Like remote and hybrid work environments, the significance of organizational culture began long before the pandemic.
How we work has changed forever. Waiting for the world to return to how it used to be is no longer an option as more and more organizations develop new models of work in response to a rapidly changing world.
To be fair, organizations had already been moving in the direction of remote and hybrid work before the pandemic — the pandemic only accelerated the pace. But let’s be clear: remote and hybrid work is not a new phenomenon, nor is it going to slow down anytime soon.
A 2022 Accenture survey on remote and hybrid work found that:
- 58% of those surveyed were already working in a hybrid model before and during COVID-19.
- 63% of high-growth companies have already enabled productivity anywhere workforce models.
- 83% of leaders surveyed identified a hybrid model as being optimal in the future.
What hasn’t changed is the importance of organizational culture and its impact on organizational performance. Like remote and hybrid work environments, the significance of organizational culture began long before the pandemic and recent data suggests it will only continue.
For example, a 2019 survey by Glassdoor found:
- When searching for a new job (remote, hybrid or in person), 77% of respondents said they would consider a company’s culture before applying.
- American millennials are more likely to care about work culture over salary (65%) than those age 45 and older (52%). Similar numbers were found in the UK (66% vs. 52%).
- 89% of adults polled told researchers that it was important for employers to “have a clear mission and purpose.”
Understanding Organizational Culture
Let’s begin by clarifying what we mean by “organizational culture.” Having a shared understanding of this blurry and sometimes confusing term is an important starting place in today’s increasingly complex workplace.
I define organizational culture as an outcome that can be measured by patterns of behavior that reveal the actual values of your organization as modeled by your organization’s leadership.
Let’s break that down.
- An Outcome
- Your culture is not a unique lever or system in and of itself. Organizational culture is the result of multiple levers and systems (e.g. HR, development, communication, etc.) that work together to shape an outcome that can be seen and experienced.
- Patterns of Behavior
- The shared behaviors that are tolerated and reinforced through leadership structures and systems.
- What you say you value (e.g. core values, etc.), which is either reinforced or rejected through the behavior of your people.
- The more authority and power a leader has, the more they contribute to culture shaping.
If you prefer metaphors, consider organizational culture the soil in which your staff and/or key stakeholders are planted. Are they healthy and productive? Are they producing good fruit? Are they staying alive and thriving? If you said “no” to any of those questions, there is likely a systemic problem within the soil of your organizational culture that needs to be addressed.
Related Article: 5 Ways to Build Company Culture in Hybrid Work
Remote and Hybrid Culture Challenges
While remote work is clearly a positive development, it’s not without challenges, especially for those younger generations just starting their careers. In the same Accenture survey quoted above, 74% of Gen Zers said they want more opportunities to collaborate with colleagues face-to-face. The number was only slightly lower for millennials.
As workplaces continue to evolve, employee sustainability and success will hinge on discovering new ways to support and develop staff. How can we re-imagine organizational culture in a world where office rituals are no longer accessible to everyone? How can we build relational and functional trust when physical connection is limited to once or twice a year? New generations of workers in new workplace realities will require new strategies and policies in order to sustain growth and productivity in this brave new reality.
Related Article: Are Your Culture-Building Initiatives Actually Hurting Your Culture?
What Thriving Organizational Cultures Have in Common
Below are four best practices I’ve found in thriving organizational cultures that rely on remote and/or hybrid workplaces.
1. They Make Culture Explicit
Explicit — Stated clearly and in detail; leaving no room for confusion.
Senior leaders can no longer afford to view organizational culture as something “caught more than taught.” That may have worked when everyone was in the same building (although I’d question its effectiveness even then), however, there is little hope of that approach being effective in today’s remote and hybrid work environments. Organizational culture will not scale if it is squishy and left to intuition and feeling alone.
To get sustainable and consistent results in remote and hybrid environments, organizational culture must be articulated through clear and compelling narrative. Create a “brand-book” or “us book” or “culture guide” that includes actionable principles that leave little room for misinterpretation or ambiguity and that apply to remote workers as much as in-person staff.
2. They Over-communicate
In times of crisis or change, frequent, targeted and thoughtful communication is a leader’s most powerful tool for obtaining support and adoption. It’s not possible to over-communicate during those times. However, many leaders under-communicate because they make assumptions about the clarity and buy-in of their people which leads to premature calls to action which build frustration and resentment.
Like any new business venture, remote and hybrid workplaces need clear vision, strategy, planning, experimentation and critical feedback in order to make iterative improvements. Understanding that communication is a conversation more than a presentation is vital to build alignment and support. This only happens if time is dedicated to key topics which are then facilitated with appropriate levels of candor and honesty.
3. They Develop New Rituals
Rituals are recurring employee activities that build positive energy and reinforce brand values. Rituals can be led by leaders and include things such as all-staff activities. The best rituals, however, are organically driven by employees, developing from within the organization.
A great example is NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. Every October, the staff use their own time and resources to pull off an over-the-top pumpkin carving contest. It’s an employee-led activity that gives engineers (whether remote or on-site) the chance to apply their rocket-building skills to something fun and unconventional.
Identify the employee-led opportunities and/or activities already in motion that reflect your brand values, then fan the flame of these brand rituals. And remember — support does not mean control.
4. They Create Psychologically Safe Spaces
Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson says that, “Creating psychologically safe spaces means employees have a sense of confidence that their colleagues will not embarrass, reject or punish them for speaking up.”
To build a foundatIon of trust, mutual respect and psychological safety, organizations with remote work environments must commit to facilitating meetings that elevate the following principles, regardless of the medium:
- Promote active participation.
- Ensure everyone feels heard and seen when they engage.
- Encourage diverse thoughts and opinions.
- Emphasize the importance of vulnerability and honesty by mitigating any fear of retribution or punishment.
Many of you reading this get the unbelievable opportunity to reshape the very way in which your organization works. It’s a brave new world, so lean in and make the best of this dynamic season of deep change.