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Creating Culture in a Hybrid Work Environment

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The pandemic’s effect on the workplace is a bit like having driven off a cliff – no matter how much we want to turn around or go back to the way things were before, it simply isn’t possible, especially when it comes to company culture in a hybrid work environment.

“Some leaders are thinking about what new culture and a new way of working might look like, and how to perpetuate a culture in a primarily hybrid world,” says Bryan Hancock, the global leader of McKinsey’s talent work.  “Others are saying that they need everybody back in the office to preserve their culture. And there’s some truth there; environment shapes behavior. But you can’t assume you’ll return to the same culture that existed pre-pandemic. There’s been too much change, both at the individual level and at the business level."

2 in 3 Executive Teams are Reevaluating Company Culture

Gartner says that 68 percent of executive teams are reevaluating their company’s culture to reflect the new normal of virtual and hybrid work.

“As organizations continue to manage the large-scale shifts in the way we work, culture is top of mind for HR and executive leaders. Many are concerned that their organization’s culture will suffer or change in a virtual-first or hybrid world and are not sure how to maintain cultural ideals when employees don’t consistently work together in one place,” wrote Jordan Turner and Mary Baker for Gartner.

For many old-school executives, there is a collective furrowing of eyebrows over the future of their company culture.

“With employees working in distributed environments more often, executive leaders worry their organization’s culture will become fragmented and weaker, leading to lower levels of engagement, performance, and innovation,” says Elisabeth Joyce, Managing Vice President at Gartner.

Company Culture More About Connection than Location

Others, however, argue that company culture is more about connection than location.

“One of the biggest challenges I have encountered advising companies on their shift to hybrid work is convincing executives that culture doesn’t live in an office,” writes Erin Grau in HR Brew. “No, people aren’t more productive in person. No, the water cooler isn’t where the most innovative ideas are born. No, not all employees feel a sense of belonging (or want to brainstorm with others!) once they walk through the door.”

The Gartner duo of Turner and Baker agrees with Grau’s assessment.

“The trick to operationalizing culture is making employees feel connected to it whether they are distributed or co-located. Some leaders may believe that the physical workplace is the key driver of future culture connectedness, but the environment isn’t the driver of culture; the ways in which we behave and work together are,” they write.

Opportunity to Remake Company Culture

McKinsey senior partner Bill Schaninger says that executives shouldn’t approach this sea change in company culture with trepidation but should seize this rare opportunity to put their imprint on the work environment.

“This is an unbelievable opportunity to remake culture. It’s rare in a leader’s lifetime to have such a clean drop for reshaping how you run the place,” says Schaninger.

Grau argues that simply offering free food as an inducement to return to the physical office won’t cut it, but that HR leaders and company executives can rely on the following tactics to help build a culture in a hybrid environment:

  • Put it in Writing: The shift to hybrid work may have been helter-skelter at first, but now your company needs to have a hybrid work playbook that spells out exactly how hybrid work will be carried out. Flexibility without rules and tools is a recipe for disaster so put everything into a hybrid work playbook that can lead your team forward.

  • Do Not Make Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Another danger of hybrid work is that employees that are in-office can receive – or perceive to get – preferential treatment over those working remotely.  Managers should be educated and trained to avoid this potential bias which can dampen company culture.

  • Connections Count: Concentrate on strengthening connections between colleagues to build company culture. The stronger the connections between individuals, the stronger your work teams will be. Examples might include starting meetings with “check-in questions” or icebreakers.

  • 1-on-1 Connections Build Bonds: Grau says that 1-on-1 connections might be even more important than team connections when building company culture. She says research shows that the trust level of groups rises when individuals have higher levels of connections to just one other person within the group.

  • Purpose is Important Now: One of the many ways that the pandemic changed employee behavior is that a majority now are evaluating purpose in life and how their work plays a role in it. Grau says that purpose is a driver of:

o   Productivity

o   Well-being

o   Resilience

o   Retention

  • Design the Office 2.0: As Hancock said, there is no returning to the office as it was before and Grau says that companies need to reimagine their office space to meet new demands and needs of hybrid work. One idea to consider is “reversing how you use the office, inverting the usual spaces into enclosed areas for focused work and open ones for meetings and for people to informally step out of the main flow to connect with a colleague or two.”

Why Company Culture Even Matters

While some might question that “the work” is really what matters and company culture is simply a luxury, the research says culture is very important to business health.

“When we think about culture, we think about a common set of behaviors, plus the underlying mindsets that shape how people work and interact day to day. What we see in the data is compelling: companies with healthy cultures have three times greater total returns to shareholders,” says McKinsey partner Brooke Weddle. “ We’ve also looked at causation and have seen a positive relationship, where health drives performance. And vice-versa: 70 percent of transformations fail, largely due to people- and culture-related challenges. That’s a sobering number.”

Getting culture right in the new hybrid work environment can drive success.

“The organizations that get this right will understand the new drivers of culture and how culture is operationalized in the environments in which we now spend more time. They will embed culture into the new way of working to help employees understand, believe in, and live the desired culture in a hybrid or remote environment,” writes Turner and Baker.