With so much time spent in cosy home offices, pets at our feet and possibly pyjama-clad (at least on the bottom half), many people have become accustomed to the flexibility and comfort that working from home provides. And while many of these changes have been welcomed by staff, it’s undeniable that the extended periods of remote working have made it harder to cultivate a distinctive company culture.
In fact, INSEAD found that employees are struggling with hybrid workplace culture, with 45% saying camaraderie and teamwork had declined since the pandemic. Plus, we know employees miss aspects of working in the office - from collaboration and socialisation to connecting with company vision and purpose, people miss being in-person.
We also know that culture is more than just a nice to have: it is critical to organisational success. Influential company culture results in higher revenue growth and higher annual returns. Another study by Deloitte found that 94% of executives and 88% of employees believe a distinct workplace culture is important to business success.
With hybrid work set to become the new norm, business leaders are rightly concerned about the need to develop a hybrid workplace culture.
The future is hybrid
Although employees miss the office, the research is crystal clear: business leaders anticipate more flexibility going forward. The global Economist Impact survey found over 75% of respondents believe that hybrid/flexible work will be standard practice within their organisations in the coming three years. And it's not only leaders who expect hybrid working to become the norm. A McKinsey survey found 30% of employees said they'd be likely to switch jobs if they were required to be entirely on-site. And more than 50% of respondents said they'd like to work at least partially remotely.
Dr Gregor H Mews, lecturer in urban planning and communities at the University of the Sunshine Coast, envisions a hybrid middle ground for most workplaces, explaining, "the employer and the employee will determine what kind of conditions are most nurturing - so that employees can be healthy productive team members who want to give their best."
"We're shifting from maximum productivity, e.g. always being at the office, to optimal productivity where employees work where is best suited for the task at hand."
This means business leaders have a challenge on their hands: fostering a company culture with people working from multiple places. Already complex, this makes creating and maintaining a solid culture even more complicated. But, if we've learnt one thing over the pandemic, it's that in the face of a challenge, both people and organisations can be impressively adaptable and resilient.
The 6 secrets to thriving company culture in a hybrid working environment
Relationships are built on a backbone of proximity. While being close physically tops the totem pole, virtual closeness also plays a role.
The humans we see, talk and interact with most frequently are the people we become tightest with. We know their kids' names, their favourite lunch spot and what makes them tick. All of this knowledge creates connection and empathy. And guess what? Those are the building blocks of culture.
Hybrid working throws a bit of a spanner in the works. But with careful consideration and focus, leaders can still cultivate a strong company culture.
However, connecting employees to purpose in a hybrid setting can still pose some challenges. When employees are in the same physical workplace, they can experience a sense of common purpose by casually running into colleagues and talking about vision, strategy, clients or what's on the horizon for the business.
"In the office, it's less of a curated experience and more of an incidental experience," explains Cassandra Kirk, head of design and strategy at Axiom Workplaces.
However, when employees are separated due to hybrid working, less of this incidental purpose sharing will occur. It is harder for people to see how their work impacts others and the company's greater purpose. As Kirk says, connecting your employees with the company's purpose will need to become a more "curated experience". One that is thought out and includes virtual touchpoints and the more ad-hoc occurrences that happen in the office.
2. Clarity and accountability
Because of the innate flexibility of hybrid work, it's wise to establish expectations upfront between leaders, employees and across teams and departments. Even if the expectations are a work in progress, after all, this is a very new model of work for many organisations; clear communication will help your people feel they know what's going on and trust in leadership.
On the same note, a lack of accountability will undermine trust. This doesn't mean micromanaging employees when they're out of sight. Still, it does mean regularly checking in and keeping them accountable for their goals and input to overarching company objectives.
3. Great leaders who make the invisible visible
An outstanding hybrid workplace culture will be an equitable one that treats employees fairly, regardless of if they're remote, in the office or both. In practice, this isn't so simple.
A Stanford study found that remote workers are significantly less likely to be promoted than their in-office peers, backing up the fears of many remote workers who believe they'll be considered for fewer opportunities when they're out of sight.
A thriving hybrid working culture must keep work visible to maintain an even playing field. Regular check-ins with all staff about what they're working on, what they're concerned about, and any wins they're having is key. Employee-centric time tracking and planning apps can also help you keep an eye on capacity and workload - plus anyone who's regularly burning the midnight oil.
Regular check-ins with their leader will also help employees feel that their leader is present and accessible - which can sometimes fall by the wayside in a hybrid working environment.
4. Transparent and open communication
'Out of sight, out of mind' can ring true a little too often in a hybrid working environment, which makes transparency and good communication critical to your company culture. In the new hybrid world, water cooler conversations, accidental coffee-machine collaboration and in-person catch-ups can't be relied upon. Instead, leaders must make a point about being transparent across the physical and virtual workplace - keeping everyone in the loop, no matter where they are working on a particular day. Leaders don't need to have all the answers, but they do need to communicate effectively.
Oscar Trimboli, the creator of the Apple award-winning podcast, Deep Listening, says, "The leaders I work with who manage remote working well are those that are connected to the workforce, who ask their staff questions and are open."
It's this openness that is essential to successful company culture.
5. A work'place', not just a space
We know that connections built face-to-face are stronger, and those relationships built in person are more meaningful. This means that even though hybrid working changes the game, it doesn't discount the importance of creating a place to bolster your company culture.
Ryan McGrory, founder of employee experience consultancy exsona, says that the workplace plays a vital role in giving employees cultural cues.
"It's far more than flinging a ping pong table in the corner; it's about how your space is communicating your company value and purpose to employees when they walk into a room or office."
"Place itself has a strong tendency to get people to understand things in a different way. That might be through emotion, or maybe through absorption of other detail," explains McGrory.
Organisations can also create strong cultures by making places where people want to come. This means designing offices that help people work better through spaces to collaborate, focus, learn, mingle and re-energise.
Kirk says it's about "creating a place that's an experience."
"We have an opportunity to create inspiring workplace communities that make people say 'I don't want to stay in my home and work, I want to go to the office'."
Kirk also adds that this means the workspace has to be highly functional - not just cool and innovative.
6. Social capital
At its essence, social capital is the value we get from relationships and social networks. And it is critical currency for any company looking to create a productive and inclusive company culture. It helps your organisation run smoothly thanks to a more seamless information flow. It also fosters trust between colleagues and between leaders and their teams.
Social capital is even more critical for hybrid working models where the in-person culture can potentially clash with what's happening virtually for remote workers. To create and maintain a thriving culture, leaders need to connect people (which is made easier in a workplace with high social capital), provide inter-departmental learning opportunities, encourage in-person or virtual coffee catch-ups and more. Interactivity is essential to maintaining social capital and, in turn, creating an even stronger culture.
Culture doesn’t just happen
Your biggest takeaway on creating culture in a hybrid working model is just how much intentional effort is required. No longer can culture be built passively or by default - instead, culture needs your help. While it's never been an easy task, creating a constructive company culture just got more complicated. But with the right intentions on your side, it will be worth the extra work.