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What should people and culture teams really focus on?

By Shandel McAuliffe | |7 minute read
What should people and culture teams really focus on?

Should people and culture (P&C) functions focus on wellbeing, work-life balance, inclusion, diversity, equality, positive work environments, belonging, flexible work arrangements or all of the above?

I believe P&C execs have too many current priorities. It’s time to simplify. After all, research shows there’s one key requirement for happy teams.

Unlike ever before in my working life, we are talking about employee experience and workplace culture.


Businesses are thinking long-term about workforces and the nature of employment, putting in place changes that will help sustain organisations through uncertain times and into the future.

As we settle into a “new normal”, organisations are being told they need to consider flexible working, positive work environments, work-life balance, inclusion, diversity, equality, wellness, wellbeing, belonging and a sense of purpose.

To be honest, I feel for the P&C execs who are managing all this. In an attempt to support your people amid changing expectations and an uncertain economy, you must feel overwhelmed.

Are there too many priorities? I think so. Remember, caring for the human condition at work is a relatively new space for many. So, let’s keep it simple.

Let’s start with a question: what’s the end goal or ideal for our people?

I’d suggest we all want our colleagues to be happy and productive.

So, how does that happen?

We know people need to be emotionally, physically, and mentally safe and well. We also know they need a sense of meaning.

We’re all familiar with “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs”.

While this is still relevant, I’d suggest it needs to evolve to reflect the cultural priorities of organisations today, shifting from the individual to the collective.

Today, I believe organisational culture needs to address the following needs:

  • wellbeing (at the top of the pyramid);
  • connection; and
  • meaning (forming the base of the pyramid).

In this model, wellbeing is the ultimate goal, defined in terms of intellectual, occupational, social, physical, mental, environmental, spiritual and financial wellbeing.

There are many ways to manage wellbeing and to encourage this within your organisation. Most topical is flexible working, driven by our increased need for work-life balance, life-work balance, or even just “life” balance.

Research shows that Millennials, Gen X and Baby Boomers all rank flexible working as their number one benefit.

The importance of connection

To really bolster wellbeing, let’s shift the conversation to the nature of relationships at work. Connection, belonging and inclusion all contribute to our social wellbeing and also our ability to work effectively. These factors also impact our mental, occupational, and financial wellbeing.

While it is difficult to connect with people remotely, we know it’s not impossible – ask any Gen Z.

By elevating the conversation, perhaps the new normal is workplaces that foster all aspects of wellbeing and are built on a genuine sense of connection.

With this in place, high performance, productivity, adaptability and innovation will be second nature or, ideally, the new-new normal.

Ultimately, I’m suggesting our need for connection is more important than our need for meaning at work.

This is based on the Harvard Study of Adult Development, “one of the world’s longest studies of adult life”.

The study began in 1938 and followed subjects for 80 years. It found social connection and relationships to be the single greatest predictor of health and happiness throughout life.

The study summarised, “good genes are nice, but joy is better”.

The findings are backed up by Brookings (2020): “Our analysis shows that that relatedness, which is about relationships at work, is the most important determinant of work meaningfulness.”

Additionally, this is supported by increasing data that links isolation and loneliness with risk of chronic illness, substance abuse, as well as physical and mental health problems.

Purpose is still important and meaning matters now more than ever

Because of COVID-19, meaning has been elevated for many. In the same way the pandemic brought about a focus on our relationships and sense of connection, it also amplified the focus on purpose.

In the US, almost two-thirds of employees surveyed revealed that they’ve rethought their life purpose because of COVID-19, according to McKinsey research.

Instead of trying to tick every box on the P&C to-do list, pare it back. Keep it simple and focus on wellbeing, connection, and purpose. By prioritising these three areas, you’ll soon see a difference in the performance and output of your teams.

Claire Gallagher is the employer brand director at Principals.



Your organization's culture determines its personality and character. The combination of your formal and informal procedures, attitudes, and beliefs results in the experience that both your workers and consumers have. Company culture is fundamentally the way things are done at work.

Shandel McAuliffe

Shandel McAuliffe

Shandel has recently returned to Australia after working in the UK for eight years. Shandel's experience in the UK included over three years at the CIPD in their marketing, marcomms and events teams, followed by two plus years with The Adecco Group UK&I in marketing, PR, internal comms and project management. Cementing Shandel's experience in the HR industry, she was the head of content for Cezanne HR, a full-lifecycle HR software solution, for the two years prior to her return to Australia.

Shandel has previous experience as a copy writer, proofreader and copy editor, and a keen interest in HR, leadership and psychology. She's excited to be at the helm of HR Leader as its editor, bringing new and innovative ideas to the publication's audience, drawing on her time overseas and learning from experts closer to home in Australia.

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