Building an Employee-First Culture

The climate for employee engagement has changed little over the last few years. Unemployment remains low (3.8 percent) and job opportunities and openings remain high, creating an environment where the needs of employees and their expectations drive workplace policies and practices. HR leaders and company executives are responding to the realities of today’s hiring environment by reimagining their workplace policies and looking for more ways to create highly engaging places to work. While strategies and initiatives are abundant, HR leaders have to be very careful to make certain they can follow through on new engagement strategies designed to retain today’s talent—and tomorrow’s.

HR leaders are responding to the realities of today’s hiring environment by reimagining their workplace policies & looking for more ways to create highly engaging places to work. John Taylor @RiseSmart

The cost of replacing talent is abundantly clear to organizations feeling the consequences of workplaces that still don’t offer enough growth opportunities or aren’t focused on employee satisfaction. In response, HR leaders are exploring a variety of strategies to improve retention and build employee-first cultures.

In the last few years, the world of employee engagement has revolved around three main themes:

  • Work flexibility
  • Opportunities for growth and development
  • Work/life balance

Even if one or more of these elements is in place at your organization, the challenge has been to find the right mix and the best tactics to deliver on these promises to employees. Beyond deciding how much leverage to apply to each of these top three buckets, HR leaders should start asking what other offerings will help maximize their retention and attraction efforts. Not only must new initiatives attract new employees, they must also retain those individuals with the promise to lead the organization into the future.

Related content: 6 Guidelines to Implement a Successful Flexible Workplace Culture

Providing flexible work schedules to accommodate each employee’s personal life constraints is one benefit organizations are offering as part of a shift to an employee-first culture. Here are a few others:

Work-life balance initiatives

Four-day work weeks:

Some companies are experimenting with four-day work weeks. A four-day work week gives employees an opportunity to have one more day during the week to themselves, at least theoretically. The concept behind a four-day work week is that when employees are present, they are more engaged, more productive, and more creative because they have had the time they need to relax and recharge.

Even during a 5-day work week, some employees still spend personal time on work projects. Giving people a bit more time on the personal side allows for occasionally working on the weekend while still providing time for rest and rejuvenation.

Unlimited PTO:

While unlimited PTO may sound like an amazing perk, there has been a backlash and somewhat of a negative reaction to the policy as employees don’t use the time they are given. In fact, because people typically look for guard rails—parameters by which to operate within—the vague nature of unlimited PTO results in people taking less time than they would under a more prescriptive PTO program.

In work environments where unlimited PTO is a benefit, people are reluctant to take more time off than their peers for fear of being perceived as a laggard. As people look to others to model time off, no one actually does. While this may seem a boom to organizations looking for greater productivity—the reality is often the opposite. Taking vacations and time away from work has been proven time and time again to improve productivity and creativity. And while companies with unlimited PTO no longer have to pay out unused vacation time at the end of an employee’s tenure, they are losing that much, or more, through burn-out and turnover.

5 Pros and Cons of Unlimited PTO for Employers and Employees

If work/life balance is a value at your organization, the reality of providing balance needs to be grounded in real world parameters. Instead of empty platitudes, decide how work/life balance is actually realized by your employees.

Growth and development initiatives

In an effort to check the “opportunities for growth” box, many companies are putting some sort of career development and learning program into place that may or may not reflect their employees’ opinions about what is valuable. HR leaders and the companies they serve are frustrated at the lack of alignment between the types of growth they want within their organizations and what employees want in terms of learning and development. In places where those two things are aligned, companies are reaping the benefits of greater employee engagement, increased productivity, easier recruiting, and better retention.

Many companies are putting some sort of career development and learning program into place that may or may not reflect their employees’ opinions about what is valuable. John Taylor @RiseSmart


It is human nature to want to help others and, at times, receive help from others. Mentorship programs are an efficient way to fulfill that need while providing opportunities for cross-department collaboration, employee growth, and improved satisfaction. Mentorship is not an initiative that will take hold as an ad hoc system of people partnering with others in the organization on their own. If companies are serious about establishing effective mentoring programs, HR leaders need to take a step back to do some planning. An integral part of a sustainable plan will include processes for training and establishing a climate where people are given the time—not on top of their current workload—to allow mentoring to be a meaningful experience for both the mentor and the mentee.

Related content: How Have Social Contracts Between Employer and Employees Changed?


While most companies do provide some paid time off to volunteer, rarely is that advertised or deployed effectively. In some cases, employees may actually feel unspoken pressure to not take the time in fear of impacting their work goals and deliverables deadlines. When organizations embrace volunteerism and encourage employees to work together outside of the office for the greater good, something magical happens.

Volunteering gives people a chance to feel good about themselves and experience pride in a company that allows—and even encourages—giving back. A robust volunteer program allows employees to work together in teams with people outside of their own siloed departments, provides an avenue to build self-esteem, and creates a positive image of the company in the greater community.

Here today, gone tomorrow

Most companies are good at rolling out initiatives. The challenge and the point to power comes after the hype of the rollout has passed and the heavy lifting of sustaining programs begins. Executives and managers love the next best thing. Organizations aren’t as good at creating momentum after the initial excitement and adoption of a new employee initiative has passed. HR trends tend to come in go in cycles of idea, adoption, and then slow decline. A few years ago, Employee of the Month programs were in fashion. They were rolled out with lots of fanfare. Most of those have now fallen by the wayside because the routine of naming someone new every month and finding a way to celebrate the moment became repetitive and less meaningful over time.

Avoid the here today, gone tomorrow cycle of employee engagement initiatives by planning for program maintenance and refreshes. If you know in advance that the next big thing will come along to take everyone’s attention off the existing programs, plan to relaunch them or breathe life into them by making modifications and improvements to existing programs every six months.

Initiatives from the top

The success or failure of any endeavor begins with changing how things have always been done. If the HR department creates a mentoring program, but some managers refuse to lighten the load of regular work, the initiative will quickly die as people discover they must work on the weekends in order to help someone else. The personal sacrifice may just not be worth. it. The same can be said for any employee engagement or learning and development program at any company in any industry.

A management mindset shift is the only way new programs and new ways of looking at the workforce can take hold. While some managers may be eager for the changes suggested by the HR strategists, others will be hold outs for the old, top-down, micromanagement style of work. The only way out of this cycle of misfires is to establish proper deployment and accountability for every manager and supervisor in your organization.

Accountability, compliance, and behavioral changes to make room for the new initiatives must be enforced evenly and regularly from the top executives. Managers who lead by example by taking advantage of volunteering opportunities and encouraging their teams to join them may receive some reward or recognition. Those managers who don’t make room for employees to easily participate in a mentoring program may need additional training or even consequences for not meeting the company goals for greater interaction between siloed departments.

Companies unable to properly deploy initiatives into the ranks of their managers and supervisors will fail, and may possibly be worse off as some employees are given the leeway to take advantage of opportunities and some are not. Planning, measurement, and accountability are the keys to actually changing the culture and demonstrating an “employee-first” mindset that results in meeting retention and recruitment goals.

11 April 2019

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