Three Ways to Stop Hybrid Working from Shattering Company Culture

It’s hard to maintain a cohesive culture when half (or more) of your employees regularly work from home. Earl Simpkins and Varun Bhatnagar* says specific steps can help.

Here is a situation you may have met at your last team meeting.

Half the group gathers in the conference room as the meeting is about to start.

But your remote colleagues are busy trying to connect, and many miss the first few minutes.

The discussion is repeatedly interrupted by echoes or silenced when distant employees are reminded not to be mute anymore.

The conference room doesn’t have a video screen – or a working screen that everyone can understand – so some people in the room log in on their own laptops, which defeats the purpose of an in-person meeting.

Many employees love hybrid work models.

But this new approach to work can have a profound impact on their sense of community and connection.

A harvard business review A study of more than 1,000 employees found that many of those who worked at least partially remotely felt more excluded from workplace affairs than their counterparts in the office.

PwC’s 2021 Global Culture Survey found that among employees working from home during the pandemic, 44% found it harder to maintain a sense of community with their peers.

And the challenge does not go away.

In PwC’s 2022 Global Workforce Hopes and Fears Survey, 62% of respondents said they preferred a combination of in-person and remote work, and 63% said they expected that their company is offering this type of approach over the next 12 months.

To overcome these issues and create a cohesive culture in which employees can meaningfully participate, whether at home or in the office, it is not enough to establish new policies.

This requires leaders to take specific actions to create a connected, inclusive and productive environment.

Understand your culture and associate it with explicit behaviors

The first priority is to understand the current culture of your organization, that is, the autonomous behavior patterns that drive the way things are done.

Given the enormous change in ways of working over the past two years, it is essential to assess the cultural ‘footprint’ – the points of pride and strengths of an organization’s culture, as well as the challenges they present – to gauge employee perception and see what may have changed.

Next, clarify the “critical” behaviors you want people to engage in more frequently to improve performance, connection, and equity.

Reinforcing a culture requires translating any proposed changes into the daily behaviors of each employee.

It is important that leaders model target behaviors in a visible way.

For example, if a leader wants to help remote team members feel more included, they can deliberately ask those people for their input on every call.

Additionally, companies can leverage authentic informal leaders who can influence others in their respective areas of the organization to adopt the behaviors and lead by example.

At a major asset manager, executives pushed their employees to stop focusing strictly on their own responsibilities and instead adopt a more dynamic approach.

If co-workers were unable to perform their duties (due to pandemic-related lockdown, family emergency, or other requirement), other team members would step in.

Leaders encouraged this change by prioritizing team goals over individual performance.

They also asked team members to upload stories that showed this principle in action; more than 500 were shared on a company-wide microsite and highlighted in hands-free calls.

Build the right physical environment

Desktop setup is another key consideration.

Businesses need to carefully examine the current environment and assess how effectively it supports different types of work.

Many aspects of office design are based on convention rather than deliberate thought.

An analysis found that building thermostats have generally been calibrated for the comfort of men aged 40 and weighing around 154 pounds, which is cooler than is comfortable for most women.

This standard was established decades ago and has never been updated.

Almost any physical feature of the office can be made more conducive to hybrid working.

Technologies such as an online whiteboard for meetings, smart cameras that automatically pan around people as they speak, and virtual receptionists help bridge the gap between virtual and in-house workforces.

Even after investing in the technology, companies need to evaluate it to see if it supports new behaviors, and they will likely need to adjust that technology over time.

For example, a large insurance company modernized its office to better support hybrid working.

It has partnered with design firms to replace individual desks with sofas and other comfortable furniture arranged in small spaces that can connect to video conferencing technology.

The company has also invested in digital whiteboard tools and collaborative task management software for more reliable communication between in-office and remote team members.

Provide the right support mechanisms

Finally, leaders must prepare their employees for success.

These support mechanisms can be quite diverse.

The insurance company mentioned above, for example, has created training programs to give its employees the right skills to succeed in a hybrid workplace.

These included tactical help on new technologies, as well as training for managers on effective virtual coaching conversations.

To ensure that these mechanisms are actually useful, companies need to identify key metrics such as productivity and employee satisfaction, and invest in systems to assess this data over time.

Employee engagement surveys are one approach, but other companies are now using monitoring software.

Hybrid working represents a major shift in how companies operate, but it doesn’t need to have a major impact on their culture.

By taking proactive steps, companies can ensure they have the right culture in place for their employees to thrive, no matter where they work.

*Count Simpkins advises clients on strategy and transformation of Strategy&Business, PwC’s strategy consulting business. Based in Dallas, he is a director at PwC US. Varun Bhatnagar advises clients on culture and organization for Strategy&Business Based in Dallas, he is a manager at PwC US.

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