Depending on your point of view, we’re either two and a half years into the Covid-19 pandemic or two and a half years out of it.
What isn’t up for debate though is the fact that companies are realizing that their long-established cultures are – slowly-but-surely – breaking down.
I believe the reason is obvious. Employers are interacting less frequently in-person with employees. In doing so they have fewer opportunities to reinforce cultural norms. More than ever leaders or hybrid organisation must be proactive and intentional about reinforcing the culture – but the simple fact of the matter is that they are not. Covid was bad, but what’s worse is the fact leaders have not attended to nurturing their company cultures.
The pandemic’s effect on culture
So what do we need to do about it? I argue we need to start new conversations about culture – in particular the intentionality of our cultures.
Let’s examine why.
While culture does not fully reside in the office, it is experienced more regularly in an in-person environment because of how we see people interacting. When people were isolated at home, their relationships suffered, especially with people outside of their immediate team.
Research shows that relationships with the employee’s direct team became stronger as we relied on each other for connection. However, more distant workplace relationships, across functions for example, became increasingly distant.
Not only did many people fail to connect remotely with individuals outside of their team but they may now work with different groups than they did pre-Covid. They may have never met their fellow team members, let alone the people in other functions.
In this new world there are few spontaneous collaborations; no water cooler discussions; no fruitful, chance meetings with someone from a function your group doesn’t touch very often.
On virtual meeting tools like Zoom, Teams, etc., people sit there quietly in their home offices. There’s less bonding, less interaction, less of a sense that we’re all valued contributors to a wider organization with a purpose.
Another effect of the pandemic is that people in isolation became more introspective. They began to feel that life was too short to keep doing their job unless it was meaningful. They didn’t want to work at a job they felt had little purpose, or where the company’s values weren’t aligned with their own.
These sentiments led to the flood of resignations. And, in turn, the flight eroded the sense of loyalty to a larger whole. The average job tenure has shrunk to 1.8 years. And a revolving door in and out of the company tended to weaken culture even further.
Hybrid organizations are a challenge for cultural cohesion
Senior leaders feel pressure to get their people back to the office because they sense this toll that the pandemic has taken on their company cultures. But, ironically, their move back toward the office has led to ongoing battles with employees who favor the flexibility of working from home.
You have read the news stories about companies that have insisted employees come back to in-person work, while their people have resisted this pressure. Such churn and uncertainty does not favor cultural cohesion.
The problem is hybrid organizations are here to stay. But as a result, they’re also liable to continue to create the difficulties for preserving your company culture described above: a weakening of relationships; isolation within a single team; less company loyalty; churn while the company discovers the rules and structures for hybrid work.
Leaders must be intentional about culture
The outlook may not look bright, but there is cause for optimism. The behavior of leaders is among the major causes of the erosion of culture. So, leadership needs to continuously reinforce the desired culture through their words and their actions – what they recognize and reward, what gets their attention, what behaviors they encourage and discourage.
The solution? Be intentional about culture.
Remember when you were learning to drive? You had to be intentional about the motions involved: braking, accelerating, shifting, etc. After years of driving, these motions became habitual, and you did them unintentionally. But if you found yourself in heavy traffic, in bad weather, you might find yourself becoming more deliberate about your driving.
It’s now time to inject that same intentionality into your company culture.
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Don’t expect that culture will just take care of itself. That wasn’t true in the old world of work and it’s certainly not the case in the hybrid world. You need to take intentional action to establish, communicate, and model the core principles that underly your culture.
Culture gets conveyed in how we act, what we pay attention to, and what gets prioritized. Thus, it is imperative for managers to reinforce – through their behaviors, their focus, and their priorities – what the company values and what its culture represents.
Steps leaders can take to reinforce culture
Being intentional about culture means scheduling events and using your remote work tools to create connections between your people and between your teams. Such events might be collaborative meetings across groups and functions. They might be purely social events, where you don’t talk about work. They might be all-hands meetings where cultural messages are reinforced.
Whatever form they take, you need to be intentional about structuring the time you have together. Make it count toward reinforcing relationships and the values that make your company unique.
And when you bring employees back to the office, you have to give them a reason. And among those reasons is that in-person work is an opportunity for connection and collaboration. Use the time you have with employees in the office to foster the relationships that are essential to your culture.
Managers also reinforce cultural norms and expectations through consistent leadership communications, symbols, and rewards & recognition. Every time you communicate, use it as an opportunity to reinforce the norms and principles that drive your culture.
Your company may also need to retool its human capital systems, including its rewards and recognitions, to reinforce the culture in a hybrid world. For example, research shows that, in hybrid environments, the people who come into the office tend to get promoted more than those who favor working remotely.
Companies need to be more intentional about who gets access to special developmental opportunities. They may need to re-examine policies on promotion to remedy any unintended consequences of working remotely, and to reinforce the company’s values (e.g., we value results, not face time).
And do not underestimate the importance of training. Recent research showed that relatively few managers have had training on how to lead in a hybrid environment. Add intentionality about culture to the training managers receive.
Reinforcing culture is a skill that can be taught and learned. You can equip managers to reinforce culture via the messages they convey through their own behaviors and practices.
In a hybrid world, communicate culture even more
Hybrid work environments tend to weaken our relationships and our feeling of being part of a greater whole. The pandemic taught us how important these feelings of connection are. With these bonds loosened, many companies are experiencing a loss of cultural cohesion.
The only solution is to become much more intentional about the communications and actions that influence and reinforce your company culture. In a hybrid world, it’s not the case that you need less connection because you work remotely for part of the time; it means you need to reinforce your culture all the more.