Time to scrap engagement tools and pave the way for ‘real change’, workplace culture expert says

Carol Ring workplace culture

At a time when workplace culture is becoming more vital than ever, one industry veteran says leaders need to focus on “transformative change” — and engagement tools and fun perks just aren’t cutting it.

Carol Ring, CEO, executive coach and management consultant at Ottawa-based The Culture Connection, got her start at Rogers Communications, where she began as a general manager before “climbing the corporate ladder.” 

Ring then served as the regional president of Ottawa operations before relocating to become president of the firm’s operations in the Greater Toronto Area and then working both in business transformation and strategic initiatives.

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“That’s when I realized, all I care about is the people part of things,” explained Ring. “I asked, ‘What is it I’m doing?’, and I realized it’s all about getting the culture right.

“I felt I could make a bigger impact if I could go out and serve many companies instead of staying within one.”

In 2012, Ring started out on a new path to work for herself and offer cohesive coaching and consulting to mid-market companies.

“I’ve been at Rogers and seen the good, the bad and the ugly, and I’m not going to live long enough to turn something around like that,” she laughed. “I much prefer the mid-market area, where you can see the change and transformation happen.”

“I know what it’s like to be in the C-suite. I know what it’s like to climb the ladder, so I’ve actually experienced it,” Ring added. “I don’t come from the point of theory.”

But since then, the world of workplace culture and employee engagement has evolved drastically, and she says approaches that might have been helpful in the past aren’t doing the trick anymore. 

When leaders first began to understand the value of workplace culture, and the importance of an engaged workforce, tools like Gallup polls or online surveys were an easy way to keep employees’ attention. But now, Ring says engagement strategies aren’t treating the source of the problem.

“Engagement is a symptom of what’s going on. It’s the surface … You look at these stats about employee engagement, and people have been quiet quitting for decades; someone actually just put a new name on it,” she said. “But when you’re looking at employee engagement work and trying to move the needle, is it really making a difference? 

“The answer is usually, ‘No, it’s not,’” Ring continued. “So, let’s go deeper and show them a values-based tool for how they can have much richer conversations.”

In some cases, Ring said companies have been struggling with growth, and after focusing on a customer-first approach or process re-engineering, their growth is “stagnating”. That’s when it’s time to consider culture.

Ring’s work involves an in-depth culture assessment to ensure not only that companies have a clear culture, but “that it’s the right one for success,” she said. 

Many businesses, for example, use buzzwords like “innovation” or “teamwork”, painted on walls or written on “About Us” website pages, to describe themselves, said Ring. But more often than not, she said, these words are used “aspirationally”.

Others don’t consider that work culture includes physical work setting, she explained. For people working from home with limited resources, their struggles or challenges with establishing a workspace are a part of work culture. This can also be an issue in brick-and-mortar workplaces, she said, and it is often overlooked.

“Is the paint peeling off the wall? Is the security so tight that you can’t go to the washroom without swiping six times to get there?” she said. “How does that physical environment reflect the type of company culture you’re trying to do?”

To that effect, companies should consider the digital experience that they’re providing, Ring continued. Perhaps onboarding packages are all digital and text-driven, with modules and recurring quizzes. This is another possible weakness in the workplace culture. 

Inconsistent policies and processes also have an impact, Ring explained. For example, in a call centre organization, a reward and recognition system might actually be operating in contrast to the stated culture. 

“We might say we want customer-first orientation, but we reward employees based on average handle time. It’s not in sync,” she said. “So an employee says, ‘I’m not working on customer satisfaction, I’m just going to make sure I’m off within two minutes and 20 seconds.’”

Similarly, companies should be sure their language and policies reflect their perceived or intended culture. 

“You can say, ‘We’re a family-oriented company,’ but every policy starts with ‘you must’. ‘You must file an expense report before the end of the month,’ or ‘you must show up in the uniform,’ Ring explained. “Excuse me, family? Sounds like an angry parent talking to children.”

In any situation, work culture is complicated and layered, Ring said, and requires more updated and advanced tools and approaches than it used to. 

“There’s a lot that goes into play underneath this, and those engagement surveys don’t help us surface those as well.”

But Ring says she’s “not in the business of educating people on why culture is important”; leaders have to know the value of work culture and want to change it, she says, in order for her to help.

“The best leaders, the ones I like to work with the most, are the ones that understand already that the people are key to their organization. Not that I’ve worked with Ross Video, but David Ross is an excellent example of that. (Kevin) Ford over at Calian, too,” said Ring. “Those are people who get it. 

“They get that it’s important to manage their culture,” she explained. “You start with culture, and you build around that.”

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