The Importance of
Being a People-First Company
“I mailed a potato.”
At the start of the status meeting that our company holds each Monday morning, inquiring about what our colleagues did over the weekend is an inevitable topic. So, one Monday morning last July, announcing the safe arrival of a potato in my friend’s mailbox was my answer.
Did you know you can bring a hand-addressed potato to the post office, pay for the postage at the counter and ship it? No box, no envelope, just a potato in its straight-from-the-farm glory.
A little backstory…
My closest college friends and I have a group chat that we use to catch up, share life updates, or react to funny memes. One friend sent a video of someone proclaiming that you can mail a potato through the United States Postal Service and offhandedly suggested that I should try it. Not one to back away from a ridiculous challenge like that, I laughed and was on a mission.
After a potato was purchased from the local grocery store (specifically one with a flat surface), I grabbed a Sharpie to write my friend’s address on it, drove to the post office, and confidently walked in. After trying unsuccessfully to ship via the automated kiosk, I headed to the counter and put the potato on the scale. To no one’s surprise, the postal worker was caught off-guard by my request, but once we confirmed that it wasn’t against any rules to ship a starchy vegetable in-the-raw, we started the process.
While I was able to confirm that the item being mailed was not fragile, liquid, or potentially hazardous, I couldn’t deny that it was perishable (but not for at least a few weeks!). Once we got through those formalities, the postal worker added the postage stamps indicating I had paid $6 and handed me a receipt with the potato’s tracking number. And I left the post office with a little extra pep in my step.
Why was I comfortable sharing this story in a company status meeting? And why is that same company subsequently allowing it to live in perpetuity in the form of a blog post on our website? Because the leadership team at Local Wisdom recognizes the value that comes from allowing our staff members to be themselves.
Now let’s get back on track…
A few months ago, our team published a blog post about the “ROI on Employee Recognition.” (Note: you can read it here!) With Employee Appreciation Day taking place earlier this month, it’s the perfect time to expand on the wisdom in that post by diving into why it is so important for companies to be people-first organizations.
This seems silly to need to say, but every employee at your company is a human. Before they were a web developer, a salesperson, a food service worker, or even a student, they were a person. (And they still are!) Yet, too often, that fundamental truth is brushed to the side or forgotten entirely when it comes to business in favor of KPIs, profit margins, and arbitrary deadlines.
How can you promote individualism and make people more comfortable being themselves at work?
First off, we know that some people set very clear boundaries to keep work and personal matters entirely independent of one another. This approach can stem from a variety of reasons, and no matter the rationale, everyone should accept and respect those boundaries.
For those on your team who do not have that boundary set, how can your company demonstrate your workplace to be one that is safe for them to share a funny thing that happened over the weekend (like mailing a potato!) or that they may seem a little “off” this week because they’re concerned about something at home (while of course, never expecting them to disclose more than they’re comfortable sharing)?
In a traditional office, this can happen organically with people stopping by one another’s desks throughout the day or chatting on a walk from one part of the building to another. However, in a time when many people are working in a remote or hybrid setting, establishing this kind of environment can be tricky. For fully remote offices, much of the time a person spends interacting with their co-workers falls within meetings with a set structure and agenda. For those employees, gone are the days of water cooler talk and catching up with colleagues in the kitchen.
In these cases, sometimes it can take a few team members to proactively start demonstrating the kind of behavior and comfortability they hope to inspire in others. Whether through off-topic banter at the start of meetings or offering a monthly virtual happy hour to any colleagues who would like to join and see where the conversations take them, there are ways to show your team that your workplace is one that welcomes people showing their true personalities.
At Local Wisdom, we love spending our days with people who take their work seriously, but themselves, not so much! Encouraging a fun-loving environment allows for free-flowing collaboration and a more open avenue for camaraderie and friendship. Letting people be themselves means you can find out your colleagues’ hobbies and interests and discover commonalities. Plus, projects and workdays go by much more quickly when working with friends.
“We look at numbers, but numbers don’t always indicate feelings.”
People are the reason that any successful company can continue to run efficiently and continuously improve. It’s fair to say that the vast majority of people perform the best when they are rested and feeling mentally sharp. Therefore, it’s important to keep a pulse on your employees’ status and workloads.
Our CEO, Pinaki Kathiari, regularly reminds us all to let someone on our leadership team know if they are feeling overwhelmed. As an agency, a large contingent of our employees routinely track their hours. But as Pinaki says, “we look at numbers, but numbers don’t always indicate feelings.” Recently, he ended one of our aforementioned status meetings by communicating to our staff, “please, please, please raise your hand if you need help with anything. No one should feel alone here.”
It is also important to remember that every one of your employees is a person who has needs and responsibilities unrelated to work that sometimes need to be handled during work hours. So don’t make people feel guilty about a midday appointment with their doctor or attending their child’s band concert.
Show trust and allow for flexibility.
You hired your employees for a reason. Throughout their interview process, they explained their capabilities, sent examples of prior work, and provided a list of references who raved about their qualifications and work ethic. Trust the decision you made and trust your employee unless they show they need a greater level of supervision. Allowing them to own their work responsibilities without micromanaging them indicates that you believe in them.
Cultivating a workplace that provides employees the opportunity to work in the ways that are best for them can also boost productivity. Some people work best focusing for short periods of time, then taking mental breaks and extending their time by working outside of traditional office hours. Others want to power through the day and stay within the 9-5 boundary. As long as work is getting done and all internal and external stakeholders feel that their needs are being met, it can be argued that letting people operate in whatever way works best for them is best for the company.
Allowing your team to have the benefit of flexibility paves the way for:
- Enhanced creativity, as people are allowed to work when they feel most inspired
- Improved retention by permitting off-hours work for those who have responsibilities in their personal lives that can make working during traditional business hours complicated
- Increased morale by demonstrating that you care for employees as individuals on a personal level
It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.
One of the biggest keys to making anyone comfortable being themselves is to make them feel understood and valued. Of course, this appreciation doesn’t always have to come at the end of a successful venture, either. Sometimes offering support and an encouraging word during stressful times can be what really helps someone get through.
Pinaki recently joined Amanda Berry on the Simpplr Cohesion podcast to discuss a number of internal communications topics. As part of that conversation, Pinaki stated, “If people don’t know how they’re making a difference, they lose sight of why they’re here. At our monthly team get-togethers, we take time – literally as long as it takes – to thank each other for specific things that we’ve done for one other throughout the month, and we call it ‘kudos.’ It’s important for us to take the time to acknowledge specifically why we’re grateful for each other. It warms us all, I think. If you want to get psychological about it, it fosters positive behavior through repetitive reinforcement. It becomes a habit.”
On the flip side, once an employer makes its people feel like they are less-than-human, whether through words, actions, or both, the company has lost the employee.
Think about a time you’ve been asked to design a comprehensive plan to accomplish a business goal. Assume you’ve put a lot of time and thought into what you’ll present. Now envision how you would feel if you were met with a blank stare, a resistant attitude, or negative feedback when it came time to share your ideas with your supervisor. You’d likely leave that meeting feeling dejected and unappreciated.
Now put yourself in that same scenario, except change your supervisor’s reaction. Instead of being dismissive of your efforts, they offer constructive feedback and a brainstorming session. You may not have hit the mark perfectly in your own go-around, but your boss sees potential in what you brought to the table and is now helping to redirect and make it even better. You walk out of their office knowing that you’ve contributed in a meaningful way.
It all goes back to a lesson many of us likely heard growing up: it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.
The way you treat your colleagues can have an incredible impact on business outcomes. The difference in a supervisor’s reaction between, “I think you have the foundation of a really strong outline here, let’s work together on further solidifying our path to reaching these three goals!” and “You had two weeks to create a strategic plan, and that’s what you came up with?” is immeasurable. The employee receiving constructive feedback will feel like they have positively contributed, while the one being criticized will wonder why they should bother putting effort into future assignments if their leader is going to degrade them.
When you have employees who present creative ideas or offer up alternative approaches in hopes of finding a solution, listen to what they have to say and consider their feedback. It won’t take long for a person who isn’t being heard to shut down and become more mechanical. You’ll notice them starting to run on “auto-pilot.” They’ll still take care of their work, but it will be the bare minimum. And you can forget them trying to devise ways to improve the company because you’ve shown them you don’t care about what they have to say. We saw this in action with the sweeping “quiet quitting” trend that filled much of 2022.
Now let’s recap. How can you best ensure your company is people-first?
- Encourage individualism and provide an avenue for people to be themselves
- Conscientiously monitor your staff’s mindsets and workloads
- Show trust in your employees to get their work done unless they give you a reason to believe they won’t, and provide guidance to spark improvement for those who need it
- Present difficult feedback through constructive criticism, not negative language
- And most importantly, treat people like people!
It’s been eight months since I mailed a potato across state lines, and that story is still coming up in conversations with co-workers. Some have wanted details on how to ship something like this themselves, while others bring it up as a comedic moment that got their week started on the right foot. Coincidentally, the potato even got a mention in my end-of-year performance review, referencing the joy that the story provided to colleagues.
Fostering an environment that allows people to be themselves and share stories – no matter how ridiculous! – is part of what can make a workplace culture great and is key to showing that your company is truly people-first.