Studying and Improving Workplace Culture at a Non-Profit Organization

Smiling Mattias poses outside of an Emergency Centre entrance wearing an Alberta Help Services volunteer badge.

By Mattias Neset

What did your Stretch Experience involve?

In my Stretch Experience, I worked on the internal and external culture of Policywise⏤a non-profit organization⏤to help improve productivity and employee motivation, in turn helping to improve services provided to the community at large. I practiced my leadership and learned valuable skills through various projects, including these three notable events:

1) Culture Audit Survey: The first project that I completed was an audit of the current workplace culture through a survey format. As a result, I tapped into my leadership knowledge to produce questions that helped tackle important issues. For example, one of the topics I decided to focus on was executive management transparency. By ordering the questions in a random way and choosing the wording carefully, I was able to prevent prediction bias. Additionally, rather than have the survey strictly in multiple choice format, I added in open-ended questions to incite critical thinking in survey respondents, hoping to obtain the rawest answers possible. Finally, by completing this survey independent of management and imposing an anonymous system, I was able to gain more trust from the employees, as they did not have to fear that their answers could affect their position within the company. 

Nevertheless, despite all this careful preparation and thought, there were still a couple hiccups. For example, one variable I failed to account for was the level of understanding of terms in the questions. As a result, there was some confusion about the definitions of some of the words. This was addressed and considered when compiling the results into a 15-page report for employees and management, and into a presentation for a company-wide meeting. From there, solutions have been attempted to increase management transparency, interdivisional communication and psychological safety.

2) COVID return-to-work plan: As a result of the pandemic, many employees had become accustomed to working at home. When it came time to announce that the company would be moving back to in-office work, many employees were reluctant to get on board. There were safety concerns, necessity concerns and hesitation due to the luxury of working from home. While executive management already had a plan on how to slowly reintegrate back into the office, they asked for my help to try and convince the employees that all the right precautions were being made and that management truly was doing this in the best interest of the employees. I was able to speak about this during my team-wide presentation in June, and followed up at check-ins with executive management to make sure everything was going smoothly. This specific activity required me to utilize systems thinking, as I really had to consider the opinions of all and help develop a solution that best fit each group that was involved. 

3) Imagine Canada Accreditation: While this part of the Stretch Experience had me dealing less with the employees, I still found it to be quite interesting and useful, as I did have to coordinate with a few members of staff to obtain all the necessary documentation. Additionally, I was the primary contact point between PolicyWise and Imagine Canada, providing emails and meeting information to both parties. Overall, I was able to complete the application and it is now awaiting review from some members of executive management, where it will then be sent off for (hopefully) approval. 

So what?

I believe the clear social benefit from this project is best described as an amelioration in services offered by PolicyWise for women and children in need through internal auditing and reform. By improving the culture that employees experience, I was able to help improve motivation and confidence in their work, translating directly to a better quality of service offered. Personally, I learned from some successes and challenges:

Successes

  • I was very clearly able to test out and practice aspects of leadership theory that I had been taught in my courses. I was able to see what works, what doesn’t, why it might not work, how to change it so that it does work, etc. This is best exemplified in the COVID return-to-work protocol. Because everyone was so reluctant to return to the office (for whatever reason), appealing to their reason (logos) was completely ineffective, even though it had worked in the culture audit survey part of my project. As a result, I moved more to focus on ethos, as I put more emphasis on the trust between employees and management. By using concrete examples of how management had improved work life in the past, I was able to reinforce a sense of trust in the employees, allowing themselves to start to adhere to the return-to-work policy. Once they started returning to the office once a week in small cohorts, they became more and more comfortable with this type of work. While the return-to-work program is still ongoing, it could not have been as easily done without the appeal to the ethos of the employees and their management. 
  • Another major success came with the implementation of trials for two new programs, targeting executive management transparency and interdivisional communication. To tackle management transparency (a topic that arose on the survey), I proposed a designated presentation timeslot at board meetings where employees could present the work they do, allowing them to both show off their skills and giving the board a more personal idea of who it is that they are hiring. Next, I helped develop a trial of a work session for members of a team working on a project from different divisions within the company. By allocating a weekly meeting for these members to work on the project in either a face-to-face setting or a relaxed Zoom call, members are able to receive real time feedback on questions or comments that may arise, all while keeping each other accountable for their work. 
  • Fortunately, I was partnered with an outstanding mentor who, luckily enough, had experience doing similar style audits and analysis of culture in his own workplace. As a result, I was able to ask him to help point me in the right direction when starting my project, run ideas by him on how to properly address issues and ask him for tips on how to improve my proposed solutions to make the most of the survey results. We also talked about things beyond the Stretch Experience, such as career advice, life experiences and just general current events. It was a nice break from the hectic, stressful lives we are currently living and it really helped me understand why it is important to maintain a good work-life balance, and how essential it is to take breaks from time to time. 

Challenges

  • As previously mentioned, one of the main challenges that arose was that of a communication bias/understanding bias. While at the time this bias was unknown, once I became aware of its presence I acknowledged it decided to confront it head on, sending out emails and adding points in my presentation explaining what I had meant by ‘management’, and asking that if anyone had any concerns or additional comments on their answers they contact me, so that these issues could be remedied. 
  • Another one of the biggest challenges I faced was that, while I thought my solutions to the arisen points of interest were perfect, they were not always accepted by the employees and management. While I am fully aware of the idea that people do not like change as they are afraid of loss (learned through PLLC leadership courses), I was still very surprised and taken back when my proposed solutions were not met love and enthusiasm, but instead required more work and tweaking to help make them the most appealing to everyone. This ‘refusal’ was a rather humbling experience, and now I know that no matter how great an idea may seem, there will always be a touch of bias involved that needs to be challenged, and one of the easiest ways to challenge it is to look externally, check on the input of others, and put yourself on the proverbial balcony to really see the sincerity of the situation. 

Now what?

Throughout my Stretch Experience, I learned the value of personally getting to know the people that I will be working with. At the beginning of my experience, I had some ideas about what to do to change things, and how to improve the current situation. Of course, things did not occur the way I had planned, as I had a relatively limited view of the company. Over time, I was able to interact with the employees, to talk with management and develop a sense of comradery, which led to an increased trust between me and the rest of the employees. I was then able to leverage this trust and find aspects of my solutions that I could tailor to the interests of the most employees possible, allowing them to be more receptive to my propositions. Not only does this skill benefit me with regards to leadership, but it also helped the past four months fly by, as I had a lot of fun during my experience. Not once did the work ever feel tedious or cumbersome, and I would like to credit this to the great community at PolicyWise.

I am now much more conscious of how to manage my time effectively, specifically when getting important ideas across in an effective way, given a limited time slot. Also, I have learned to manage my language more carefully. As demonstrated by my language hiccup with the survey, I have become more aware that I need to use language that is more common to everyday people (i.e. those who have not studied leadership before), in order to ensure complete understanding. This does not mean that the language has to stay simple; as time goes on, certain leadership principles can be taught and knowledge can be developed, allowing individuals to develop their own sense of leadership, and grow themselves.

Mattias Neset is an undergraduate student in the Faculty of Engineering.

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