With all the time people have spent working from home, many have become attached to the flexibility and work-life fulfillment it offers. And the good news is, while people are growing to expect more flexible ways of working, companies appear open to this as well. But how on earth do leaders and companies cultivate a constructive culture when people aren’t in the office together?
Culture is critically important to company success and classic research by Kotter demonstrates when cultures are more effective, organizations see payoffs in revenue growth, retention, stock price and net income. Additional research by Denison demonstrates positive correlations with return on investment and return on sales.
But culture has taken a hit since the pandemic, and business leaders have increased their focus on culture and their concerns about culture. It seems to be deteriorating since people have been away from the office. As one colleague lamented, “How can you live your culture, when you don’t live in your culture?”
According to a study by the Society for Human Resource Management, two-thirds of employers are struggling to maintain employee morale, and more than one-third are facing challenges maintaining company culture. It’s not just business leaders feeling the pain. According to research by Steelcase, people want to get back to the office because they want connection to company purpose, a sense of community and support for their productivity.
A Hybrid Future
But the study also finds 87% of business leaders expect to offer more flexibility. In addition, while 23% expect the office to be the primary venue for work, 72% expect a hybrid model of working. Employees too want to continue some work from home (54% expect to work from home one day a week or less; 26% expect to work from home two to three days per week). The University of Chicago’s recent study demonstrated fully 22% of workdays would be supplied from home as people get back to the workplace.
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This means leaders will need to create, foster and nurture culture when people are working in multiple places. The complex and sensitive responsibility to create constructive cultures will be made even more complicated by people working from everywhere.
But people are adaptable, businesses are resilient and cultures will survive—with the right kinds of focus.
Creating Culture When People Work From Everywhere
Here’s what it will take to create the conditions for effective culture in a hybrid environment.
One of the most important determinants of relationship is proximity. The people we see most and interact with frequently are the people we tend to get closest to. We experience their ups and downs. We know what’s going on in their life and we can understand where they’re coming from. All of this tends to build empathy and connectedness. Proximity, however, is all about perception. The most powerful proximity is real—people we see and speak with face-to-face. But it can also be perceived—feeling close, even when we don’t see each other frequently—and it can be aided by virtual connection.
Essentially, the tactics below are about creating proximity—both real and perceived. Effectiveness will be driven by people feeling close, connected, engaged and intertwined with each other’s success and the success of the organization.
Purpose has always been key to organizational performance, but with hybrid work it will be especially critical. When people are in the office, they can feel the energy of being together and experience a sense of common purpose by running into colleagues and chatting about strategy, customers or what’s new with the company. When people are separated, some of this may still occur virtually, but it will be drastically reduced. Leaders will need to be intentional about articulating purpose, discussing the big picture of the overall goals and ensuring people feel their work is uniquely connected and necessary to the success of the organization. Managers will also need to ensure people have a sense of shared purpose—not just how a team member’s work is connected to overall outcomes, but how the work of the team as a whole is important. Teams will need to see how their work connects and intersects. They will need to be reminded frequently of mutual dependencies because these will be less obvious if people aren’t in the office together.
Leaders who want to be sensitive to employee needs or challenges can sometimes go too far in providing “space” for them to work through issues. While people certainly need empathy and understanding, they also need to be held accountable for results. Accountability is key to an effective culture because it reminds people their work matters, and it reminds them how important it is to the company and the team. If purpose is the big picture of how things matter, accountability is the mechanism which operationalizes how the work matters. Effective hybrid cultures must ensure performance for the benefit of individuals and teams as well as the organization as a whole.
Closely related to accountability is the topic of fairness. If people do not have a sense of equity and justice, they will quickly lose motivation. This dynamic is also especially important when you’re nurturing a hybrid model. When people aren’t in the office, they may not have as many opportunities to learn about the goings-on of the company—the subtleties of who gets rewarded (literally or figuratively) or held to account. Building a culture in a hybrid model may require more communication about how work results in outcomes that are fair and equitable. It will also be important to ensure you’re not unintentionally setting up “have” and “have nots.” For example, if some members of the team come into the office more than others, be sure they’re not seen as favorites. Or if some people are away from the office more, ensure they’re not perceived as getting more of the technological goodies which will help them connect. My colleague Sheryl brilliantly recommends paying attention to your language as well: While “working remote” may be an accurate description of where someone is working, you don’t want to inadvertently communicate they are a “remote” teammate or the team isn’t unified. Find ways to be especially sensitive and inclusive about how you refer to team members and treat them.
Successful cultures are not without conflict. After all, people will always see things differently and it’s critical to provide the opportunity to discuss and debate various points of view. Effective cultures, however, manage conflict productively. With people at a distance, cultures run the risk of conflict becoming less constructive. Issues may be buried because people choose to avoid them—creating greater problems in the long run. Or issues may be blown out of proportion because people make assumptions without adequate information—based on their distance from each other. With hybrid working, leaders and team members will need to be attuned to potential differences and reinforce the need for healthy disagreement—which is civil and respectful and can move thinking forward. Establishing protocols for disagreement and making room for differences of opinion are good places to start.
Visibility and Accessibility
One of the most important elements of effective leadership is when leaders are perceived as present and accessible. This is harder to accomplish virtually, but even more important in a hybrid model. Visibility is also key—both in terms of leaders being visible and in terms of how they keep team members central. I’ve heard leaders admit sheepishly when they don’t see employees, the employee can sometimes be “out of sight and out of mind.” One leader admitted she had such a problem keeping people in mind, she had made a list of team members she kept on her screen and she would regularly remind herself to check in with each of them, so she wasn’t inadvertently leaving out the people she didn’t see in the office. Be intentional about being personally accessible. Check in with team members regularly. Also encourage team members to have close relationships with each other by pairing them on tasks and assigning collaborative projects.
Closely related to visibility and accessibility is the need for plenty of open communication and transparency. When people aren’t in the office, they won’t have the automatic opportunities to pick up on what’s happening—through hallway conversations or by running into colleagues in the work café. As a leader, be sure you’re keeping people in the loop, sharing constantly and making a point to ensure your team members are in the know about as much as possible—the good, the bad and the ugly. This openness is a primary ingredient of trust which is critical to constructive cultures.
Another of the casualties of the pandemic has been social capital. People are having trouble building it if they are new to a company or a role, and they are challenged to maintain it when they don’t see colleagues in person. Strong cultures also have intricate webbing of social capital—the networks of people across the organization. Social capital helps individuals because it provides for fulfilling relationships, new ideas and advice for how to get things done within the organization. Social capital is also good for companies because by giving people context, a sounding board and advice, it improves decision making, efficiency and effectiveness. To maintain positive cultures in hybrid working situations, leaders will need to be intentional about encouraging people to build their networks. They can do this by connecting people across departments, providing for cross-functional learning opportunities and creating time for people to have virtual coffee or networking discussions with colleagues across the company.
Face-to-face connections are best for people and the workplace offers innumerable positive impacts from productivity and innovation to belonging and career growth. While the hybrid experience is likely here to stay, leaders can also build strong cultures by creating places where people want to be. This means influencing offices that help people work better through spaces to collaborate, focus, learn, socialize and rejuvenate. It means pressing for offices which offer comfort and give people a sense of control over some of their surroundings, as well as stimulation and inspiration. Leaders are also wise to establish protocols and patterns of working so team members can connect most efficiently. Establishing core hours (key times when everyone is in the office together) or implementing processes where people can exchange scheduling information to optimize times they’ll be in the office together are examples which can help a team thrive. When people are in the workplace together, culture will be positively influenced.
The most important thing to realize about hybrid working is the intentionality and effort necessary to maintain culture. Nothing will be automatic, and it will be nearly impossible to have a positive culture by default. Culture has always been a challenge to strengthen and sustain, but with hybrid work models, the level of difficulty will be increased many-fold. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.