Working from home and the office in a hybrid workplace allows organisations to combine the best of both worlds. But how does this mixed mode of work impact your workplace culture, and how can you protect your culture when you’re dispersed and working from home?
Back in the Before Times, most people who worked remotely were freelancers, digital nomads, or on-the-road sales teams. They used their own unique blend of technology to interact with stakeholders, grow professional relationships, and remain productive despite not having physical oversight from management. Once in a blue moon, they might drop into an office for a meeting and some water-cooler catch-ups. But for the most part, they weren’t a part of the everyday office interactions.
Now with hybrid offices, organisations are facing this issue more than ever. You might have your executive decision-makers come in regularly for meetings, and maybe regular staff come in one or two days a week.
As many organisations are discovering, it takes more than VPNs and video meetings to maintain and build upon an organisation’s culture in a hybrid environment. It requires us to understand how people interact in the workplace and then rethink our processes to enable continuity in our relationships and behaviours.
When we talk about workplace culture, it can be challenging to pinpoint an exact definition that matches everyone’s experiences.
Perhaps the best way to describe a workplace culture is the environment that surrounds someone when they are working.
Another explanation by management guru Marvin Bower describes workplace philosophies as “the way we do things around here.”
These descriptions let organisational and departmental values play a part alongside personal behaviours and philosophies.
Introducing a hybrid work environment shakes up the conventions your culture relies on simply by removing the guarantee that people will be face-to-face from 9 till 5. It changes who talks to whom, when, and in what medium. And changing a medium also changes the message.
Hybrid work can negatively affect the culture transfer between employees and throughout the organisation. Who learns from whom, how cultural expectations and behaviours are adopted, and how efficient the process is can all be impacted through reduced inter-personal contact, management oversight and peer review.
Individuals may prefer – and be more productive – working mainly in a remote environment rather than in an in-house team structure. Providing a working environment that simultaneously supports in-house and remote work is critical for effective hybrid work.
However, there can be no individuals when it comes to living the organisation’s culture. Managers need to look beyond how hybrid work is technically performed and adopt new leadership and communication processes to ensure the underlying culture remains embedded when face-to-face contact is significantly removed.
There are other challenges as well – and not all are tech-based. While finding the right stack of IT infrastructure and communication methods to support your organisation is important, it’s also crucial to help remote team members find their work-life balance in what can quickly become an always-on lifestyle.
Like with any organisational arrangement, the initiatives must become normalised if there’s any hope of making adoption widespread. Regarding remote and hybrid workplaces, team members need to have access to the same processes, tools, and level of support regardless of their location.
When adapting to a hybrid WFH model, a helpful strategy is to consider what traditional inter-staff communication is lost when moving to a decentralised structure. Identifying how those behaviours can be replicated and enhanced when working remotely will allow the organisation’s communication and culture transfer to be maintained whether team members are working in-house or elsewhere.
Weak workplace culture:
Strong workplace culture:
Here are some of the practices we’ve found that help to both establish and maintain the kind of everyday interactions that foster a healthy workplace culture
Turning a chair around to speak with a group of colleagues.
Overhearing conversations while completing other tasks.
Know what other team members are working on.
Private team channels, via collaboration tools such as Slack or Microsoft Teams, to communicate with other team members.
Multi-screen WFH set-ups to view collaboration tools while working on other applications.
Simple planning and scheduling tools can let managers and team members see what key tasks others are working on and timelines.
Encourage face-to-face video calls rather than email or long channel posts.
Maintain sense of team instead of separation.
Create engagement in remote team meetings.
Running a meeting agenda.
Run short daily meetings instead of (or in addition to) weeklies to keep in touch.
Build speaking slots for all team members into the agenda of team meetings to generate discussion and input.
Short, frequent team meetings benefit from a set format to stick to purpose and time allocation.
Learnings from conversations with non-team members
Internal email memos.
Coffee machine chat.
Open channels for sharing news from the organisation and different teams.
Regular company updates from senior execs delivered live and in person.
Open social channels where colleagues can share non-work interests.
Onboarding new staff.
Skew time for new staff towards in-house where possible, simplifying remote working tasks and regular check-ins.
Adopt online tools to conduct regular staff surveys across the organisation.
Create virtual applause by enabling staff to thank and draw attention to colleagues’ success via online tools.
Many of the following suggestions are common sense and could be used in any working environment – but they’re especially valuable to organisations that want to help their teams succeed in a hybrid environment.
Make meeting flexible – as remote work means more factors are at play. Working from the office means that your team is in a controlled environment free of many distractions. Whereas remote work – especially working from home – may include dealing with everything from noisy neighbours and accepting postal deliveries to entertaining toddlers (a whole other job unto itself). Being flexible with recurring meeting times helps to accommodate various needs across various time zones worldwide while also confirming each employee’s value.
Set clear goals, roles, and responsibilities – and review them often. Clearly defined roles help give teams a sense of purpose, which can help drive productivity by reducing the need to clarify actions and outcomes. Outlining your teams’ desired goals and responsibilities can help avoid scope creep while also identifying tasks that may require additional resources. While this is necessary from a management perspective, it’s also important from a human perspective – nobody likes doing the work of two people without being asked!
Set working hours and encourage people to take breaks – when you start to work remotely, your teams may find it hard to set boundaries between their work life and personal life. While hybrid work can offer flexibility, setting expectations around working hours, breaks, and availability can help stop work creep and help your teams avoid burnout.
Document everything and make those documents accessible – one key feature of in-office interactions is the capacity to make off-the-cuff requests. Maybe someone needs to find a contact or is unsure how to complete a task. Clear documentation helps define the structure and systems in place – including the expectations felt by both remote and in-house employees. And with cloud document accessibility, your teams can access what they need through anything from SharePoint to DropBox to Google Docs.
Be demonstrably open to feedback – with actions that match. Without their colleagues around them, your team members cannot receive immediate feedback on their efforts. Find ways to use the available technology to set up avenues for regular feedback and check-ins. Make sure that you give your full attention to these feedback channels, as this will help people see that their contributions are acted on in a proactive, transparent way.
There’s no doubt that supporting both in-office employees and work-from-home arrangements can take some adjusting for you and for employees.
But by using the right mix of technology and in-person action, you can support your teams as they help evolve the workplace culture in positive and productive ways.