How to create a new culture from scratch

How to create a new culture from scratch

How to create a new culture from scratch Three years after a dramatic restructure and layoffs left its employees reeling, Woodbine Entertainment has found a way to rebuild trust through culture – with no Google-style perks necessary.

The Ontario racing institution was hit hard by budget cuts in 2012, but as it recovered from major cutbacks, it put employees at the forefront of its future values and vision – and now even reluctant staff have bought into its new direction, says Woodbine’s senior vice-president of people experience Tania Caza.

While still working to ensure its sustainability, Woodbine’s new culture and employee experience are centred on values, rather than tangible nice-to-haves like those that tech start-ups offer talent.

“We are an operational, heavy, old organization that is heavily unionized. We don’t have the nimbleness of these tech companies,” Caza says.

“We can’t compete in that world. I can’t stock a kitchen full of beer. [Google is] awesome and it’s fun, and they can paint the walls, whereas I’m dealing with a building that was built in 1956 and it’s not a cool and exciting and fun building to work with. It’s complicated.”

Instead, Woodbine got creative, melding short and long-term strategies – including quick wins – to rebuild employees’ trust and retain their loyalty.

“People go above and beyond in their jobs if they are committed to their managers, if they are aligned to the business that they’re in, if they’ve got a passion and a real belief in what they’re doing in their job … It’s not the fact that there’s beer in the fridge, or that there’s a ping pong table, or even compensation, to a certain degree.”

Woodbine established an internal mentor program, new training and development initiatives, and “culture squads” with a small budget to spend on social initiatives – like staff appreciation barbecues and hiring an ice cream truck.

The company built an exciting new cafeteria for staff, with a culinary team and food sold at cost – with some coming from a volunteer garden which also supplies local charities – and staff ping pong tournaments in an employee lounge.

The HR team also designed a new orientation program, so recruits get a behind-the-scene experience to better understand what Woodbine stands for, and how it operates.

“As a new hire, you come in and we spend the day doing general HR, typical orientation stuff, but we also do a tour of our site, which includes all of the stabling facilities, so they get to go up and touch a horse and do that kind of stuff … and then we keep them here to experience a night at the races, because we want them to feel the way that our customers feel.”

Giving staff that experience has helped to create a “really friendly, fun, just kind and caring environment”.

“Generally [staff] feel a heck of a lot better today than they did three years ago, so the attitude of most people has changed.”

The most important lesson for any HR team faced with change – especially on a major scale – is that they need staff to buy into that success.

“An HR department doesn’t own culture, everybody owns culture. The culture will exist, and it will be what it will be. You can choose to allow it, or you can choose to be intentional about it, but an HR department or a leader or any one person can’t do it on their own.”


Related stories:
The real reasons your workers are leaving
Is a lack of trust crippling your company?


Want the latest HR news direct to your inbox? Sign up for HRD Canada's daily newsletter.