Like employee engagement and work-life balance, culture plays a significant role in determining which job offers workers accept, how long they stay, and how well they perform. We’ve read a lot of articles about how to maintain your work culture in the face of a fully or partially distributed workforce, but we think those stop a step too soon.
Work in Any Way companies—those that embrace a flexible, people-centric, unbound approach to employee relationship management—shouldn’t be focused on how to reinforce existing culture, but rather on how to reinvent it so that both your workers and your organization reap the maximum benefits from a flexible work environment.
After all, the hybrid workplace is here to stay. In a study of knowledge workers in the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Japan and Australia, only 16% wanted to go fully remote and 12% wanted to go back to the office full-time. The majority, 72%, prefer a mix of the two.
In this new reality, culture takes on even more importance than before. It’s more difficult to ensure it flourishes in a partially distributed environment, but simultaneously more essential than ever to see that it does in order to unite your workforce and keep your teams engaged.
What people need from work
Harvard Business Review found that one of the greatest challenges of a hybrid office environment is that workers don’t necessarily develop the same idea of what culture is, and as each individual acts according to their unique understanding, they nurture differing approaches that contradict one another and further splinter the culture.
In order to cultivate a strong culture that will help your teams thrive at home or in the office, you need to start with what people miss about full-time office life. The benefits most commonly named are small talk with coworkers (57%) and in-person collaboration (53%).
Although 51% of U.S. workers report feeling less connected to their company culture when working remotely, there are concrete ways you can address that. In a study about the top ways to maintain a strong culture within a distributed workplace, 66% of respondents named weekly team meetings and one-on-ones with managers, both activities that increase connection. Even more (68%) chose virtual workshops and educational opportunities, which likely reflect the anxiety that certain co-workers are advancing while others are not. Separation makes it hard to know if everyone on the team is being treated the same, and this perceived—or real—inequity is something to watch out for in hybrid environments.
Culture is the mix of attitudes, beliefs and behavioral norms shared by a group, and it’s highly valued by individuals and companies alike. When evaluating job opportunities, 57% of job seekers at all career levels view company culture as important as salary. Not only that, but 73% of respondents say that a clearly articulated culture is the most defining element in an organization’s reputation as a choice place to work. Likewise, 75% of recruiters consider cultural fit to be more important than both work history and job experience.
But culture isn’t always easy to articulate. In the words of Andre Keil, who leads the coaching practice at the Center for Creative Leadership, culture has both a visible and an invisible component: “There’s the way things are supposed to get done, and the way things actually get done.” It’s important to determine if the culture you have is the one you think you have before you decide how to revamp it.
No matter your industry or company size, to be sure you’re crafting a work culture that will support your team and be adopted and reinforced by their actions, you have to start with a foundation built on transparency, connection and psychological safety.
Part of culture is how communication occurs, which directions it flows, and who is present when it happens. One thing remote-only companies like Gitlab share is a fervent commitment to written documentation. Meetings get recorded and notes posted so that those who didn’t attend can follow the discussion thread, contribute their unique perspectives and understand why decisions were made.
Sharing information publicly ensures that data isn’t siloed and all teams have equitable access to it. Move away from direct messages, team emails and one-to-one conversations in favor of company-wide meetings and emails or open instant-messaging channels.
Adopting radical transparency for all people in all departments may challenge how you think about access to information. Need-to-know privileges are elite and can create envy and resentment. Your goal is to open up channels so that more information is accessible to all.
How to increase transparency
Name culture and define who’s responsible for it
Is it human resources? Your leadership team? In truth, it’s the job of every manager in your organization to understand your culture and help it proliferate. Your employees will take it from there.
Experiment. Incorporate your team’s suggestions, however wild. Do the opposite of what you usually do for a trial period to see how it affects workflow.
Trust between co-workers matters as much as trust between leaders and team members. Employees working remotely are more likely to struggle with office politics and worry that colleagues are bad-mouthing them or lobbying against them. Helping workers forge, maintain and grow connections should be one of the goals of your company culture. Lea Jovy, founder of Location Independent, believes that culture arises from people connecting with each other beyond the context of work.
There are plenty of ways to do this. Trainual hosts virtual lunches and monthly book clubs and team members cheer each other on in 90-day personal and professional challenges via a dedicated Slack channel. Salesforce has virtual huddles each day where work talk is prohibited.
The absence of physical proximity can cause workers to drift and deprives people of signals that reinforce culture, from body language to shared experiences in community areas of the office. While research shows that the benefits of remote work for individuals and organizations outweigh the disadvantages, there is still value in face-to-face meetings. Duck Duck Go, who is fully remote, holds annual company retreats, team meetups and optional “work-ations'' where colleagues work together in destinations all over the world.
How to increase connection
Pivot toward 1:1 management
Shift how you manage teams, individualizing everything from the format, frequency and content of check-ins to the tools and tech you provide to each person.
Solicit and act upon feedback
You can’t count on people to volunteer what they need. Ask them for their input constantly and receive it with sincere enthusiasm. Ask questions designed to understand, not to judge, and be open to change.
Harvard Business School professor Dr. Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as “a climate in which people are comfortable being (and expressing) themselves.” Google found that teams with high rates of psychological safety were better at implementing diverse ideas and performed at higher levels. Psychological safety is especially critical for women, people of color, people with disabilities and other workers who are traditionally underrepresented, undervalued and held to different standards, and thus often need to advocate for themselves and speak out against ingrained biases in order to succeed.
The goal of psychological safety is for workers to communicate their thoughts freely, whether that’s suggesting new ideas or critiquing management, with the expectation that they’ll be considered thoughtfully and evaluated fairly, without fear of failure or reprisal. It encourages risks and experiments and drives innovation and change. One way to do that is by accepting suggestions and criticism with a willingness to actively listen and consider them.
Psychological safety leads to employee engagement. A Gallup study suggests that although only three in 10 U.S. workers strongly agree that their opinions count at work, companies who can double that count to six can reduce turnover by 27% and increase productivity by 12%.
Remote work lets people hire talent from anywhere in the world, leading to more and more diversity. This, in turn, requires educating your team about cultural norms and differences so that everyone feels comfortable working together.
When employees feel safe speaking up, they’re also less of a flight risk. Psychological safety encourages creativity, generates new ideas and helps you retain talent.
How to increase psychological safety
The idea isn’t new but how you do it when your team is spread out may be. Team-wide shoutouts or work time devoted to personal passion projects demonstrate how much you value your workers.
Results matter; how and when people show up doesn’t. Stop clocking the hours people work and start judging, and rewarding, them based on their contributions and creativity.
The ultimate goal of a culture founded on transparency, connection and psychological safety is to establish trust, which creates a workspace where people can thrive. To succeed at this in a hybrid work environment requires intention, curiosity and flexibility—all hallmarks of a Work in Any Way organization—not to mention continuous review. Culture can both support and unite a team spread out across time zones and physical spaces. When it does, your workers’ actions will reinforce your culture, thus creating a virtuous circle that’s good for everyone.
Learn more at The Future of Work is Work in Any Way.