us that we give our people everything they need so that they are able to work to their full potential. This means, giving people the freedom and autonomy to experiment when solving problems, opportunities to try new things, but also providing proactive support when needed.
We’re a consulting company, first and foremost we see ourselves in the ‘people business’ — we know through the work we do every day, the undeniable value of human interactions and that it’s people that make the difference. While we’re committed to our journey to constantly improve and enhance the experiences of our employees, we’re always refining what a human-first culture means to us.
We’ve asked Elabor8’s new Head of People and Culture, Elizabeth Cameron, who has spent over 18 years uplifting employee experiences, to share her most vital learnings from leading and living human-first cultures, that may help on your own journey…
What does a “human-first” work culture look like?
As people, we come to work as our whole selves. Our lives are lived, and our work occurs, in an increasingly volatile, complex, uncertain and ambiguous world. As a result, we all, as individuals and as a collective, have a multitude of competing pressures and priorities. At work we need our basic human needs met and experiences that facilitate our higher-order needs and wants, such as for personal growth, autonomy and self-directed action, mastery of craft, and the achievement of meaning and purpose.
However, human-first cultures are more than just about meeting a sense of job satisfaction and offering flexibility between work and personal life.
A human-first culture endeavours to meet our individual needs as people, including who we are outside of work, in order to encourage the creativity, ingenuity and deep thinking that human beings bring to solving real life customer problems. This differs to how many companies traditionally (explicitly or implicitly) create structures or cultures that can make us feel that we need to leave the person who we are at home. We’re all human and we all bring – or should bring – 100% of ourselves to work. ‘Culture’ is merely a word we use to holistically describe ways of working, institutional ways of doing, environmental factors and interpersonal relationships and history.
As humanity is central to the idea this type of culture also pervades the way the organisation does business, it’s work arrangements and even location, how it solves problems and serves its customers. People and their experiences are the guiding light or north star in the company’s approach to everything.
How do employers create a “human-first” work culture?
Not all organisations aim for a human-first culture. For some it has become a fad, veneer or marketing tool, not underpinned by heart-felt values, beliefs, attitudes, and ultimately action. A human-first culture is never set, it is fluid representing the constant change in ourselves, nature of work and our environments. What is constant and unchanging is the relentless pursuit of continuous improvement in employment experiences, that requires constant focus, re-imaging, involvement and co-creation across the entire organisation.
From a practical perspective, in developing policy, procedure, initiatives and ways of working – there needs to be a focus on people over process with the flexibility to accommodate as many varying needs as possible, while still keeping an eye on the sustainability, regulatory and operational needs of the business. It’s a balancing act, but the key is to genuinely listen to people and place them first in the shared organisational mindset.
You recently spent the better part of a year heading up People and Culture for the International Women’s Development Agency (IWDA). What learning did you take away and how can it be applied to human-first cultures?
My time at the IWDA really vindicated my belief in the power of meaning and purpose. It was an amazing opportunity to support a brilliant team of women who genuinely make a difference in the world through their development endeavours in the Asia-Pacific. It showed me that we need to follow people or human-first principles of flexibility and co-creation to support gender diversity and inclusivity. Women have unique needs at different stages of life – including parental leave, return to work, illness, learning and development access and career management – and we need to continually improve policies and practices to support everyone.
After having worked in so many different environments, what are some of the things you have seen change in the way companies approach work culture?
I’ve seen many changes in the last 18 years – people (and groups of people) are amazingly complex creatures. Our very nature requires constant reassessment of our philosophy, and increasing focus on a holistic life-cycle of experiences to meet ever changing individual and group preferences. Probably the biggest change is that corporations are starting to let go of the idea that culture is static, and they can control or change culture.
I’ve come across many of these so-called “culture change” programs within companies that are essentially top-down attempts to force change. It’s particularly sad because these leadership behaviours are often intractable and achieve exactly the opposite of what they’re meant to – they’re a recipe for failure. For instance, one company believed that spending money on perks and benefits would give them the culture they desired. Getting the basics right, will impact culture far more than “frills and icing” elements (e.g. ping pong and video games), which are so often employed by companies to cover over issues or divert from uncomfortable truths in the work environment. I believe culture can be influenced, but only when it comes from engaging people on a personal level, so it gets buy-in and co-creation from people and teams. Organisations are starting to understand this and are moving to more transformational, intent-based and co-created approaches to change.
Does that mean employee perks should be avoided altogether?
The benefits space needs far more strategic thought and genuine alignment to values than the profession is currently devoting. It’s what I like to call the “benefits race”. Companies, especially in the tech space, are under pressure to attract talent and often enter a furious competition to provide their people with as many of the latest cool perks possible. But in the rush to keep up with the Joneses, they often undermine their value for employees. For example, sleeping pods, free meals and social activities may look attractive but they can be a thinly veiled motive for keeping people at work and productive for longer, regardless of the impact on their personal lives. Also, perks are often provided through a faceless corporate engine, completely missing the value of interaction between people and sincere thanks and recognition. This is not aligned with a human-first culture at all and it can be quite the opposite.