Leaders’ biggest concern right now is that culture is getting lost in a hybrid work environment – and they’re right. But that’s not such a bad thing.
For the last few years, many organisations operated in remote work environments because they had no other option. Now that we’ve moved into the next stage of the pandemic – and life is relatively ‘normal’ again – we’re operating in hybrid environments because we want to.
This means we can design hybrid workplaces with intention, rather than settling for a slapdash job out of necessity. It also presents an opportunity to fix what was broken.
One of the biggest fears leaders have at the moment, according to Aaron McEwan FAHRI, Vice President of Research and Advisory at Gartner, is how to keep a tight grip on culture in a hybrid environment.
“Leaders aren’t asking me about productivity, interestingly enough, because every measure we get is showing us that productivity and performance have been [steady] – it’s starting to decline a little bit now, but there are different reasons for that [you can read his thoughts on those reasons here]. But everyone is petrified they’re going to lose their culture.”
It was the top concern in Gartner’s latest research into hybrid cultures, which surveyed nearly 7000 global employees, above collaboration/innovation issues and employee wellbeing, safety and fatigue.
But McEwan says this fear might be ill-informed. Not because it’s untrue, but because it’s missing the bigger picture.
“I think we’re potentially living through the end days of corporate cultures as we know it,” he said as part of his presentation at day two of AHRI’s National Convention in Sydney.
“We’ve got to rethink culture. What’s the point of it? What’s it designed to do? And we need to start recognising that there’s a disconnect between the way [employers] see culture and the way employees see culture. That’s going to come to a head sometime soon.”
Is culture really dead?
McEwan’s suggestion that culture as we know it might be disappearing shouldn’t cause alarm. As with many things in the workplace, culture is simply evolving. More on that in a moment.
“It’s this panic, particularly from our CEOs and board of directors, which is forcing a whole bunch of people to come back into the office, when they don’t want to.”
There are myriad reasons this mandate is grinding some workers’ gears: people might be able to create better boundaries at home; they might enjoy the opportunities to work at times convenient to their schedules; or they might simply relish in the opportunity to work without interruptions.
“An executive from Apple once told me that they believe the success of Apple AirPods, prior to the pandemic, was largely due to millennial employees wanting to block out the sound of open-plan offices without coming across as rude,” says McEwan.
Whatever people’s reasons to stay working from home are, he says it’s important to remember that there’s no evidence to suggest that there’s any benefit to working in the office full-time.
In a panel session titled ‘The Future is Flexible’, Dr Ruchi Sinha, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at University of South Australia, says there’s a strong appetite for remote working.
“One upside is that there’s no drop in productivity,” she says. “It’s not substantially lower or higher, but there is a self-reported amount of work-life balance across countries and nations.
“We also know that people who are using flexible working have fewer sick days and they report a little more engagement because of the autonomy offered.”
On top of these benefits, Gartner’s research suggests that people who work remotely or in a hybrid fashion are more likely to feel like they can be themselves at work compared to their in-house counterparts.
“Less than a third of on-site workers felt like they could be their authentic selves and work,” says McEwan.
Again, the reasons for this could be varied, but one suggestion McEwan shares is that work used to comprise a very central part of our identity. In some respects, it still does, but the dial has also shifted towards other aspects of life since the pandemic.
“One of the reasons I think culture might be out is because this magical thing happened during COVID where we reconnected with our own [personal] communities – our families, our pets, our gardens, our interests and hobbies.
“When work isn’t at the centre of your life, you can find purpose and connection elsewhere.”
A new type of culture
All this doesn’t mean HR and leaders can wipe their hands clean of the responsibility to deliver on many of the things that culture currently does, such as a sense of community, belonging and psychological safety. It just means culture could look different in a few years’ time.
One of the issues with culture pre-COVID was that it was very much determined by leadership.
“The culture was largely diffused through the office. It was the values on the walls. It was people just showing up and behaving. It was this macro-based experience of work,” says McEwan.
“I think we’re potentially living through the end days of corporate cultures as we know it.” – Aaron McEwan FAHRI
It could feel like trying to squeeze a bunch of different people into the same mould.
“So we’re almost grieving something we didn’t really do that well,” he says.
Instead, perhaps we need to optimise the micro-experiences of work.
“Culture is now experienced in much smaller ecosystems. It’s experienced in teams, and it was experienced in relationships. Subcultures got us through the pandemic.”
This means we need to think about moving towards facilitating connectedness between groups rather than a one-sized ‘hybrid culture’. Gartner found that employee performance rose by 37 per cent and retention by 36 per cent when connectedness was considered.
Previously, employers have focused on cultural alignment, he says. That looks like people being able to say:
- I know what the culture is
- I believe the culture is right for us
- I demonstrate our values and behaviours
This alignment manifests in things like hiring for ‘cultural fit’, leader-led communications espousing the values and onboarding new talent to show them ‘how things are done around here’.
Connection looks more like this:
- I identify with the culture
- I care about the culture
- I belong within the culture
“We didn’t used to do much about connectedness. We kind of just jammed people into the same space and hoped connection would just happen,” says McEwan.
But it’s critical that we be far more intentional with efforts now, as 76 per cent of HR leaders feel that hybrid work challenges employees’ connection to organisational culture, according to Gartner.
“And only one in four employees are committed to their organisation’s culture… but that’s not because of flexible working. This is probably the most important point I want to make. In almost every conversation I have with CEOs, they’re blaming hybrid and remote work for the loss of connection. Which explains why they just want us all back in the office.
“But our data shows that the more flexibility you have, the more connected you feel. This is one of the most interesting and counterintuitive data points we’ve seen in our research in a long time.”
We also need to shift mindsets away from physical to emotional proximity, he says. This means employees feel seen and valued, even if they’re working away from the workspace. And we need to diffuse culture into the work people do, rather than the space they dwell in.
“We need to repair the damage of remote working… We have defaulted to Zoom and Team meetings as our way to communicate, but it’s making our work less efficient.” – Dr Sean Gallagher
McEwan shared an example of what this can look like in action.
“Dropbox focuses on asynchronous work first. It doesn’t matter what time zone you’re in. In fact, they’ve got a meeting period and meetings can’t happen outside of this, so APAC employees aren’t sitting on 12am calls.”
Dropbox also focuses on the connection needs rather than connection touchpoints.
“And it doesn’t mandate in-person time. Rather, it facilitates social connections. Dropbox banned work from the office. There are no cubicles, there are no spaces to sit and work. It’s purely for collaboration and social connection. That may be what offices become.”
In a separate panel session, David Concannon CPHR, Chief Operating Officer at Employer Branding Australia, made a similar point.
“Why don’t we stop calling them ‘office spaces’? Drop the ‘office’ and just call them spaces,” he says.
Concannon also reminds us that the office is a relatively new invention.
“They’ve only been around since around the 1940s… For the vast period of time, most of our work was done at home. You ran a blacksmith and you lived above the shop. At some point we said people would work in an office, but that’s a relatively short period of time.”
This is just the next iteration of work. Just like the invention of emails caused us to fundamentally rethink how we redesign work for optimal efficiency, the remote and hybrid work movement will be our opportunity to redesign with optimal employee wellbeing in mind.
Culture considerations to keep in mind
Whether you think culture is dead or you’re simply looking for an opportunity to revamp it, there are a few things to keep in mind.
“One downside is the impact it can have on gender equality,” says Sinha. “The promotion of women is still reliant on how visible they are at work. That hasn’t disappeared.”
Another downside, she says, is that some people are working much more.
“There’s some research which suggests people are doing 48 minutes more work [when working remotely], so technically productivity should go up, but it could also mean that people are stressed and exhausted.”
Her fellow panelist, Dr Sean Gallagher, Director at the Centre for New Work, Swinburne University, says people are working longer hours to get through their normal workloads.
“Interestingly, they’re not telling their bosses [if they do]. So there are a lot of IR issues there.”
It’s also important to consider how people are measuring productivity when they say things like ‘it hasn’t been impacted by remote working’.
“If you use the unit of time as a day then productivity output per unit of time is okay. But output per unit of hour is heading south. Workers are putting in more hours in a standard day just to get their work done because we’ve filled people’s days up with meetings.
“So yes, productivity is seemingly unimpacted, but it’s having an impact on workers’ wellbeing, and it’s ultimately unsustainable.
“We need to repair the damage of remote working. Part of that damage is because we’ve forgotten how to communicate. We have defaulted to Zoom and Team meetings as our way to communicate, but it’s making our work less efficient.”
Read HRM’s deep dive into the research behind why we find it so hard to stop attending unnecessary meetings.
The future of hybrid
Middle managers are amongst the most burnout cohorts at work, says Sinha. So HR really needs to think about training them to operate effectively in a hybrid world, so they role model good behaviour to those below them, therefore safeguarding against wellbeing issues.
She also thinks it’s important to hire leaders with hybrid in mind.
“There’s been this extrovert-introvert advantage for the longest time. We know from research that we’ve promoted extroverts at work because they do all the socialising and networking. What does it mean when you put that extrovert in a Zoom room and they’re dominating the conversation and not allowing for others’ voices to come up?
“We need to hire people who know how to communicate in both flexible virtual situations and face-to-face,” she says.
We should also be designing hybrid cultures with fairness in mind, says Concannon, noting that organisations with a split between white and blue-collar workers need to consider how to offer those in the latter camp a solid deal.
“It’s almost creating two classes of workers,” he says. And that’s something we want to avoid.
Sinha agrees, saying, “There’s one example from the US. They found out that knowledge workers who work from home get a 7 per cent increase in their pay because they’re saving money from commute time, gas and all the other expenses of travel.
“So the thinking is that those essential workers who can’t work flexibly should be given a 7 per cent pay rise as an act of fairness.”
Concannon says employers should think outside the box about how traditional in-person jobs can be done remotely.
“We used to say people had to be on a mine site to drive the truck. You don’t anymore. You can sit in a high rise in Perth [and control it remotely]. And there’s a restaurant in Japan where they have robots serving food, powered by people who are living with disability and can’t leave the house.”
HR professionals have a key role to play in helping leaders to A) think outside the box when it comes to redesigning culture and B) encouraging leaders to let go of some of the control that’s causing their current cultures to stagnate (i.e. the idea that to be seen is to be productive).
Things will need to be done differently in some respects, and that might mean less oversight, less directive leadership and more trust in people to set their own tone. And it might also look like the development of micro-cultures that are established within teams. This needn’t be a scary thing. It’s an opportunity for HR to influence leaders to think outside their sphere of comfort.
Who knows, in 10 or 15 years time, people might look back on our current work arrangements and say, ‘Can you believe people used to get dressed up and spend over an hour in bumper-to-bumper traffic only to come into a building to switch on their laptops and not even talk to each other?’
Want to hear more from McEwan and Sinha? Check out this video of them discussing who is responsible for burnout.