According to research from the International Workplace Group, three out of four office workers would prefer hybrid work to a pay rise. While People Management reports that nearly 50% of employees would consider quitting if they weren’t allowed flexible working options. In other words, the work-from-anywhere model is no longer a perk. For companies hoping to attract and retain top talent in 2022, it has become a requirement.
Unfortunately, there’s a catch. The past two years have shown that hybrid working is popular, cost-effective, and productive. It may even be good for the planet. But building and maintaining a strong hybrid culture can be tough. Hybrid working may well be the future of work, but it can cause even the most cohesive and unified company culture to disintegrate.
The good news? It doesn’t need to be that way. If companies become more intentional about workplace culture, prioritise inclusivity, and proactively seek out the right information, teams and business leaders can build and maintain a strong hybrid culture and reap its many benefits. Here’s how to make it work.
What Is Hybrid Culture?
Hybrid work refers to the spectrum of flexible working arrangements that have become increasingly popular over the past two years. It describes any situation where employees have a certain level of choice over their place of work, their schedule, or some combination of the two. A hybrid work environment culture is therefore the company culture — the values, behaviours, and shared beliefs — that evolve across a distributed workforce over time.
What Are The Advantages of Hybrid Work?
While hybrid work has been a necessity for many companies over the past two years, it’s becoming clear that it is here to stay — even once the pandemic ends. Research by Microsoft found that more than two-thirds of companies were considering redesigning their workplaces for hybrid, and nearly three-quarters of employees were keen to stay hybrid post-COVID.
Hybrid work offers businesses some clear benefits:
1. It’s a major advantage when recruiting top talent.
Organisations that plan to recruit the best and brightest in today’s highly competitive job market will need to offer flexible working arrangements. As O.C. Tanner’s 2022 Global Culture Report reveals, two-thirds of job seekers in the UK prioritise companies with clear hybrid working policies.
2. Flexible working options can increase retention.
For companies fighting the tide of the “Great Resignation”, now is not the time to revoke hybrid working privileges. More than half of UK workers would quit if the hybrid option was removed, research from Microsoft reveals.
3. Hybrid work can empower employees.
Control over their working environment, schedule and time management can be highly empowering for hybrid teams. Employees who are trusted by their employers to make decisions are more innovative, more engaged, and more productive, as research from SHRM shows.
For example, we asked Steve Anevski, the co-founder of UpShift (a leading staffing platform), what struck him most when the company transitioned to hybrid working. He told us:
“One thing people fail to realise about the hybrid work culture is the absence of micromanaging. This allows individuals to become part of the decision-making process, as it boosts employee confidence in the long run. For instance, once our organisation switched to remote work, there was no one to overlook how tasks were being executed. So, workers became self-reliant as they gained confidence and also developed an accountability system amongst themselves. They would check up on each other and see if they could be of any assistance.”
The Challenges of Hybrid Work
The problem is that the hybrid model can do real damage to even the strongest company culture. As SHRM points out, current organisational cultures have developed over time from a series of shared values, structures and behaviours that have been proven to work. In a hybrid workplace, this sense of “how we do things” can be undermined once there is no longer a shared employee experience to reinforce it.
To build and maintain a strong team culture while shifting to long-term hybrid work, companies need to create a strategy to address the two fundamental challenges of hybrid working culture. They are:
1. Loss of Connection
A recent survey conducted by Google found that 57% of hybrid workers felt disconnected from both their companies and their colleagues. More than half also missed social interactions with their co-workers and felt that their mental health had suffered as a result.
This disconnection is an issue for a hybrid workforce in a single location. But it becomes even more challenging for global teams distributed across multiple time zones.
The loss of connection can be geographic too — the old problem of “out of sight, out of mind.” But for global teams, it can be compounded by logistical issues. Allowing employees to choose “when”, as well as “where” they work, can make it nearly impossible to schedule face-to-face meetings.
And disconnection doesn’t only take a toll on employee well-being. Research from the journal Nature shows that, even if team relationships remain strong, hybrid and remote work can significantly reduce interaction between teams. This, in turn, can damage not only the overall company culture, but also the levels of innovation.
2. Loss of Cultural Cohesion
A strong company culture relies on a sense of unity — the belief that “we’re all in this together.” Unfortunately, a hybrid workplace can cause even the most unified workforce to disintegrate into a two-tiered hierarchy. Those in the office become those “in the know”, and those working from home become the “outsiders.” For example, a study in China found that remote workers had a 50% lower rate of promotion after 21 months than those working in the office.
Without careful planning, hybrid working can dramatically set back the journey towards a more equitable workplace. As researcher Nicholas Bloom pointed out in his viral article in the Harvard Business Review, “Don’t Let Employees Pick their WFH Days,” women are far more likely than men (especially young, single men) to choose to work from home. Coupled with the discrepancy in promotion rates, a hybrid culture could accidentally become highly discriminative.
“It is easy to lose a sense of belonging when you are disconnected from the day-to-day working in-person with your colleagues. It is also very easy to ignore those who are not in the room.
“Managers need to be very intentional about the amount of support they provide to all of their employees (such as development opportunities, coaching, opportunities to present to leaders, and so on) regardless of whether they are in the room or working remotely. Now is not the time to backslide from any gains made in creating a more equitable workplace.”
Building a Resilient Hybrid Culture
All that said, it is clearly possible to build and maintain a thriving corporate culture in a hybrid work model. After all, 63% of high-growth companies have adopted a hybrid approach, and a substantial majority of employees prefer the hybrid approach according to research by Accenture.
We propose that creating and sustaining a successful hybrid culture will depend on the three I’s: intentionality, inclusivity, and information.
Intentionality: If you do it, mean it.
To quote Suzanne Lucas, better known as the Evil HR Lady, there is one major secret to creating a great hybrid culture: “If you do it, you need to mean it.”
Transitioning to long-term hybrid work isn’t simply a question of logistics and policies. It also involves a major mindset shift. It’s vital that leaders don’t simply try to recreate their former company culture. To make the hybrid model work, managers will need to re-think the entire employee experience from the ground up, and intentionally design a new hybrid culture.
Jennifer Smith, the CEO of rapidly growing tech start-up Scribe, explains this point further:
“It’s tempting to just ‘lift and shift’ what you did in-person to video calls (the same meetings, happy hours, etc.) — but then you just get a worse version of what you were doing before without any of the benefits of hybrid.
“What if you flipped the thinking on its head, and started from ‘tabula rasa’ with a remote-first mindset? What parts truly are best to be in-person? What’s the purpose of being in an office together? (Don’t just say ‘work’ – be more specific).
“And from there — what best serves that purpose? Is it having folks in the office two to three days a week? Is it having a bunch of smaller, geographically dispersed ‘hubs’, where people can collaborate in person? Is it a regular team offsite? The answer really depends on the stage of your company, the problems you’re trying to solve together, and what you’re trying to achieve.”
In essence, the key to successfully negotiating long-term hybrid work is to become more intentional about your culture, and how it is expressed through behaviours, systems and processes. Edie Goldberg draws on the work of psychologist Daniel Kahnemann to illustrate how leaders and teams need to think about hybrid culture:
“When we first learn to drive a car we are in System 2 thinking. We have to think about slowing down at a stoplight, turning on our signal 100 feet before we are going to make a turn, and so on. Once we know how to drive, all of those behaviours become automatic and we no longer think about them.
“Company culture was in many ways automatically reinforced by our day-to-day interactions with employees. Now that we are operating more remotely, we need to shift back to System 2 thinking — slower and with greater intent — to reinforce the desired behaviours in the company.”
To be more intentional about maintaining a strong culture in your hybrid team, consider:
- Deliberately creating opportunities for cross-team collaboration and regular catch-ups, such as online hackathons or joint problem-solving exercises.
- Encouraging cross-functional feedback (feedback from leaders and colleagues in other teams) as part of your performance management process, so employees have a strong idea of how their work affects the organisation as a whole.
- Inviting employees to help co-create communication policies or remote meeting guidelines, to ensure that you retain the best of your company culture in a hybrid context.
- Reminding managers and team members alike to be more mindful about their new day-to-day routines and interactions, and continuously assessing how those behaviours reflect (or undermine) your company values.
Inclusivity: Create a unified experience.
The second key to building a strong hybrid culture is inclusivity. Once business leaders have become more intentional about the behaviours and structures they want to see in their hybrid workforce, they have an opportunity to identify ways to reinforce strong company values and make sure every employee feels included and heard.
According to Suzanne Lucas, an inclusive hybrid culture starts from the top. “Senior leaders need to work hybrid as well,” she says. “There can’t be perks — consciously or unconsciously — given to people who work full time in the office.”
You’ll also need to rethink your employee journey, to create a single unified employee experience for both your in-house and at-home employees.
For example, how can you create a performance management process that will adapt to both groups of employees? A standardised performance management system like Lattice can help, by providing managers with a consistent set of criteria for evaluating all employees, no matter where they work.
Considering hybrid meeting best practice is also a must, argues Edie Goldberg. “Companies need to train managers how to facilitate hybrid team meetings,” she says. “One best practice that has been emerging is to have a remote facilitator in addition to the in-person facilitator. This person can take care of technical issues as well as pay attention to the engagement and inclusion of remote participants. The use of the ‘raise your hand’ features, reactions, and chat for people both in the room and remote equalises the experience of hybrid teams.”
Finally, make sure that your employee recognition initiatives feel inclusive and reflect your company values. This needn’t be expensive or complex, points out Victoria Hedley, the VP of Operations for customer experience software platform Voxpopme.
“At Voxpopme, we make sure to celebrate the wins of our team members in a couple of different ways:
- We have a Slack channel called #boom where employees recognise other employees for things well done.
- On a monthly basis, team members can nominate others for our monthly “Living our Values” Award which is given out and recognised at our monthly company meeting.
“Since we are a global company, it’s important to find ways to recognise people in all of our locations and do it in a way that is meaningful.”
Information: Monitor employee engagement.
Our third “I” is information. First of all, you need to be sure your messaging around your hybrid policies is consistent and comprehensible. “You must set clear boundaries,” suggests Suzanne Lucas. “Does hybrid mean ‘come in whenever?’ Or does it mean you pick a schedule and stick to it? Or does it mean: ‘For X project you need to be in the office, but you can otherwise work from home? All are fine, but be clear!”
Secondly, you need to make sure your People and leadership teams have the information they need to create a positive culture. A successful hybrid team depends on carefully tracking employee engagement levels.
Employee survey software can capture honest feedback and allow you to spot potential issues with your new hybrid approach before they occur. You can then use Pulse surveys to get continuous, in-the-moment insights into employee morale and share learnings across your People and leadership teams.
Remember, it’s not enough to seek out employee feedback. To build a hybrid culture that works, you need to communicate your findings with transparency, admit to any shortcomings with humility, and proactively respond to feedback.
Hybrid is here to stay — it’s time to make it work for everyone.
A successful and engaging hybrid culture is not something that happens by accident. Building and maintaining a strong hybrid culture will take an intentional mindset, an inclusive approach and a steady exchange of information.
With the three ‘I’s in place, you can create a thriving company culture that reflects your organisational values, increases employee engagement, reduces turnover, and sets your hybrid team up for long-term success.