How to foster and maintain company culture in a hybrid working world
Jerome Mackowiak, director with Gartner's HR practice based in Washington DC, has had a busy 16 months. He has been speaking to HR leaders across the globe about the challenges associated with hybrid work. And it’s clear that one concern is way ahead of all others – maintaining the organisation’s culture in a hybrid working world.
“Before COVID-19 our organisation’s culture, more likely than not, was ordered in the office. Our behaviours for success were served and learned in a shared space. Our experience was professional, not necessarily personal. And who we are as a company – our identity – was reinforced and strengthened by connections with our colleagues in the office or together outside the office. But as we move to a hybrid future our culture is no longer going to be headquartered in the office. And that has important implications because in the hybrid world employees work in more environments,” says Mackowiak.
Gartner identifies three issues worrying leaders when it comes to company culture:
Fewer visible behaviours mean our understanding of culture is changing
Gartner data shows that more than 80% of employees expect some flexibility and will not be in the office Monday through Friday. With less time in the workplace, we have less access to learning the culture through osmosis – through observing how we do things from those around us. And with fewer visible behaviours many leaders are concerned that employees will struggle to understand the company culture and act on it. The senior director of people in culture in a technology company told Mackowiak that with less time in the office its culture was living in 7,000 homes. How do we make sure employees know the cultural meaning?
More personal interactions mean that our experience of culture is expanding
The pandemic has transformed how we work and interact. According to Mackowiak, executives everywhere are telling him how much they appreciate the fact that we have all become ‘more human’. We care for one another on a more personal level than we did before. Personal interactions are unavoidable as we work out of bedrooms or kitchens. As leaders we are under pressure to support these interactions in our culture.
Fewer in-person connections means our connection to culture is challenged
The biggest concern from leaders when it comes to sustaining their organisational culture in a hybrid environment is that employees are spending more time apart and in more distributed environments. In other words, spending less time connecting with each other. Without in-person connections, organisations fear employees will feel disconnected from each other and lose their shared sense of cultural identity or connections to culture.
So how can leaders respond to these concerns? New approaches are needed to ensure that organisations’ cultures are fostered and maintained. Gartner suggests adjusting your strategy to respond to the three following questions:
1. How can employees understand the culture with less visible behaviour?
The research: According to Gartner research, 88% of HR leaders say that it is hard to read employees’ body language in the hybrid world. It’s therefore difficult to know what somebody is thinking or feeling. This becomes particularly critical when it comes to learning social cues, for example with new hires or junior employees. One in two employees say that team visual cues and body language are important to guide how they work. These help employees learn and understand the nuances of an organisation’s culture and the different ways to embody it. Less visible behaviours may lead to assumptions – and these assumptions can create behaviours that are misaligned with the culture.
The solution: Organisations must be more explicit about their culture and the behaviours that are or are not part of that culture. They need to make sure employees know how to align behaviours with the culture. Mackowiak points to the simple Do’s and Don’ts of culture used by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (join our Future of Work Focused HR and People Leaders LinkedIn Group to download a one-pager). It shows how its people should live the culture. Be clear with your Do’s and Don’ts. As Mackowiak says: “You can’t define culture from the centre. Teams need to self-manage so put culture Do’s and Don’ts in your teams.
2. How can your culture support more personal interactions not just professional ones?
The research: How we respond to personal interactions in our culture has equity implications for employee groups who are more likely to prefer or need to work from home more often, for example working parents or neurodiverse employees. This is a change to make your organisational culture more inclusive. “This needs to become a pillar of our culture going forward. It’s not just nice to have anymore, it’s a must have,” says Mackowiak. And here’s why: 82% of employees say it’s important they are seen as a person, not just an employee. But only half say they are encouraged to bring their authentic selves to work, according to Gartner’s research.
The solution: Organisations must build inclusion and safety into their culture by equipping the workforce to approach personal interactions with empathy. Mackowiak points to San Francisco biopharmaceutical company GBT which uses personas to prepare employees to actively understand and mitigate inclusion risks employee groups may face. It uses a simple tool based around barriers, personal actions and team actions. For example, a barrier for an introvert persona is that they are unlikely to share their opinion in large group settings. The personal action would therefore be to make a habit of asking introverts for their opinion. The team action would be to send discussion questions in advance. “The organisation must be prepared to respond and react and handle situations with respect. Personal interactions are unavoidable in the hybrid world, and as employees are expecting to bring more of their authentic selves to work, culture needs to support these interactions. HR leaders can enable that by driving empathy,” says Mackowiak.
3. How can organisations support employees to connect with the culture with fewer in-person connections?
The research: Gartner’s research finds that 77% of HR leaders are concerned about employees’ ability to maintain organic connections with networks in the hybrid working world. Social cohesion was taken for granted in a shared workspace. Connection to culture is at risk when employees lose a sense of common identity. So what have organisations been doing to avoid this loss of connection? They have taken the opposite approach and are overdoing the check-ins. Some 78% have encouraged more frequent manager check-ins while 72% have hosted virtual celebrations or team events. And 60% have encouraged peer-to-peer check-ins for social conversations. All well and good. But Gartner’s employee research finds hybrid employees with increased time in meetings are 1.4 times more likely to feel emotionally drained from work. So this is not sustainable.
The solution: To strengthen connections employees must connect intentionally. This means rethinking how we spend time together and seeing it as a valuable resource to foster social cohesion through shared experiences. When planning your next meeting consider how it will support social cohesion. What common goals will you achieve? How does coming together strengthen your employees' perception of the employee value proposition? Says Mackowiak: “Many clients are asking about when it's best to be in person versus virtually. But what you really need to do is ask one another if we really need to meet for five days a week to feel strongly connected with each other. Strong connections don't happen from frequency of meetings. Instead you should think about the objectives. Empower your teams to set and own the purpose of coming together and provide them with the tools and guidance.”
A hybrid work environment does not necessarily mean a weakening of organisational culture. But it does require some adjustments. Organisations should guide their employees to understand the culture and be explicit about what behaviours are acceptable and not acceptable in that culture. Listen to what employees are saying about the current state of the culture and provide tools to help employees connect more intentionally – and not more often.