Last month I had my first virtual-to-actual meeting: someone I’d worked with for over a year, but never met in person before.
The difference in actually sitting opposite someone, and having a face-to-face discussion in real life, rather than just a quick focused call on a screen is quite striking. It’s also amusing to see how the subconscious assumptions you’ve made about someone actually materialise in person.
The cultural experience of remote working is a bit like having to watch TV on a 1970’s analog set. You can see the picture, but it lacks clarity and definition, so the experience is lessened somewhat.
The same is true when it comes to company and team culture.
When you work remotely for a long time, there’s limited personal interaction, communication barriers occur, and siloed activity grows. The shared cultural identity – the sense that we are all in this together and this is what we stand for, becomes less clear and it is easy to start to question whether everyone is aligned to the same goals.
As businesses look at post-pandemic hybrid work models, they are recognising workplace culture as a key area of focus.
Successful organisations have a culture based on a firmly held and widely shared set of beliefs supported by strategy and structure.
This causes three things to happen:
1) employees know how top management want them to respond to any situation,;
2) employees believe the expected response is the proper one and;
3) employees know they will be rewarded for demonstrating the organisation’s values.
So, what can we do to make sure the good parts of our work culture remain as strong as they always were, but reflect the ways of working in our new hybrid working world to make it even better?
1. Creating a clear identity
The culture of a company is defined by the emotions, mindsets, and behaviours of its’ employees. Therefore, the first step is to have a clear identity about who you are, what you stand for and what you want to become.
The more a team is an active part of this process, the more they will understand the reasons why, and actively embody the cultural principles. However, there will be predefined rules, and it’s important, and helpful to clarify those up front, but to also acknowledge where there is flexibility for the team to create their own.
Start by getting each person to separately define their view of your purpose, core values, priorities, and the behaviours you reward and punish. A great tool we would recommend to assist with this process is the Culture Design Canvas created by Fearless Designs. By initially working in isolation, it’s a great way to gain clarity on everyone’s perception, facilitate alignment, and uncover areas for development.
2. Fostering Autonomy
Team members need to be comfortable accepting an autonomous working culture and making decisions themselves rather than being told what to do by others. For some this will come naturally, others will need coaching to help them adjust.
The trick is whenever possible, ask people their views and opinions, and get them used to forming their own answers. You may find the reason it doesn’t come naturally is that you are often providing the answers.
This also creates psychological safety amongst teams as you are welcoming their ideas and trying out their suggestions. Use failure as a teachable moment for everyone but avoid blame and instead harvest lessons about what worked and what didn’t. Dedicate time in weekly recap meetings for these teachable moments and grow and move forward together.
3. Synchronous and asynchronous working
The key to increasing productivity in hybrid teams is by doing things together (synchronous working) and by doing things alone (asynchronous working). Synchronous working creates a feeling of belonging and leverages the benefits of others’ ideas, perspectives, and feedback. In contrast, asynchronous working allows you to get things done without interruption, gives you thinking time and allows you to be in a highly productive state.
When thinking about what type of hybrid work pattern might work best, a good place to start is to work through the broad elements of your role, your current business activities, and when and where it’s best to do them. A tool we would recommend for this is the matrix below from Fearless Culture.
Rather than defaulting to three days in the office and two days from home, it is important to see the broader responsibilities employees have within the team, rather than just saying, they ‘need’ to be in the office. In addition, what is required in terms of working pattern may change from one week to the next, depending on what is required. Answers will inevitably vary depending on role, business activities and personal preferences.
Ultimately though, the final decision will rest with the business. Think of it as a 51% business shareholding in the decision and make this clear at the start of the process.
This will be one of the first areas teams need to test and learn from and non-work time must also be protected, as being able to switch off is very important in maintaining good mental health preventing burnout.
4. Feedback culture
Feedback, if done well, drives greater staff retention, higher productivity, and higher profits. The challenge is, particularly when working remotely, managers are often worried that their feedback may hurt feelings and as such result in diminished productivity. They therefore resort to techniques like the ‘praise sandwich’ that end up doing more harm than good. The result is a tenuous feedback culture built largely upon evasion, confusion, and self-delusion.
Agile working is now a globally embraced framework and mindset that enables businesses in almost every field to help teams adapt to changes and evolve. Agile teams perform retrospectives as a stage in every project; what went well, what could have gone better, what do we want to try next, what puzzles us? As a consequence, lessons are quickly learnt, results are better, and delivered faster. Feedback is just something that happens. These principles can be quickly applied when it comes to hybrid working.
Rather than relying on a feedback hierarchy, moving towards more of a partnership model, one that distributes power and responsibility, can also be effective. A simple quick hack is to rotate the team meeting chair, so everyone gets the experience of leading the meeting, then follow this up with coaching discussions to see how it felt for the lead and what they learnt. As an extra benefit, you’ll also find meetings become more efficient as everyone experiences the leadership responsibility.
High-performing teams share nearly six times more positive feedback than average teams. Meanwhile, low-performing teams share nearly twice as much negative feedback than average teams. It’s therefore very important to highlight the positives when you can and make feedback a positive part of the team culture, without sugar-coating everything.
Building a fair and equitable culture is more complicated when you’re running a hybrid team. There’s a proximity bias that leads to the incorrect unconscious assumption that “the people in the office are more important than those who are not”.
Make sure meetings are held at different locations based on what makes the most sense for the meeting purpose or balance out the travel obligations for the whole team. Taking the time to travel to other sites is one of the many ways that helps foster the partnership culture, rather that of command and control.
With meetings, it’s best to all be present in-person, or virtually. If that’s just not possible, the meeting facilitator needs to be very conscious that those attending remotely can hear what’s being said and are able to actively participate.
Run checks on your own activity. The goal is for employees, those working remotely and in-person, to feel like they have access to leaders and to the kind of informal interactions that happen on the way to the company cafeteria. Do a quick check to see who gets the most interesting projects, who’s recommended for promotion? Is it the quiet person, or the parent or carer working from home who’s doing an amazing job but is out of sight more? Or is it the politically savvy ambitious person who knows when the senior people are going to be in, and who always happens to be in when they are?
Ensure people who work from home more have the opportunity for cross department or cross team collaboration so they can also build their networks and maximise the value they add to the team.
6. Actively create opportunities to build personal relationships
When people know one another well, they are much more likely to work well together. Team members who already know, like and respect each other may be more willing to collaborate for the success of the project.
Socialising makes work more fun with the end result not only being a more positive workplace but also improved overall morale. Conversely, a stiff and unfriendly work environment will have the opposite effect.
When employees feel connected to a company, whether it is because they share the same vision as the company leaders or they feel as though their fellow co-workers have become like family, they are less likely to seek employment elsewhere.
All these elements add up to one common result: happy employees who are naturally more productive.
With hybrid working, this social element of work needs particular focus. How do you create informal interactions where people can get to know each other, or reunite, when you’re not all in the office together?
I’ve often heard it said that when teams return to the office, the first week can probably be written off as people naturally just want to catch-up. This is very important from a relationship perspective, as are the 5 mins of chat before a virtual team meeting.
Rituals have a unique power to bring people together creating a sense of purpose, values, and meaning. What did you use to do pre-pandemic that people really valued and how can you translate that into the new working model? How do you now welcome new joiners, or returners to work?
Virtual team rituals can keep the culture alive, but research and our own experiences show that nothing replaces the experience of bringing everyone together in-person. So, think strategically how you can best use that precious time.
It’s also a great area where all the team can contribute new ideas. Many moons ago one of our team suggested we leased a convertible sports car as a pool car, and the person of the week got to have it over the weekend. We found a way to make it happen, and it became a special event each week.
So, there’s a few thoughts for you on hybrid culture. Work has always evolved. Humans have moved from foragers, to hunters, to farmers, the industrial revolution, and then to the office. We’ve now reached another pivotal point in work’s evolution. That the workplace landscape will change is not in doubt, and that brings new and very exciting opportunities.
Tony Lamb is a Director of Nua Training. If you found this article useful and would like to know more about how to transition your teams to a new hybrid working model, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org