An Inspiring Day of Learning, Sharing and Connecting
This was my first time attending the Imagine Your Workplace Conference. As a Your Workplace staff member, I knew what to expect in advance, yet I was still surprised by how different this event is compared to other conferences. It offers a robust program featuring truly unique experts, a high level of interaction, physical activity, fun outdoors, not a speck of white food anywhere, and, given the botanical garden location and profusion of blooming spring flowers, smells better than any conference I’ve ever attended.
In the morning, we were immersed in rapid-fire Lightning Talks. In the space of a few hours we got the lowdown on transformative volunteering, a failed mentorship program, a new perspective on work culture, chronic illness, the Yukon’s new dispute resolution process, a very personal account of how to talk to someone in crisis, and text analysis (and, yes, we know what that is now). We learned about the connected generation and the digital workplace, and, in a longer feature presentation, how to combine high-tech with “high touch.”
Just when everyone was starting to shift in their seats a little, we moved outside, curbing any possibility for restlessness. The sun warmed us on the slightly chilly morning as we strolled through the picturesque
Toronto Botanical Garden in groups. We got to know the people in our groups quite well as we moved from station to station, completing problem-solving challenges.
Lunch was not only healthy and delicious but also informative, as we participated in workplace-related discussions and got to meet three more groups of people. The keynote speaker, Rocky Ozaki, exuded exuberance — only to be followed by the equally animated Brady Wilson. As a personality test enthusiast, I found Wilson’s card game workshop more revealing, and certainly more engaging, than any Myers–Briggs or True Colours test I’ve ever taken.
MAKING REAL CONNECTIONS
The best part of the day for me was getting to meet our readership in person. We often talk about how dedicated our community is to employee engagement — and that’s absolutely true — but I was particularly struck by what a unique and interesting group they are. From one woman who is striving to retain top-secret-level government employees, to another who has gone from looking after a small group of children to managing hundreds of daycare employees, they all seemed to have one thing in common: they are itching to do things differently. They are brave enough and curious enough to try something new. This was a day for new ideas.
There is no way to include on these pages all of the new ideas that the presenters shared, but Mark Franklin interviewed them, both for us, and for his radio show, Career Buzz. We also videotaped everything and will share that sometime in the near future. For now, the following provides a taste of the unique perspectives of some of our presenters:
MF: Why would a company want to implement some sort of better volunteering program?
CD: Originally, companies weren’t set up to let their employees just go out and do good in the world — companies were set up to make money. So, it’s not very logical to say we’re going to invest money so that our people can go and do free stuff. But it turns out researchers have looked at this and found out that companies that have a very good volunteering program, with strong participation, have better business results. They have more productive employees and they are able to build skills better.
MF: Part of what you presented was about attracting talent and developing people creatively, yet you’re trying to do that in a big organization and scale up. What are some strategies that you used?
AG: We have programs in the organization that scale to everybody, but then we also have some very unique programs that are either for certain lines of businesses … or higher potential employees … It’s a combination of making some things available for everyone, but then also tailoring it to certain career levels or talents.
We have this program called “social sabbatical” where we take high-potential people out of their job for a month. We send them to a developing country together with some peers from all over the world to try and solve a problem of a not-for-profit organization in that country … It really pushes them out of their comfort zone, but it also gives them some unique skills. It increases their empathy. I just recently had one of my employees come back from such an assignment in Peru and it was interesting to see how her mentality and skillset, and everything, changed in the sphere of one month.
MF: One of the other speakers today talked about trying to balance the high-tech and the high touch in the workplace. I wonder what you thought about that presentation. What is the right balance?
RO: I don’t know if there’s a specific right one. But what I would say is that they cohabitate. I have this story that I heard about a radiologist who felt that his job was in jeopardy. Because of machine learning, the computer could better determine whether or not you had cancer, and so he felt he was going to be out of a job because it outperformed him every single time.
But the reality is that, if you did have some kind of a condition like cancer, would you as a person want to rely on a computer, particularly for treatment? Or would you want to have an interaction with a person?
The answer is obvious. We want the technology to tell us what it is and we want [a person] to help us through it. And so I believe that they will cohabitate. Particularly with Gen Zs in the workplace, who are true digital natives compared to millennials — they actually want to have face-to-face communications.
MF: You were brave enough to get up in front of a room full of people and say [your mentorship program] didn’t work. It sounds like it kind of worked, but it could have been better. What lessons did you learn from the implementation of your mentoring program?
TD: We rolled it out with a little less planning than could have gone into it. We realized that we didn’t really train the mentors or give them guidelines — kind of a framework to succeed as a mentor. And we didn’t help set the expectations of the mentee either, like what are you putting into it and what are you getting out of it. So there were really mixed results. We also didn’t have the full support that we could have as an organization from the leadership team and the resources, like marketing and promoting it. So it fizzled off because we didn’t bake it into our culture. It wasn’t a complete failure. Relationships were made, knowledge was passed along, and people benefited, but it’s not a sustainable program that we could scale within the organization.
MF: It sounds like [the Yukon Government] has a process for appropriate dispute resolution. It was interesting — you talked about “appropriate dispute resolution,” and I have actually heard the “a” in ADR as “alternative.” What are the steps that you take or what do you do when you go into an organization?
JQ: First of all, we have to figure out what’s going on — zero in on what is the problem that is causing conflict or disrespectful behaviour. That may be interpersonal conflict, or it may be that someone is really unaware of their behaviour and it’s impacting their coworkers. Or it may be that a culture has developed in a workplace that is really negative and is impacting people and making it not a pleasant place to work.
Is it a large-scale intervention with a big group of people? Do you do one-on-ones? What are the different tools to implement this?
JQ: [It could be] a person comes in and says, “I’ve got a situation I want to deal with, and I’d like to
try and deal with it myself.” So, we’ll provide them with some coaching. If they don’t think they can deal with it themselves, we may contact the other person and invite them in, do some coaching with both people, and then bring them together for a facilitated conversation. Or if it’s a whole department, we may go in and interview everyone and ask them what’s working well, what’s not working and what needs to change to make it better — and from that elicit enough information to figure out what needs to happen. And sometimes everyone needs to change their attitude and do things differently. Sometimes it’s one person, or maybe two people, who is really impacting the whole group.
MF: You were talking about chronic disease and its connection to the workplace. You were talking about there being a disconnect between what’s really happening and what the perception is. What is that gap?
JE: It’s quite surprising actually. There are multiple studies that show that the number of employees in Canada who report living with at least one, and sometimes multiple, chronic diseases is up over the 50% range — sometimes even closer to 60% — and yet employers, they don’t have a clear understanding of the prevalence … Employers only view the level of chronic disease among their employee population as 32%. So, you can see the divide there. We have a real opportunity to educate employers about how these issues related to chronic illness are impacting their employees.
MF: What do you do if you’re in the workplace and you start to suspect, or actually see, visible signs of somebody who is in distress? It’s so hard to know what to do. Often,we just turn away — we walk away — because we don’t know what to do.
AK: That’s right. We almost walk into it, as I used to, with this mentality that we have to fix … If you were to walk into a room and see a woman with her head on the table, crying, or if it were a man with his head on the table, crying, what’s the approach? And I think for me, what I’ve learned, is just to say, “I don’t mean to pry, but I just want to let you know, I’m concerned, and I’d be more than happy to listen if you ever needed to talk.”
And that’s powerful, because now they know that they’ve been seen, and they know that there’s a place where they can go to be heard. And ultimately whether or not they act on that invitation, it is completely out of your control; but if they do act, we [should] just sit back and … listen. I think that everybody is begging to get some of that stuff into the light, but often they don’t trust — they don’t trust for a very good reason. And that’s [the] saying “two ears, one mouth.”