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How to Promote Culture in a Hybrid Office

by Keith Fentress / May 28, 2021

If you are like me, over the past year you have immersed yourself in articles and webinars about all aspects of how the pandemic will shape the future of work. The hybrid office has emerged as the new workplace, with employees splitting their time between working at home and working from the office. Along with the emergence of the hybrid office and the notion of long-term remote work, many have declared the death of traditional corporate culture.

A common myth is that corporate culture cannot be conveyed remotely. How can you have a culture without in-person connection and community? There is an almost desperate sense that employees need to return to the office to keep the company culture from unraveling.

I disagree with this notion – corporate culture can be promoted remotely. However, it cannot be promoted in quite the same way as in-person interaction. Here’s how to do it.

Review Mission Statement

The culture of an organization is derived from its values and how leadership reinforces the values. Many companies have a mission statement that is supported by values. For example, a mission could be to provide a leading service in your industry that improves people’s lives. The values could include excellent customer service, innovation, teamwork, etc.

A first step toward reinforcing culture in the new hybrid office is to dust off your corporate mission statement and values, and objectively ask if anything needs to be changed given the hybrid setting. For example, if you have the value of providing excellent customer service, can that value be promoted effectively from both the workplace and when working from home? If the answer is “yes,” then this value can work effectively in a hybrid setting. If the answer is “no,” then the value should be modified or replaced.

The goal of this effort is to think through whether the mission and values of your organization are still relevant and meaningful in a hybrid setting.

Leadership Sets the Example

A key to any corporate culture is leadership. The employees will reflect what leaders model. We have all seen this numerous times in both large and small ways. I remember a past manager who ate his lunch in the breakroom and, while doing so, he would place his tie over one shoulder to keep from spilling anything on it. The manager would typically eat lunch with several of his employees. Before too long, those employees also started placing their ties over their shoulders.

This is just a small example of the power that a leader has in influencing actions. It is important for leaders to reflect the values of an organization and thereby mimic what is important for the organizational culture. It is also important for leaders to intentionally promote corporate values, and to provide resources and tools that support the culture. Being intentional can include how expectations are set, the language that is used, the actions that are taken, and the way resources are allocated. All of these areas come into play when leaders effectively promote corporate values.

Below are some organizational values to consider for the post-pandemic workforce and how these values are perceived differently in the hybrid office.

Equity and Inclusivity

Equity and inclusivity have always been important values for healthy organizations to pursue. Traditionally, these values have focused on treating people consistently and fairly, accepting them for who they are, and appreciating that we all have differences. Employees should feel included and respected, and their unique voice should be heard.

In the hybrid office, the concept of equity and inclusivity includes adapting the organization so that people working from home have the same opportunities as people working from the office. The concern is that people who work from home will be treated less fairly than those physically in the workplace because they have less in-person time with their managers and are not able to connect face to face with coworkers.

Hybrid Office Culture_Inclusivity

Equity and inclusivity need to be strategically planned in the hybrid office. How will corporate leaders ensure that they are treating everyone the same whether they are at home or in the office? A great tool for doing this is to have 1-on-1 meetings with employees and to strive to treat the meetings similarly, whether someone is in person or over videoconference. These meetings should include coaching, feedback, praise, and redirection as needed.

Having routine 1-on-1s with all employees also provides an opportunity for the manager to address equity and inclusivity directly with each employee. This is often not an easy conversation, but one that I have found to be impactful. A couple years ago, I created an anonymous survey for the company about equity and inclusivity. I then displayed the results during a company meeting and followed up individually with each employee to discuss the areas that had the least favorable survey results. Based on employee feedback, I was able to learn how to improve and I also gained constructive ideas on actions that could be taken to promote equity and inclusivity.

Meeting Equity

A special case of equity is ensuring that employees are treated the same during meetings, whether they are working in person or remotely. Remote employees often feel disconnected because they are not in the room during meetings. As a result, they miss out on pre- and post-meeting chitchat and may feel awkward about contributing since they are not in the room. To combat this, it is often helpful to have an icebreaker at the beginning of a meeting so that all employees have the opportunity to talk and share their views on a topic. The icebreaker does not need to be work related. It has been proven that setting aside 5 to 10 minutes for an icebreaker leads to better participation from everyone involved in the meeting. A lot of times, we will use “Zoom breakout rooms” to discuss a topic in small teams, and then assign a spokesperson from each team to present their team’s points to the full group when we reconvene.

Of course, there is not always time to do an icebreaker, but leaders can ensure more uniform participation by addressing remote workers directly and/or asking them questions on meeting topics. Another strategy is for all employees to participate in the meeting from their individual workstations rather than from a conference room any time there are remote participants. This latter process solves two issues: (1) everyone is seen as an individual on the videoconferencing screen, and (2) everyone can be heard clearly – as opposed to gathering in a meeting room where your ability to be heard is dependent on the microphone placement.

Videoconferencing platforms are taking this a step further. In the future, you will have the option to appear in a box on a videoconferencing screen while you are attending an in-person meeting. The technology will use facial recognition to identify each person sitting at a conference table, and then display each face on the screen in an individual box. In this way, everyone is seen as an individual on the videoconference, not just those employees who are working remotely.

Appreciation

Another consideration for the hybrid office is how to show appreciation for people working in the office versus remotely. The concern is that employees who are in the workplace may be shown more appreciation because they are physically present. After all, receiving a compliment from your manager as you pass in the hallway or ride together in the elevator is a motivator and something that cannot happen when working from home. As stated above, leaders need to be intentional with their actions to make sure they show appreciation where it is deserved, whether to in-person or remote employees.

Appreciation can be provided for many aspects of work. Some of these aspects can be objectively measured like productivity – completing an assignment on time, meeting a sales goal, reducing the budget, etc. Other aspects are less measurable, such as how someone completes his/her work – teamwork, leadership, etc. Appreciation can also be shown for life’s milestones like birthdays, work anniversaries, new babies, etc. Leaders need to develop a consistent process for when and how to show appreciation for in-office and remote employees.

Hybrid Office Culture_Appreciation

One of the small things we do to express appreciation in our company is to give one another “high-fives” in an employee engagement application called 15Five. At the end of each week, everyone completes a check-in through the application. At the end of the check-in is a section for recognizing individual employees by giving them a “high-five,” which is a short statement on why you appreciate someone. This statement is then published to a company-wide channel in Slack (an instant messaging application) for everyone to see. For me, it has become a nice way to end my week as I see words of appreciation being expressed for coworkers who went above and beyond in their contributions to the company. Tools such as this can be used effectively and seamlessly in both a remote and workplace setting.

Professionalism

Professionalism is perhaps one of the corporate values that has suffered the most during the pandemic. Employees had to quickly figure out how to set up a productive environment at home and how to effectively communicate over new technologies. This has been a challenge for many.

Professionalism has to do with communicating and behaving in a way that respects organizational values and contributes to the work ethic and success of the organization. There is no question that professionalism can be more easily cultivated in a physical workplace. Verbal cues, body language, and direct observations all contribute to shaping professionalism. There are rules of conduct, such as dress codes and work hours, that are much more easily established and reinforced in a physical office setting.

When employees started working from home, the professional cues from the workplace were mostly severed. This enabled employees to express themselves as individuals, but the trade-off is that it made them feel more disconnected from their coworkers. Many employees have felt “adrift” during the pandemic because they lack the sense of connection that keeps them bonded to their coworkers, the corporate mission, and the professionalism that is unique to a company’s culture.

Instead of having in-person meetings in a professional office setting, we now communicate over videoconference in a wide variety of home office settings. Some employees may not have the most productive work boundaries set up in their homes. We often see glimpses into employees’ lives via videoconference – pets, children, housemates, home environment, etc. And of course we have all heard stories (or even experienced) extreme examples of unprofessionalism on video, from the employee who is not muted when they yell at their kids, to the employee who shows up in a tank top and backwards baseball cap. These extreme examples aside, the necessity of videoconferencing during the pandemic has led companies to relax the notion of professionalism, and to allow for individuality as long as company values are adhered to.

It is important that leaders set the example by creating a distraction-free work environment with boundaries that separate work from home. Leaders can also coach their teams to do the same. I think we have all learned how to be patient with technical difficulties, barking dogs, and children that appear in the background of videoconferences. However, to sustain working from home, the notion of videoconference professionalism will likely turn towards increased professionalism as the majority of employees work through boundary issues. Setting up guidelines, mimicking desired behavior, and 1-on-1 discussions with employees about professionalism can go a long way toward reinforcing corporate culture.

Sustaining Culture

It is amazing to witness the success that has been achieved as companies and employees have adapted to remote work during the pandemic. Flexibility, agility, and adaptability are all hallmarks of how organizations and individuals have responded to the pandemic’s real and concrete threat to the health and wellness of employees, all while continuing to conduct business and achieve organizational goals.

However, in considering a hybrid office that maintains employee flexibility and promotes a balance between home and work life, it is important to start the hard work of promoting culture. I mentioned previously that it is important to review the corporate mission and values for their relevance to a hybrid work setting, to ensure that leaders intentionally promote values and the organizational culture, and to provide tools and resources that support the culture. Even if your organization has completely different values from the ones described above, this process is still the key to promoting corporate culture in a hybrid setting.

Every organization is different, but by pursuing a hybrid office, you are sending a clear message that the needs of employees are at the forefront of your corporate culture. You are saying that your organization values employees as individuals, and as such will allow continued flexibility that contributes to a healthier work-life balance. And ultimately, putting employees first will go a long way toward promoting a positive work culture that will make your organization even stronger.

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Keith Fentress

Keith Fentress

Keith Fentress is the founder and president of Fentress Incorporated. He has an extensive history of consulting to real property organizations. His skills include organizational development, program evaluation, and business process improvement. He enjoys outdoor pursuits like backpacking, canoeing, and snorkeling.