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Depending where you are in Canada, you may be thinking about the inevitable: the return to work outside the home. Some of us are really looking forward to it, but many are wondering what they will be going back to – and I am not talking about the physical workspace.

Whether employers like it or not, employees will be returning to a different culture than the one they left pre-pandemic. Basically, whatever culture they left is over, hard stop, no matter how progressive or traditional it was before.

Most culture changes are evolutionary, unless a bombshell like the pandemic occurs. Almost overnight, most white-collar jobs went from the regular office routine to working from home on video, frequently with the kids and pets around and everything closed. The pandemic has brought the single biggest change to the way we do work since the introduction of desktop computers, and it will shape aspects of culture for years to come.

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Culture is the personality of an organization. It is the character of the employees: understanding their wants and needs in order for them to be engaged, focused, and therefore productive. Ultimately, it leverages people energy to execute on strategy. Over the last year, technology has been able to connect us around the daily aspects of our work, but it has limits in building culture when compared to the way culture is built in-person, through moments of more direct and personal engagement.

When we finally get back to the office, how do we encourage engagement in shaping the new culture?

First, reconsider the townhall and other all employee gatherings for information spreading. Most times, the most engaging part of a townhall is the free food. Although they bring people together, the messaging is too often one-way, and gathering hundreds of employees at once is not a good structure for conversation. Informing is not understanding or connecting. Instead, engaging is the key to generating understanding. I remember giving feedback to a president after a townhall, bringing to his attention that he spoke at a language level that many in the audience did not understand. His response to me was that it is more important that they just heard it, rather than understand it. Sadly, all that it accomplished was a “Blah, blah, blah” waste of time.

If you’re a leader who cares about culture (and all leaders should) start using listening circles to get a baseline on your company culture and draw on the wisdom of your people. If you’re unfamiliar with the process, these are smaller groups of 10 or so employees who come together to address a limited series of topical questions. The circle is led by a facilitator rather than the leader, whose role is to listen to what is being said. When done online, the leader turns off their camera, but is able to see and hear the engagement between the listening circle members. In person, they sit within earshot but not as part of the circle.

The results are almost always enlightening for the leader, generating ideas on how to better engage and understand what needs to be improved to build the culture they intend. Because the listening circles are usually constructed around groups of peers at the same organizational level, there is no threat of hierarchy, and leaders don’t dominate the discussion with prepared messages, or try to fill in awkward silences. This provides the very necessary level of psychological safety for your people to be open about what is good, bad or downright ugly about your current culture, and how parts of that can be fixed. Be clear that it’s not a gripe session: it’s a respectful and forward-looking conversation about how to be intentional in building the culture you need to execute the company’s strategy.

Related to this, leaders need to find ways to check in frequently about engagement, by actually engaging. Instead of a big annual engagement survey, consider probing specific aspects of your culture journey by using smaller, more frequent surveys that are tied to a specific action. For example, if you’ve just adjusted your approach to flex time, don’t wait several months to ask what people think: ask the question sooner, and request feedback. This might also be done better as a series of leader conversations with their teams, where there tends to be a higher level of trust based on day-to-day interactions.

When we get back together in person, use it as an opportunity to engage employees by empowering them to shape the company’s culture: not from what they left in 2020, but where they are now and building on that.

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Eileen Dooley is a talent and leadership development specialist, and a leadership coach, based in Calgary Alberta

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