Covid-19 was the great disruptor in terms of the traditional, 9-to-5, office-based role. Remote working is clearly here to stay, but physically ‘going to work’ will remain in some form. This throws into question how to accommodate the need to be, and feel, part of the wider organisation in this new hybrid world. Managing a business with this new dynamic requires companies to face this challenge head on, and take intentional and practical actions to address the social and cultural side of work in the new world, as well as reducing any potential negative impact this change can bring.
Government responses to the health crisis enforced remote working resulting in the pandemic accelerating existing trends towards remote working, making a change overnight that otherwise would have taken months or years. The adoption of technologies necessary for remote working – video calling, file sharing, etc. – sped up too, as they were needed for use in personal lives as well as work lives. The pandemic proved how much could be done remotely, while highlighting the importance of human interactions.
Employees saved time and money on their commutes. New work/life/home routines gave great satisfaction to some employees, while for others, the loss of a physical workplace and lack of change of scenery proved difficult for health and wellbeing. Individuals reassessed their priorities, with the great attrition showing the pursuit of roles with purpose, inclusion, better work-life balance, lower environmental impact, and other holistic benefits.
Working in this world also posed new challenges of ‘managing’ with new ways required for coaching and supervising teams. On the other side, giving people more control of their working world – where, when, and how to work – without the same kind of supervision, resulted in many employees not wanting to return to the old world.
It is clear that there is no going back, so how can the social and cultural impact of this be managed?
There are real fears about what might be lost. The absence of serendipitous watercooler moments, ‘we’re all in it together’ crunch sessions before deadlines, and feel-good celebrations after a job well done. But a culture is more than the building people go to, and the pandemic showed we can be together when we are apart.
Hybrid working is increasingly a must from an employee point of view, but there are opportunities for companies too. These are beyond the ‘reactive’ type – such as much touted ‘cost optimisation’ of buildings, offices, and travel. They start to touch on many of the non-tangible elements of doing business.
Hybrid working opens the door to a bigger and more diverse talent pool, with fewer geographical limitations. Additionally, the greater flexibility offered by hybrid working enables those who were previously restricted to be able to return to work, for example those with caring responsibilities.
Hybrid work is inclusive of different approaches and working styles, by giving people freedom and autonomy to work where they are most productive, promoting diverse kinds of thinking. This unleashes greater potential, with greater trust and empowerment creating a more motivated and committed team in an environment that fosters innovation and creativity.
Simply put, getting hybrid working right isn’t just about adjusting to a new normal established by the pandemic,: it’s about unlocking new models to reach new heights.
Culture as emergent
Without the physical presence of an office or being surrounded by colleagues, the company starts to be the interactions with people, the tools, the communications, the work being done. Every interaction between colleagues or with line managers, every formal email and instant message ping, is creating the culture.
In a hybrid world, there are fewer ‘overt’ or ‘physical’ touchpoints, making virtual ones and ad hoc physical ones even more important. Recognising this ensures you can make sure actions live up to the words.
Culture needs to be defined
To ensure hybrid working fosters an open and inclusive world, rather than a distant and isolated one, takes effort. You can only do this if you explicitly articulate what a healthy hybrid company culture means in your business.
What activities and tasks are better in person and which in hybrid mode, and why? Challenging yourself to articulate good reasons reveals what is really driving the business and can help identify blockers to embracing the new paradigm.
Some members of the team have always got a lot out of the social side of work – and the pandemic highlighted the importance of this for mental health, questions about the space to work, and avoidance of issues or distractions. Others have a more transactional relationship with the workplace. Now we are more cognisant of the different needs, how can you review them, and intentionally decide what the culture will look like to maximise potential benefits and mitigate risks?
We have noted that each interaction is even more critical. Each must live up the organisation’s professed values and brand. The irony of promising simplicity and flexibility to customers when hybrid working reveals that the same is not true internally, makes it all ring hollow.
If you offer hybrid working, really offer it. With people working in various locations, time zones, and working patterns, fair treatment and consistency is key.
Ensure allocating new assignments or promotions, but also, day to day line management routines, both are, and are seen to be, fair and consistent.
First line managers are critical here. Fair treatment doesn’t always mean exactly the same thing, so ensure they have been onboarded and apply the agreed principles consistently based on individual circumstances.
Without as much physical proximity, communicating well takes on an even greater significance. This applies to companywide, strategic announcements down to line management 121s or internal team catch ups.
Firstly, it’s about recognising that communication is two way. Ensure there are different opportunities for feedback. Walk the walk as well as talking the talk on this – action it promptly, show how it is being taken onboard when it can be, and explain practically and sensitively when it can’t.
Next, what you are doing must be transparent. Aim to agree what communication will look like – frequency, format, style, feedback opportunities – that works for all. Once agreed, stick to the plan. Setting expectations and failing to follow through is a recipe for disengagement and demotivation, dangerous in a remote world.
Communicating regularly and often is important, but more important is that it is purposeful. Select the right format to have the impact you intend – for example, try making performance updates engaging and visual or even better, self-serve through interactive dashboards. Plan for the informal as well as the formal mass events or communications between line managers and direct reports, as well as online communities like Slack or Teams, rapid temperature check surveys, or chat roulette.
Ultimately, it’s about communicating intentionally, authentically, and proactively, to ensure the organisation continues to move forward together in the same direction.
Hybrid working poses new challenges to traditional ways of working, making the unimaginable a reality. This change has gathered momentum since the pandemic, and ignoring it, or failing to adapt to accommodate it, is a risk. The culture of work has irrevocably changed, and leaders who do not take proactive steps to affirm and constantly improve their culture, communication, and technologies may be left behind. On the other hand, preparing and taking practical steps to harness the power of this workplace revolution can help leaders and their people thrive in this brave new world.
Author: Judith Richardson