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The Engineer: Culture shock

Communicating clear expectations to all employees has never been more important.

September 29, 2021  By David Heska, P.Eng.

Like most of you, I haven’t been on a plane in the past two years. But let’s take a few moments to imagine it’s 2013 and our 16-person airplane is about to touch down on the dirt airstrip in South Sudan.  When we arrive at our accommodation, we are immediately greeted by a crowd of Sudanese men and women and are invited to the community dinner that evening. The first weeks are spent adjusting to the heat, the language, the culture and our new workplace.  

I’ve reflected back a few times this summer to my time in Africa. I still get emails and text messages from some of my former colleagues, and as my company explored what a “return to the workplace” would look like, I caught myself comparing cultures. The collective culture I experienced overseas is quite different from the individualist culture here at home. Enjoying a dinner feast with the community was, and still is, a regular occurrence there. However, currently, in most parts of Canada, a community dinner is off-limits and would be avoided by many. I raise the topic of collectivism and individualism not to say that one is right and one is wrong, but to point out a few ways our culture impacts our work and our current reality. 

French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville described individualism as “a moderate selfishness that disposes humans to be concerned only with their own circle of family and friends.” A pandemic, lockdowns, and layoffs have subtlety nudged many of us further away from collectivism and towards individualism. After all, isn’t it only natural to put ourselves first? Shouldn’t we make sure our oxygen mask is on before we help those around us? 

On the individualism scale it may not surprise you to find out that, in one ranking, the United States is the country with the highest score. Australia, the U.K. and Canada are not far behind. At the other end of the spectrum, countries like China, Nigeria and Pakistan have high collectivism scores. Research is being conducted, but we shouldn’t be surprised when we hear or read news that various countries have responded differently to government lockdown policies. Each country has a unique culture, so of course, our responses are going to be different. 


What does any of this have to do with the current state of our Canadian glass industry? If we start with the understanding that culture is the backbone of successful companies and organizations then we realize throughout the past year many of us have had to reimagine what our company culture looks like. Is the office open or closed? Are masks or vaccines mandatory or not? What rules need to be followed in the lunchroom or at the company barbeque? Communicating clear expectations to all employees has never been more important. Similarly, leaders need to be even more willing to revisit these expectations as new information and feedback is provided.  

Anthropologist Philip Bock has said: “Culture is what makes you a stranger when you’re away from home.”  It’s what made me long to sit down and watch Hockey Night in Canada while living on the banks of the Nile River, and culture is what makes employees long to continue working at a place they can contribute, belong and succeed. •

David Heska, P.Eng. is a director with WSP’s building sciences team in southwestern Ontario. He oversees the operation of the Hamilton, Kitchener and Windsor offices. David has been involved on window simulation projects as well as the design and replacement of windows. He can be reached at David. 

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