How Will the Hybrid Workplace Impact Corporate Culture?

Remote work is here to stay.

The global pandemic has changed our working environment for the long-term – in ways we are yet to fully understand. The recent PwC 24th Annual Global CEO Survey found that 64% of employees would like to continue working from home, two or more days a week. Another study, published on March 4, 2021 The Conference Board, COVID-19’s Biggest Legacy: Remote Work and Its Implications for the Postpandemic Labor Market in the U.S., found that employees felt their productivity increased by over 40%, yet their time in meetings increased over 60%. It would be interesting to know the increase in our ability to multitask during those meetings, but I digress.

As we contemplate the concept of a hybrid workplace, we have a near-term challenge that needs to be addressed on two levels: 1) how do we structure the new arrangement and 2) how will this evolution continue to impact corporate culture?

To begin the process, let’s consider the current mindset.

It’s been over a year since most of us transitioned to work exclusively from home. The novelty wore off quickly. It didn’t take long for us to experience the emotional drain of not being physically connected-to and surrounded by our peers. Plenty of research shows that our ability to connect meaningfully to others is less satisfying when we are not physically present, and that shared understanding is harder to establish and more likely to suffer from “drift” as we spend time apart. There is an unconditional feeling of connection that we have lost—and that connection is buried in the idealism that we are bonded by similar priorities, interests, and attitudes.

Our traditional reality was based on meaningful and comforting office relationships, and those foundational interactions built and sustained our belief and engagement in the organizational structure. Perhaps, we all took it for granted and now we are trying to navigate a culture that has been pushed completely online. Many of us are further recognizing the value of our corporate culture because we have stepped out of it and are now experiencing feelings of isolation, increased personal pressure and the need to be “always on”.

As we evaluate the path forward, it’s likely that the biggest challenge of working remotely is that no one knows when to stop working. A recent Conference Board study found that work-life balance has declined over 45% in the last year while work hours increased 60%. This is not sustainable nor healthy.

What does branding have to do with culture?

As a brand strategy firm, we appreciate the importance of external, customer-focused branding and how it drives an organization’s growth. However, we have always recognized the importance of the internal brand—as employees are the greatest influencers or detractors of how a brand is perceived by customers. The impact of employee branding cannot be overlooked and needs to be revolutionized in very significant ways. Staff members are looking for guidance during this unstable time, and direction, transparency and increased communication, from the top down, is the solution to an aligned and empowered team.

So as leaders, we need to ask ourselves why. What is the brand connection between our fiscal business goals and the cultural fabric that shapes our workforce? How can we reimagine our new identity, inclusive of social responsibility and remote working? And with that, how do we make this an institutional imperative that lasts over time and generations?

This is going to take reflection and a thoughtful approach.

Get back to the basics.

Even more so, culture needs to serve a place in our remote and daily routines. Unfortunately, many of us are stymied when it comes to creating and directing culture when employees are distant. The first hurdle is acknowledging that culture can no longer be forged in the same way as it was in an office-centric model.

In the most basic form, we need to redefine what matters most, and in many cases, those are the personal and professional connections that emotionally tie our staff together.

My belief is that the office will serve a different role in the future. Not a place that you are required to go to daily and “punch the clock” – but rather a place that you want to go to.

A place where collaboration is sought out. A place to re-engage and bond with teammates. A place where a deeper sense of culture can be experienced. A true hybrid model could offer the best of both worlds. In most businesses the “work” can and should be done in whatever location and environment that is most effective for the individual.  We should look at the physical office serving a different purpose in the future.

A recent study from Accenture PLC supports this perspective. 83% of 9,000 respondents viewed a hybrid workplace as optimal. But there is no perfect, cookie-cutter approach. For leaders and employees alike, this new, work from home part-time, work in the office part-time approach will be messy for quite a while.

Set the tone and steer the culture.

It is our time to reinvent the connection. The time to grow and to send new and stronger signals. And the time to increase communications along with being explicit about our purpose (why we exist) and the meaning of doing so.

Let us remember, our customers believe in us, because we believe in our people. And by living and breathing the brand and the culture, the result is success across the board.

Leadership goals need to stress open communication and confirm the spirit of accountability. It is essential to support the belief in the mission and your people—and this needs to be more meaningful than financial gain right now. It is going to require an evolution and re-establishment of the brand to create a work environment that works for all of us—today.

During this inflection point, leaders have a stark choice to make: 1) do nothing, work to craft new ways of emphasizing the existing culture, or 2) capitalize on the shift to remote work to profoundly reset the culture.

When co-located, leaders often implicitly transmit culture by modeling behaviors and values in the presence of their employees. The same signals exist when remote, but they are harder to detect and interpret.

Therefore, leaders need to decide the type of remote culture that they want, the signals that are appropriate to communicate it, and how and when to send them without distortion. They also need ways to assess which aspects of the desired culture are resonating and which are not—it’s the only way to reach an authentic solution.

Use disruption to change.

We all confront unexpected changes throughout our lives, and our responses are often determined by how we perceive those changes. If we see a change as a threat, we tend to react defensively, taking immediate, aggressive action to protect ourselves. If, however, we see the change as an opportunity, we tend to be more deliberate and reasoned in our response.

Business organizations are no different. When a company faces a major disruption in its markets—one that could fundamentally change the business—the way its leaders perceive the disruption influences how they describe it to the rest of the organization, how they organize the response, and how they allocate resources. The way leaders set the context of a disruption—the way they frame it—shapes the strategy and culture that they adopt.

Disruption reminds employees of aspects of an organization’s past—founding ideals, stories, and commitments that have shaped both its culture (how we get work done and think about our work) and are central to its identity (who we are as a company).

Building up these core elements of culture can remind employees of an organization’s strengths, the vision ahead, and the satisfaction of achieving it together. That is how we can move forward, navigate ongoing change, and emerge stronger than ever.