Culture in the hybrid world of work
As we move into 2022, one of the greatest challenges for organisations is how to build and maintain a positive, healthy culture amidst continuous uncertainty and change in the world of work. As the pace of change accelerates, how individuals participate in work has also changed.
All change towards the ‘new normal’
It is argued that the ‘new world of work’ arrived amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, propelling existing trends and forcing organisations to adopt new behaviours. Now, as we move into the third year of the global pandemic, one of the most significant trends has been the shift from the ‘Monday-to-Friday, nine-to-five’ to remote and hybrid working.
Many analysts suggested that vaccine rollouts in 2021 would enable a partial return to the office and a transition to hybrid working, yet successive Covid-19 variants have slowed these plans. Remote working didn’t end, and calls for shorter workweeks and condensed hours grew louder into 2022. As employees yield increasing power in the labour market, traditional ways of working are likely to become a thing of the past. And although it’s difficult to predict where we will find ourselves by the end of 2022, the future of the world of work looks to be a hybrid of remote and in-person.
Building and sustaining culture in the hybrid work model
At the start of 2020, amidst lockdowns and fears of the Covid-19 virus, organisations saw an unprecedented shift to remote work, and two years on these models are still largely in the trial phase. Organisations continue to grapple with finding the most effective ways of operating their business and teams that blend in-person, remote and hybrid workforces. The old ways of motivating and retaining people are ineffective in this new model – and global rapidly increasing levels of attrition confirm that individuals will no longer hesitate to quit and move on to find an organisational culture that meets their needs. As a result, a critical question is presented – how can organisations bring organisational culture to life when people aren’t together in -person, and when no one is certain what the immediate future holds?
And of course, no one has the single correct answer. What works for one organisation or one sector offers no guarantees for another. But what we do know is how critically important culture is to organisational success, not only for profitability (although this is a vital consideration as Forbes suggests) but also for innovation, quality, retention and productivity, to list but a few. If culture and strategy aren’t in alignment, initiatives will fail. Culture has always been important, but it’s now at the top of the priority list. There is a real need to get this right, both for the organisation and for the people within.
Positive, healthy culture has always been difficult to propagate and sustain, and these challenges are amplified in the hybrid workplace. The CIPD provides many case studies that highlight difficulties in engagement, morale, and trust in hybrid working models; these examples highlight that maintaining organisational culture when people no longer gather in the office is especially tough. As some employees have enjoyed the increased flexibility and work-life balance that home working has offered, many want to return to the office to reconnect with organisational values, purpose and community (BBC) – all of which are critical foundations in maintaining organisational culture.
With continued uncertainty about where work will happen, leaders must act to build and maintain culture regardless of whether their people are at home, in the office, or both. And it is argued that leaders are now presented with a rare opportunity to redefine and improve their organisational culture within the new world of work.
So, what can be done?
Here are some suggestions about how leaders can drive positive, healthy culture in the hybrid world of work:
1. Build upon a shared purpose
A recent report by McKinsey suggests that organisations with purpose- and values-driven management structures were far more likely to sustain a positive culture during Covid-19, and were more capable of weathering the storm. Individuals are more engaged, happy, motivated and high performing in their roles when their purpose and values align to that of their organisation – a key tenet of a Transformational Culture proposed by David Liddle.
But aligning people with the values and purpose of the organisation is significantly more challenging in the virtual or hybrid environment than in in-person workplaces. Leaders must actively and consistently communicate the organisation’s purpose, values, and overarching ambitions, ensuring that their people feel connected, aligned and part of its success. Leaders and managers must make explicit the contribution that individuals make to their teams, and in turn, that team’s contribution towards the organisation’s goals. Leaders must intentionally remind their people that their work is essential to the organisation’s success. When people feel valued and able to contribute in meaningful ways, they’re far more likely to be loyal to their employers.
2. Increase digital competence
Remote and hybrid working rely heavily on the use of digital technology, with information sharing amongst teams being performed almost exclusively over cloud-based platforms. In the office environment, people can easily collaborate with those inside and out with their teams, building vital weak-tie connections, driving innovation and creating the organisation’s future agenda. Providing the opportunity for this collaboration to take place in virtual and hybrid workplaces is vital to ensure continued organisational success. Equally as important is ensuring that people within the organisations are fluent in the use of these technologies.
Clients also expect that the services they receive make the best use of digital technologies. Organisations must ensure their digital service provision serves their customer’s needs whilst also delivering maximum value.
3. Be intentional about social cohesion
The real value in an organisation lies in the social relationships that underpin its culture. Remote working has challenged the social networks within organisations, particularly amongst new colleagues who have never experienced the in-person culture of the workplace and existing colleagues who rely on these networks to operate effectively. Positive, healthy cultures rely on social cohesion to build rewarding relationships. These relationships provide opportunities for individuals to seek advice from each other, to collaborate, to innovate, to gain motivatation and to make quick, effective decisions, all of which ensure the cross-pollination of knowledge throughout the organisation.
In order that the crucial benefits of social cohesion are not lost in the hybrid model, leaders must provide opportunities for their people to network, and also to connect to those they may not otherwise encounter. Virtual job-shadowing, matrix meetings and virtual social meetings (to replace the archetypal watercooler chat) can go some way in creating an environment where social cohesion can flourish.
4. In-person, when possible
Whilst virtual social events provide opportunities to meet, nothing can fully replicate the value gained by face-to-face connection. To perpetuate a culture that fosters belonging, leaders should create physical places where individuals can connect and meet when restrictions allow. Physical interactions allow people to learn, collaborate, and inspire each other whilst providing opportunities to laugh and form social bonds. Timetabling which allows whole teams to gather in the office at certain times, whilst also enabling individuals to manage their own scheduling to optimise face-to-face interaction will enable positive, healthy cultures to thrive.
Organisational culture dictates the way that people feel, act and engage in an organisation. Its meaning has become even more significant during the Covid-19 pandemic – companies with positive, healthy cultures have thrived. Creating and maintaining a healthly, positive organisational culture has never been easy, but It’s arguably far more challenging in the virtual and hybrid workplace models. Leaders and managers must take thoughtful, measured and intentional actions to ensure that employees continue to feel engaged and aligned with the organisation’s values and purpose.
The greatest challenge for organisations is building and maintaining a positive, healthy culture amidst so much change and uncertainty. Getting it right is key to organisational effectiveness and success.
Blair Maxwell: Strategic Lead Consultant for Transformational Culture at The TCM Group