[Long read] Hybrid culture clash: How to build a happy hybrid workforce

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. Even though our video conferencing technologies, with the correct broadband signal are very effective, the difference in actually sitting opposite someone, and having a real discussion, rather than just a focused 30-minute call is quite striking. It’s also amusing to see how the subconscious mental assumptions you’ve made actually materialise in person.

September 2021 was an interesting month, with many companies using this as the date for employees to start returning to the workplace, to actually meet face to face and begin to experience the new and exciting world of hybrid working.

So, this brings me onto the topic of culture in a hybrid working context. The cultural experience with remote working is a bit like having to watch TV on a 1970’s analog set. You can still see the picture, but it lacks the clarity and definition of a modern TV, and so the experience is lessened.

The same is true of company and team culture. When you work remotely for long periods, your cultural experience is reduced as you don’t have as much exposure to that rich experience of what the company’s about, 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.

It is easy to get an us v. them psychological distancing dynamic, where we start to question whether everyone is aligned to the same goals and are really holding themselves accountable for the results. You may have historically seen this in perceptions of other teams and/ or offices, as it’s a natural psychological phenomenon. Not directly experiencing things in person, starts doubts arising in your mind and you make assumptions. Is the person you meet face to face for the first time, the one you thought you knew?

Culture has taken a hit since the pandemic, and business leaders are seeing this as a key area of focus as they look to define the new working models. 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: Employees know how top management wants them to respond to any situation, employees believe the expected response is the proper one, and employees know they will be rewarded for demonstrating the organisation’s values.

Gallup conducts studies on employee engagement and identifies the relationship between culture and performance. A recent engagement report found that “Highly engaged business units achieve a 10 per cent increase in customer metrics and a 20 per cent increase in sales.” Gallup describes, “The relationship between engagement and performance at the business/work unit level is substantial.

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?

Creating a clear identity

The culture of your company is defined by the emotions, mindsets, and behaviours of your employees. Therefore, the first step is to have a clear identity of who you are, what you stand for and what you want to become?

The more you can get the team to be an active part of this process, the more they will understand the reasons why, and actively embody the cultural principles. There will though be predefined rules, and it’s important, and helpful to clarify those up front, but also know 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 to assist in this process is by using 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.

Fostering Autonomy

Sir Clive Woodward, the ex-England rugby, world cup winning team coach once said, “In a winning team, everyone must become a student and they must want to collectively improve together. If you’re in a scenario when someone says, ‘You’re the coach, I’m the player – tell me what to do’, you’re in trouble.

Team members therefore need to be comfortable accepting this autonomous working culture, making decisions themselves rather than being told what to do by others. Some will find this very natural, whereas others will need coaching to help them adjust.

The trick is whenever possible or practical, 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 among teams and employees by welcoming their ideas and trying out their suggestions. They can also do so by using failure as a teachable moment for everyone, by avoiding blame and instead harvesting lessons about what worked and what didn’t. Dedicated time in weekly recap meetings for these teachable moments can help get the word out that everyone’s role is to drive the business forward.

Synchronous and asynchronous working

The key to increasing productivity in hybrid teams is the use of Synchronous and Asynchronous working.

  • Synchronous working is when we do things together. This creates that feeling that I belong, as well as leveraging the benefits of others’ ideas, perspectives and feedback.
  • Asynchronous working is when you do things on your own. This is your turbo-charge button, allowing you to get things done without interruption when you’re in your highly productive state. It gives you time to think between question and response, as well as protecting your non-work time. Being able to switch off is very important in maintaining good mental health and trying to prevent burnout.

Rather than decreeing three days in the office and two days at home, a good start is to use the following matrix from Fearless Culture to work through the broad elements of your role, your current business activities, and when and where it’s best to do them. If specific team members just want to work from home, this exercise, along with the Culture canvas can help them to see the broader responsibilities they have within the team, rather than just saying, you need to be in the office.

Answers will vary with different roles and business activities, as well as personal preferences.  When I led a hybrid team, I would generally plan for three days in the office or be out meeting clients/suppliers or visiting other sites. When I led a hybrid team, I’d then generally plan for two at home to get my actions done, or have team calls, but each week would vary. Three days in the office and two days at home wasn’t the weekly default answer.

Ultimately though, the final decision rests with the business. Think of it as a 51 per cent 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, to work out how flexible working allows them to increase their performance levels.

Feedback culture

Feedback, if it’s done well, drives greater staff retention, higher productivity, and you guessed it, higher profits. The challenge is, particularly when we are working remotely, managers are often worried that their feedback may lead to hurt feelings, discussions may then get out of hand or result in diminished productivity, so resort to face-saving 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 is now a globally embraced framework and mindset that enables businesses in almost every field to help teams adapt to changes and evolve within their industries. At its core, its aim is to improve management and create more reliable workspaces by using feedback and analysis. 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 in Agile working

These principles can be quickly applied. Fast-cycle after-action reviews with individuals and entire teams with safe conversations that surface what team members are learning, best practices as they work toward new ways of interacting, as well as experiments that weren’t effective. This is the position we find ourselves in now with our hybrid working, and as noted above, what Synchronous and Asynchronous working model works best for us?

Rather than relying on a feedback hierarchy, moving to more of a partnership model that distributes power and responsibility increases safe two-way conversation, where the focus is the positive impact to the team. This leads to a more authentic and revealing feedback experience that fosters trust, flows with the rhythm of work, and sets the conditions for positive, lasting change. 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 your meetings become a lot 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.

Inclusivity

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”.

This is an area to be particularly sensitive to. We’d run monthly team meetings at different locations, based on what made the most sense for the meeting purpose, or balancing 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. You need to think remote first to try to counterbalance the experience of people outside the room.

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?

Photo by Kampus Production from Pexels

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.

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.

If you look forward to spending time with your co-workers while doing your job, it 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 will be much less likely to want to seek employment at another company. We recently saw this during a round of company redundancies, when several of the potential redundancy candidates actually referred to their colleagues as the “work family” that they were losing.

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 very exciting new opportunities. 

About Tony Lamb
Tony Lamb is a Director of Nua Training, a people development company that works with media companies such as BBC Worldwide, Discovery TV, Immediate Media, DC Thompson to help transform the way teams present, sell and perform.

Header photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

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