Organisational culture previously lived and breathed within office walls. However, the newly distributed workforce has enhanced the presence of microcultures. How can HR and leaders respond to this?
In October 2020, software company Dropbox went entirely virtual. Office seating plans across the US, Europe and in Sydney were removed. Its physical spaces were no longer workplaces in the traditional sense, but ‘studios’ – destinations for occasional in-person collaboration rather than dedicated nine-to-five workspaces.
Banks of desks were thrown out and movable furniture was rolled in. Water coolers and conference rooms, typical spaces for colleagues to congregate, were traded for cafes and libraries. ‘Touch-down spots’ were created for coworkers to quickly catch up whenever they ventured into the building, which may be only a few times a year.
Dropbox’s new office spaces reflected its ethos: agile, collaborative and individualised. Its guiding light was to “make work human” – one of the San Francisco-headquartered company’s core values, says Allison Vendt, its Global Head of Virtual First.
“Virtual first is designed with the whole human in mind, not just the employee,” she says. “It’s a model bringing together the best of both the remote and the in-person experience. ‘Make work human’ translates to building a compassionate culture where employees can do their best work.”
For Dropbox, losing full-time in-person working didn’t end its organisational culture. Instead, transforming a multi-billion dollar business into a remote-first company, where employees could dictate their own schedule and place of work, meant the culture had to be recalibrated.
Core collaboration hours – four-hour windows for synchronous work such as meetings – have been introduced, with the rest of the workday freed for teams for focus work or personal errands. Dedicated budgets have been allocated for quarterly gatherings at its studios, as well as for home-working perks. A virtual-first guide to distributed work has also been published.
Vendt says these measures have helped to infuse Dropbox with a culture that prioritises the employee’s remote working experience. Instead of copying and pasting its previous set of values, beliefs and actions, the company has redefined what these mean in a new world of work.
“Our shift to virtual first proved to us that organisational culture isn’t built within the four walls of an office. Rather, it comes from the values and behaviours that are instilled, practised, modelled and mirrored by everyone inside the company. While the physical office was, and still can be, an obvious forum for a company’s culture to manifest itself, it’s not the only way to bring culture to life.”
As more and more companies adopt hybrid or remote ways of working, culture will be experienced in pockets by teams. As opposed to traditional top-down workplace culture set by a CEO that then permeates through a whole corporation, smaller groups of employees are beginning to set their own standards, norms and communication styles. This is leading to the emergence of microcultures in which teams’ sense of connection is no longer necessarily attached to a workplace or organisation at large, but to the individuals they interact with on a daily basis over Zoom or Slack.
As a result, the future of workplace culture could become fragmented, transforming the concept of the organisation as we know it. For the employees doing the actual day-to-day work this may not be an issue. However, for employers and HR leaders going forward, it raises questions as to what their role is in communicating a company’s mission, purpose and values to teams.
The emergence of subcultures and microcultures
Culture is often a catch-all phrase to describe a certain atmosphere people experience at work. Even before the pandemic, it was often experienced differently by small groups within the same organisation.
However, in the same way we’ve seen some leaders fear losing control without teams physically working in front of them, many employers are unsure how to respond to changing workplace culture in hybrid and remote working environments.
In fact, some leaders are concerned their culture is disappearing altogether.
“The idea that someone sets the organisational culture from the top, and that it can be controlled, has been proven to be wrong.” – Aaron McEwan Fahri, Vice President, Research Advisory, Gartner
Misha Byrne, Partner at Brisbane-based workplace behavioural strategy firm NeuroPower, says these employers often find themselves in a state of inertia.
“Leaders are still wanting to pull back the conversation to whether hybrid or remote is actually good, or if the office is really that bad. We need to get past that. Given that the vast majority of us will be having a version of hybrid going forward, we should instead be figuring out which muscles need to be developed to make it work successfully.”
Aaron McEwan FAHRI, Vice President of Research and Advisory at Gartner, says many employers are confusing the loss of physical office environments with the loss of culture. He adds that leaders in these cases feel a lack of control, leading to frustration and a reluctance to fully embrace hybrid working.
“Leaders’ jobs are often relational. Their work is focused on meetings and influencing others – work that’s better done in person. If that’s your job and the rest of the office is deserted, it makes sense they may have concerns. We’re seeing some leaders that aren’t in control anymore, with the work often being done by employees away from the office. It leaves them in an uncomfortable position – and they’re conflating that with losing workplace culture.”
McEwan acknowledges organisational culture can be a vague term, with multiple interpretations; one that can be crudely defined and revised according to an employer’s preferences.
Typically, it’s also communicated in a nebulous way, with bosses relying upon the office environment for it to be slowly absorbed by employees.
“The only cultural strategy has been to rely on osmosis,” says McEwan. “‘Let’s dump everyone in the same place and somehow our values and way of doing things around here will seep into everyone.’”
When the pandemic hit, employers couldn’t lean on this strategy to communicate culture.
“We began experiencing culture within the teams we worked in and the work we did. Employees effectively began working in their own offices, so business leaders could no longer use physical proximity to share values that used to be on the workplace walls.”
Conversely, as leaders’ grip on their employees loosened, the connections between teams working remotely strengthened.
Subcultures emerged alongside organic daily working practices that were an off-shoot to company dogma.
These microcultures have grown over time, says McEwan.
This disconnect between inflexible organisational culture and everyday microcultures has created friction for HR teams. In a February 2022 Gartner US survey of more than 200 HR leaders, 61 per cent said culture had become more important in hybrid settings than in on-site working. Yet they reported that the most challenging aspect in setting their hybrid strategy was adjusting the current workplace culture to support distributed teams.
“The idea that someone sets the culture from the top, and that it can be controlled, has been proven to be wrong,” says McEwan. “It’s sometimes been used as a means of control. But we’re seeing now that the connection to culture is to coworkers, rather than the four walls.”
Byrne says that rather than resist the blooming of new workplace microcultures, employers should lean into it even further.
“The leaders still adopting a top-down approach in setting their policies for teams to follow are struggling to see them stick. Instead, the organisations willing to experiment, relearn and entrust teams are overcoming the friction of hybrid working.”
Building a stable culture in an unstable environment
Peter Burow, Founding Partner of NeuroPower, says that rather than a topdown approach to setting culture, leaders should think “inside-out”.
“You set the principles at the top, then those are worked through at the team level, with each individual contributing their own ideas. Each team then has a contract with each other to individualise their way of working, enabling them to get the work done on their own terms.”
McEwan agrees employers still have an obligation to connect employees with the organisation’s goal. However, the journey to get there will look radically different.
“The speed at which the world is changing, and at which organisations need to move, requires a more distributed style of leadership and decision-making. It’s about setting the big-picture stuff at the top – ‘What we’re about, where we’re going and what we need from you’ – then entrusting teams to make the best decisions on how that will happen.”
Instead of setting a strict, hierarchical culture in place, leaders should look for a softer approach in the hybrid age of working.
However, straying too far the other way, and allowing workplace culture to slowly drift away, means remote teams will struggle to have any sense of belonging, says Dr Sean Gallagher, Director at the Centre for the New Workforce, Swinburne University of Technology. If this innate human desire is left unfulfilled, he adds, connections are lost, and employees and organisations suffer.
“Our shift to virtual first proved to us that organisational culture isn’t built within the four walls of an office. Rather, it comes from the values and behaviours that are instilled, practised, modelled and mirrored by everyone inside the company.” – Alisson Vendt, Global Head Of Virtual First, Dropbox
“There becomes little distinction between whether you’re a full-time employee working remotely or a gig worker. Research shows the connections we have across an organisation decay over time if they’re not actively kept up. That’s the challenge of remote working – it can significantly diminish the connections between people.”
The risk is that work becomes purely transactional. Gallagher says this can lead to an extreme where new starters join a company remotely, only ever interact with teams digitally and leave the company having never met a colleague in person.
“In-person experiences remain critical to building culture and attracting and retaining talent,” he adds. “It’s important to build meaningful bonds between people and create stickiness to an organisation. That sense of belonging and identity in forming a workplace culture is critical.”
How can organisations make hybrid work more human?
Without full-time in-person working patterns, forging connections and community through distributed teams and computer screens becomes much harder.
However, the challenge provides an opportunity to rethink flawed, decades-old practices such as workplace cultures that often required employees to be at their office desks every day, leading to issues like presenteeism and impression management. Recreating workplace culture with a ‘north star’ in mind – a constant guide shining the way through the murkiness of uncertainty – can pay dividends.
“We’ve been very intentional about ensuring the value of ‘make work human’ transcends the physical office by infusing it into our new work processes, policies and protocols,” says Vendt. “Ultimately, company culture should be something we can experience wherever we are, because it isn’t necessarily rooted in a physical space.”
HR leaders’ role in this new version of workplace culture is to ensure the microcultures emerging via remote teams align with the organisation’s broader mission and purpose; HR becomes the connective tissue providing structure to disparate networks, helping to form a cohesive whole.
“HR is increasingly going to have a more embedded role in teams,” says McEwan. “Their function will be to ensure the right resources are distributed to teams in the right ways so they can thrive.”
In the next version of workplace culture, where teams enjoy greater flexibility, autonomy and a renewed sense of belonging, employers will be able to reap the benefits.
“Working in remote or hybrid settings, we’ve seen people more able to be their authentic selves at work,” says McEwan. “If you no longer have to put on a suit and smile, step through the office door and leave yourself behind, you have greater authenticity. You’re more recognised as an individual and feel connected to a healthy working culture.”
The office walls may no longer be visible, but that doesn’t mean organisational culture will disappear. It will simply look different.
“Culture results from emergent properties arising out of complex systems – it will always exist,” adds McEwan. “You don’t need a head office to create it – organisations can take on many shapes and forms.
“Employees have a big capacity to self-organise if they’re given clarity of purpose, direction and what the goal looks like.”
This article was first published in the November 2022 edition of HRM magazine.
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