26 October 2021

Hybrid working: how to keep your culture alive and thriving in a hybrid work environment

Creative desk with pens and stationery on

What can we do to keep culture alive and thriving in a hybrid work environment?

The alarm would go off, you would get ready for work and commute. Then everything changed. Covid-19 fundamentally tipped the way we approach work on its head, the workplace culture rulebook torn up virtually overnight. We discovered many things during that time: we do not need to go into the office to get work done and a lot of things, if not most, can be done online.

We created home offices and made sure we had the perfect background shot of our home for those seemingly unending video calls. We got used to the phrase “you are on mute!” and we accepted in good humour the inevitable interruptions of pets and kids. Working from home came with its own unique set of challenges and got some getting used to, but after a while, both employers and employees could see the benefits for example saved time and money on the commute to work and office costs.

As we navigate into the next stage of the pandemic an entirely new term has crept into our vocabulary – hybrid working, and although it sounds quite futuristic, it simply means that employees split their time flexibly between the physical workplace and working remotely.

What does your new workday look like?

Chances are your current work model is a hybrid one. Love it or loathe it, hybrid working is here to stay, however, it is not the cure-all silver bullet to all our workplace challenges. While acknowledging the many benefits of a hybrid work model, leaders are asking questions about how to keep workplace culture alive and thriving in a hybrid work environment. Organisational culture can be thought of as the personality of the organisation, it is made up of many things, such as habits, norms, expectations and processes. Simply put organisational culture is “the way things are done around here” but the way things were done changed rapidly as businesses adopted video-conferencing, screen-sharing and a whole host of other digital tools to keep business operations running during lockdowns. Before the pandemic businesses were moving towards digital transformation and there is little doubt that Covid-19 accelerated this shift by many years.

However, it is important to recognise that time in the office or physical workplace has value. A screen can never replace certain aspects of human interaction, the biggest aspect that is difficult to replicate online is creating rapport with another person and building a sense of trust. When you are physically with another person often trust and the relationship between you is being developed through your conscious and unconscious body language. When we are face-to-face we pick up much more adeptly on those all-important non-verbal cues and micro-gestures that signal the other’s person mood or inner feelings at that particular time.

There is also the classic workplace conundrum of creating the right impression on your manager or boss. Does being seen physically in the office, furiously typing away at your desk demonstrate more commitment to your job? Does showing that you have made an effort to come into work create a more favourable impression of you in the eyes of management? Does the old saying of “out of sight, out of mind” mean that if you are not physically present you have less influence, voice and could miss out on certain opportunities? Do leaders feel more in control and have a sense that they know what is going on because they can see you? These are some of the perplexing questions raised by the hybrid working model that are not easy to answer.

Let’s not forget also the very important social aspect of office life, simply being around fellow colleagues being able to ask for help, small talk and office banter are little things that can positively impact our mental wellbeing at work. One of the biggest drawbacks of remote working that many employees suffered was a sense of isolation. Working alone in silence is not something that suits everyone and for some working from home negatively impacted their mental health. Many experienced that working from home blurred the lines between their personal and work life. For example, when you log off your computer and drive home at the end of a day, it signals that it is time to stop working. However, working from home those sorts of signals are not readily available. Remote working can lead to a toxic “always-on culture” in which employees find it difficult to switch off from work and can ultimately lead to high levels of stress and burn-out.

What can we do to keep culture alive and thriving in a hybrid work environment?

As with many things in life, the hybrid working model has its pros and cons but there are some practical steps we can take to make sure our workplace culture stays alive and kicking while hybrid working.

1. Communicate boundaries

Leaders should communicate a clear message about the importance of a work/life balance. If leaders are pro-active in re-assuring their teams that it is ok to switch off once your work is done and if they model that behaviour in their own conduct, it can massively reduce the feelings of stress, pressure and anxiety potentially experienced by a hybrid workforce. The message is clear, there is a time to work and a time to play and both are important, this reinforces a positive healthy team culture as opposed to a stressed and potentially toxic one.  

2. Be flexible

Leaders should understand that a cookie cutter approach to adopting a hybrid working model just does not work. Everyone is different and one size does not fit all. Leaders should demonstrate empathy and emotional intelligence to recognise that different employees have different needs. Leaders should be willing to agree a hybrid working model that is a win/win for both parties. For example, a parent may require more flexibility during the working week than other childless employees. If leaders can remain flexible and take into account the individual needs of the team, it sends a powerful message of re-assurance that the organisation cares. It is interesting to note that one of the reasons employees have cited for leaving their job during the “Great Resignation” was a feeling of not being supported or understood by their employers.

3. Focus on outcomes and results

It can be tempting as a leader to want to control and micro-manage every aspect of the work of our teams. Many leaders feel like they are more in control of their employees when they can see them physically at their desk or in the workplace. However, leaders need to learn to trust their teams to deliver on what is really important and that is why focusing on outcomes and results is so important under a hybrid working model. The ultimate question for the leader is, “is the work getting done and are we getting the results we want?” If the answer is yes then leaders need to learn to relinquish the urge to control how the team works to achieve those results. Number of hours spent at work does not automatically translate to productive results. Leaders should focus on outcomes rather than overly worrying about how many hours their team are working.

4. Prioritise mental health

The pandemic has taken its toll on many people’s physical and mental health. Now more than ever can organisations afford to ignore employee wellbeing and particularly the area of mental health. Research has shown that poor mental health is causing many employees to burnout and can lead to them experiencing stress related illnesses. Leaders should constantly seek to provide better support and resources to their employees as well as conduct regular check ins with their staff to monitor their overall sense of wellbeing especially with a hybrid dispersed remote workforce as this sends a powerful message of care and support.

5. Build culture online

The most important thing a leader can do with a team that is following a hybrid model of work is stay connected. Touching base and communicating with the team is vitally important, there is such a thing as too much communication and getting the balance right is key. Leaders should explore ways of engaging the team online through interactive games, socials and fun activities online. Online tools can be used for more than just getting work done and by applying a little creativity, it is possible to create memorable team events online that bring people together regardless of where they’re working and do wonders for building culture.

Hiten Bhatt

Hiten Bhatt

Hiten Bhatt is a guest writer for MHR, a Coach, and an Author on the subjects of Wellbeing, Leadership, and Personal Development.

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