The shift to hybrid working needn’t ‘ruin’ your culture, it can make it better

Here’s something we heard someone say recently about their workplace: “Pre-2020 we had a great culture that we were really proud of, but working through lockdowns took its toll and our teams have also changed a lot since then. Now, with everyone hybrid working and not always together, it feels like we’ve lost something”. Sound familiar?

For industries and organisations historically centred around an office, the shift to hybrid working can feel like a threat to organisational culture. The atmosphere or ‘buzz’ of teams working together, day in and day out, may feel diminished, and the opportunity for people to interact organically, less immediate.

But whilst hybrid working forces us to think about culture in new ways, it brings opportunity. No longer anchored to the trappings of ‘the office’ – with its décor and its dress codes – culture can be fully embedded in the vital day-to-day practices of getting work done. And, if we’re honest, these practices were what culture was always about.

That said, nurturing your culture in a hybrid environment isn’t straightforward. Here are a few challenges we’ve identified and how you can start to address them.

Challenge 1: We don’t seem to even have a ‘culture’ anymore

Whilst organisational culture has been defined and described in a number of different ways, there’s a consensus that all organisations – be they small start-ups or large multinational corporations – have a culture, and often several subcultures. A shift to hybrid working doesn’t change this. It does, however, make culture even more intangible than it already was, playing out in multiple ways, across multiple channels. For organisations embedding hybrid working models, it’s important to be deliberate in your thinking around culture, finding ways to consciously reset and nurture it in the context of a new way of working. This means recognising the routines and rituals that represented the cornerstones of your culture, and reinventing these in a new context. It involves embracing the realities of what has changed, and putting these at the heart of the business you want to create.

Challenge 2: We can’t ‘see’ or understand our culture like we used to

Even when work is confined to the office, organisational culture is never entirely ‘visible’. Much of culture exists beneath the surface in our shared beliefs and norms. Nevertheless, physical presence does make a difference. A sense of ‘how things are done around here’ can be observed more readily when people are interacting in person, and new joiners are likely to assimilate to a culture more easily when it’s manifesting in the physical space around them, providing the associated spatial cues for the brain to make connections. With the shift to hybrid working, leaders must more actively check in on how organisational culture is evolving, asking colleagues the right questions on a frequent basis and taking action as required. Curiosity becomes all the more important. This isn’t just about asking ‘what people think of the culture’, but more importantly identifying and measuring key indicators of whether culture is thriving. For example, if your organisation prides itself on providing an environment for personal growth, asking ‘when was the last time you got constructive feedback from a colleague?’ may yield richer insight than simply asking ‘do you feel the organisation supports you in your development?’. There is an increased need to gather the right data.

Challenge 3: We have become diffuse and disconnected

The move to hybrid working involves trade-offs. Greater flexibility for individuals needs to be finely balanced with the need for effective collaboration. We know that high-performing teams make the time to bond over non-work topics. This may have happened organically when people were always together, but in a hybrid environment it requires more conscious thought. This could mean creating practices that allow teams to come together, not just to ‘get the work done’ but to foster deeper connections. Simple routines such as ‘check in’ questions at meetings can go a long way. Organisations that have used hybrid working as an opportunity to reduce their office footprint should consider repurposing that investment into time and space for building community amongst colleagues. This could mean bringing people together for longer periods of time, and with an agenda that isn’t too crammed with tasks and outputs. Providing the opportunity to build human connection will benefit both culture and performance in the long run.

The move to hybrid working is a great opportunity for organisations to grow and evolve, necessitating a move away from an insular office-first culture to something more open. Harnessing this opportunity isn’t easy, requiring deliberate focus and a willingness to change. The most successful organisations will be the ones who consciously adapt their culture for a hybrid world.

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