Focus on Culture, Strategically

How’s work? A slice of culture conversation

Decent Work and Economic Growth
This Challenge Factory work advances the above UN Sustainable Development Goals.

We love telling stories here at Challenge Factory.

To help you understand how we empower companies to improve their culture and HR, we’ve written a short story about the real ‘culture conversations’ that take place about workplaces—outside the workplace. You’ve probably had a similar conversation just like it. Below it you’ll find a case study about the work we did as a Future-Focused HR Partner with a regional professional services firm.

Want to learn more? Contact us today.

Imagine a family sitting down to a holiday dinner…

Everyone’s voices get louder. But this time, the argument at our family table isn’t only about who gets the last turkey leg.

“Work is just work,” my aunt spits out, barely missing the mashed potatoes. “Any boss who says different is manipulating you as an employee, using tired tropes about ‘dream teams’ and all that.” 

My cousin shoots back, “That’s so cynical! We spend so much time at our jobs, why can’t they be meaningful? My team is actively trying to find and keep great staff who actually want to be there, and not just for the paycheque.”  

“Yeah, well, there’s no ‘human’ in ‘human resources’ anymore.” This from my dad as he waves the cranberry sauce spoon to drive home his point. “People are getting replaced by robots every day. What’s so meaningful about that?”

I pipe up before the stuffing gets thrown into the fray. “Really? I love my team and where I work. I don’t get the ‘Sunday scaries’ at all.” I hear someone audibly smirk from the far end of the room. “No seriously, I feel valued and motivated and, it may sound cheesy, but proud of my organization and the work we do. Plus, I know where I want my career to grow and how it aligns with our start-up growth, because we all have career conversations with each other.”

My full stomach lulls me into a bit of a daydream…If I were a leader, it would be amazing to be a fly on the wall of this family conversation, hearing an employee talk like this about my workplace culture. People are talking more and more about work with each other. I hear it on the subway, in the coffee shop, out for drinks.

Culture is what your staff say about your workplace when you’re not in the room.

“Okay, next topic…politics!” I yell this out and duck when a bread roll comes flying across the table.   

This type of conversation is not uncommon. There are rumblings from both sides, by employers and employees, who know that work can be better. Check out the case study below to learn about how Challenge Factory, as a Future-Focused HR Partner, helped a small business balance their culture challenges and strategic growth.

“What strikes me is the openness. They don’t come in and say ‘I have the answer for you, here it is, take it or leave it.’  Their style is approachable, they play a listener role and draw things out, and then feed it back in a way that’s helpful. They don’t pretend to have all of the answers. I mean, Lisa clearly has answers. She clearly knows how she thinks something should be handled. But she leads you there by asking better questions, instead of just saying, Oh, yeah, this is how it should be.”

Higher Education Dean

Canadian university

“They are an organization that truly puts people first. You can look at changing work structures, operations, and building a team from a very analytical point of view. You can be very structured, saying we need these documents and these policies. But Challenge Factory brings a person forward. They bring the human experience forward. They bring compassion and empathy, and active listening. They centre the individual and what it actually means to be part of a workforce.

Membership Animator

Community-focused social enterprise

Case study: How Challenge Factory helps businesses focus on their culture, strategically

The client:

  • A regional professional services firm

The challenge:

  • A growing organization is at a crossroads as they transition from being a “micro-business” to a small- to medium-sized business (SME), and want to focus on how policies and procedures can help them move to the next level and keep up their growth.
  • COVID-19 has layered increased complexity onto how work gets done, as well as how staff are attracted and retained.
  • This organization isn’t large enough to warrant a full-time HR resource.

Who we helped:

  • The organization’s senior leaders

The solution:

Everyone has heard the term ‘culture’. But ask someone to define it, and many will struggle. So, here’s a definition of culture in the workplace: Culture is a combination of written and unwritten rules, norms, beliefs, behaviours, and values. It is how work gets done, how people interact with each other, and how they see their organization’s place in the world.

Many of the skills that made leaders strong in the past will continue to serve them well going forward. However, the current talent market, workforce, shifting technologies, and social change are all chronic challenges and conditions that require ongoing strategic management, evaluation, and treatment.

These many challenges didn’t stop during the pandemic. Instead, they became more visible and visceral, meaning that many leaders need support—someone to help them clarify their thinking using questions, ideas, and examples. They need advice and tangible actions that they can take while being held accountable at a peer-to-peer level.

  1. Our client began thinking about culture while they were focused on a seemingly simple, unrelated challenge. They had hired an interior designer to make their office space ‘hybrid’ friendly. In asking questions about culture and how the space would be used over the next 5-10 years, it became clear that there was more foundational work to do. They needed to know how to shape the kind of culture they wanted not only through dividers and furniture, but through their relationships and how they worked with each other. Physical space needed to mirror the emotional connections they wanted people to get from their work, and that required a focus on culture.
  2. We began by guiding our client through an Organizational Audit of their current situation to explore the challenges they needed to address and prioritizing where efforts should be placed. Going into the audit, we expected our focus to be on organizational strategy, communication, and return-to-work space considerations.
  3. Based on the audit’s results, we discovered that this organization would be better able to meet their challenge head-on by focusing on their culture, rather than their policies and procedures. We created a tailor-made calendar to tackle the organization’s culture-based needs over a defined period of time.
  4. Once our calendar was set and approved, we got to work helping the organization define the kind of culture it wanted to have, identify how it differed from their current culture, and what type of behaviours, communications, policies, and approaches would bridge these gaps. We also provided advice and guidance on a variety of strategic and confidential issues. Finally, aside from clearing a number of people-related items from the leadership team’s ‘to-do’ list, we identified specific ways to measure the impact of our work together and the lasting impact of the changes they were making.
  5. To communicate the behaviours, communications, policies, and approaches that would help build the culture they wanted, we created an engaging infographic for our client. This type of visual tool is easy to understand and distribute to all staff levels, and provides a tangible way of discussing culture, which can sometimes feel abstract.  
  6. At the end of our work together, we co-created an ongoing plan with our client that builds on all that they learned and implemented.

The impact:

  1. The organization’s leadership team better understands itself and how its actions impact their culture and work on both a high-level and day-to-day basis.
  2. Workspace design decisions will now be grounded in the organization’s core values and culture.
  3. Communication improved across the organization.

The next steps:

Our client uses their ongoing plan to keep up their momentum, maintain a sustainable pace of work, and continue their exciting growth. They use the visual tool to support conversations about career and culture. They trust that we are here to support them as unforeseen questions and challenges arise.


Learn more:

  • Workforce Architecture article: “Asking better questions: A Culture Blueprint that works”
  • Free tool: Pandemic policy decision tree
  • Blog: “The most important question for returning to the office is not who, how, or when. Here’s why.”
  • Blog: “Leaders and managers: Stop tiptoeing around setting expectations for in-person meetings”
  • Blog: “The pandemic crisis management equation”