Zoom calls have replaced in-person meetings, Slack messages have replaced water cooler talk, and hybrid culture is now replacing office culture. What are some ways that the hybrid world is different from in-person dynamics, and what are some things to look out for so that you can keep your team’s morale high and their relationships strong?
In the days before hybrid work, building a collective culture at the office was essentially effortless – while employers of course would attempt to instill certain values systems in their workplaces, for the most part, offices were an organism that created their own internal dynamics. With no office, no walls telling you who’s separate from who or floors telling you which teams are where, the flow of the office is disrupted, like driving on streets versus off-roading in a field. This means that in order to properly create a new flow, you need to find a way to make in-person and remote workers feel like they can all drive together, despite their paths being a bit different.
Ashley Porciuncula, consultant, product leader and CEO of Orbital.chat has always felt that an employee’s emotional wellbeing is a huge part of the workplace, and ultimately impacts their ability to work freely – and in some ways, making an effort to facilitate a new company culture can open the door for bountiful opportunities to nurture that support system.
“The primary challenge with hybrid work is that the line between onsite and offsite is often quite thick,” Porciuncula says. “We can’t just expect to hire the best and expect them to self-organize. Poor remote communication can result in lower psychological safety, higher employee turnover, and reduced productivity… It takes mindful effort to ensure that this doesn’t happen, through practices such as frequent scheduled communication, open-channel conversation tools and activities that proactively build trust and inclusion.”
Remember that you’re not just making an effort to craft a new culture, you’re also reassessing what kind of culture you’re trying to build. Before the days of hybrid work, a company’s culture wasn’t just office-centered in location – it was office-centered in events and ethos. From a potluck to a game night, from intimate breakroom talks about ex-boyfriends to late-night coffee runs with your new teammate, trying to complete a project by the deadline, your organization’s culture was defined by what you did in the office. Now, while there is no more office for everyone, the locus needs to transition to the workers, not just the workplace.
In the hybrid world, because our work and home lives are so enmeshed, it’s of the utmost importance that we stop thinking about work as a siloed activity, and start thinking about it within the context of our lives in order to build a more hospitable environment for employees. Rather than assuming everyone wants a remote happy hour or a remote workout challenge to build culture, try shifting focus to more inclusive, human-centric ideas.
“Instead of full days of back-to-back meetings with everyone in the same time zone,” Porciuncula adds, “we need to be smarter with how we balance asynchronous communication with more flexible, shorter synchronous check-ins. Ensure that every worker has equal access to management, whether they’re in the office or outside of it. Scheduling 1:1 meetings is key to this, as well as being present virtually, for example holding virtual open office hours instead of only being available for pop-in questions for those in the office.”
Ultimately, to refocus on the human element and attempt to regain some of the lost chemistry we had in the office, Porciuncula recommends that a company shift its focus from recreating the workplace to creating a workplace. This comes in the form of not only planning but budgeting and benefits.
“Our physical environments shape so much, and it’s impossible for that to not change how we work in some way,” Porciuncula says. “This varies greatly from person to person. A single individual who has a dedicated home office will have different strengths and challenges than someone who works from home with small children in the house.”
Once these roles are delineated, Porciuncula explains, it’s then time to provide a budget for remote workers so that their home offices are just as conducive to productivity as their onsite office would be. Not everyone has a “dedicated workspace,” she adds, so some might need more accommodations than others. The most important thing is that an employee feels safe, both psychologically and in their environment, to work to the best of their abilities.
When taking the time to build a hybrid culture, it’s important to keep in mind that you not only need to make an effort, you need to assemble some staff to help out. When there once was a volunteer Office Activities Manager or maybe a Head of Culture in your HR department, there now can be opportunities for new roles, like Office Coordinators, or new leadership positions as well.
“A strong hybrid work culture does not just happen magically,” Porciuncula begins, “it requires a strategy and ownership. We see more roles like Head of Remote popping up specifically for this purpose, which is fantastic.” If a company doesn’t invest time in fostering the growth of roles like this, however, there will be no hybrid culture to replace a company’s once-vibrant office culture.
“Replacing in-office socials with awkward games over a video call doesn’t cut it,” Porciuncula adds, as 26% of professionals say that the novelty of video conferencing has worn off. “Employee loyalty and engagement needs to be earned.” And whereas that was done in the office simply by coming to work, in the hybrid world, someone with innovative new ideas has to be the one to step in and experiment.
A hybrid culture isn’t just about making the office fun, it’s about making communication a highlight of your workday. Though we can’t just pop into someone’s office for a quick chat anymore, we can still touch base with the people that matter the most using tools like virtual office hours or voice-only calls and integrative tools.
“Managers need to be much more in tune with the individuals on their teams, and plan ways to build trust and psychological safety,” Porciuncula says. “Many people default to socials for this,” such as Slack, “but even more important are functional means like open-office policies.”
Additionally, Porciuncula adds, specifications around role responsibilities, designated duties, and clear expectations are all hallmarks of hybrid culture, as a lot of the implied dynamics of an office no longer apply to the hybrid work world. Unfortunately, people are generally irritated by the expectations for communication placed upon them outside of business hours by management, so it’s important to know when to reach out, and when to respect someone’s boundaries. Managers especially must be wary about this – being a remote manager and an onsite manager might necessitate two different skills sets, and being a good hybrid manager is about integrating both.
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