Company Culture

Is There Still a Place for Company Culture in a Hybrid Workplace?
Covid nudged company culture off track - can we still reroute it?

In a post-covid world, companies are awakening to the idea that company cultures must be rebuilt and redefined. Let’s embark on an expedition to uncover the best practices that strengthen company cultures in remote and hybrid environments.

What purpose does a company culture have in an era of remote and hybrid solutions flourishing?

Is it still a meaningful concept when teams collaborate over continents and time zones without ever having sat next to one another in a conference room? Is it still meaningful even though colleagues are no longer exchanging ideas under the fluorescent lights of their open-plan offices?

As the founder of Collaborative Art® team building, I strongly believe in the power of company culture. However, I repeatedly hear from clients about how the accelerated and partially forced digital and hybrid transitions have impacted companies' values and culture.

Now, when remote and hybrid solutions have become a part of the new normal, it’s time to look at what company culture looks like in this world and what can be done to salvage it.

What is company culture?

Company culture is a subtle thing that can be hard to define. It consists of values, beliefs, and attitudes held - often unconsciously - by a company’s employees and management. These unconscious or subconscious attitudes are reflected in the everyday behaviours of the employees.

Due to its intangible nature, it’s often easier to observe the culture from the outside than the inside, notes CIO and IT management expert Mark Settle, in Forbes.

 “Cultural beliefs and behaviours may be blatantly obvious to external observers but much less apparent to employees immersed in their company’s culture on a daily basis,” Settle writes

Why does company culture matter?

As invisible and intangible a concept as company culture can be, it impacts the functioning of the business on every level. Every company has a culture: whether it operates remotely, in hybrid mode or fully in person.  

Workplace culture also impacts individual and team morale, workplace engagement and job satisfaction. In the era of the Great Resignation and Quiet Quitting, a positive and safe company culture can be a way to attract top talent for open positions, boost productivity, decrease turnover and improve employee engagement.

Culture even impacts the company’s finances. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, toxic workplace cultures cost US employers $223 billion in turnover over a five-year period.

Covid nudged culture off its tracks

Before the covid pandemic began accelerating the use of remote and hybrid work solutions, the specificities of company culture were largely negotiated through daily in-person interactions: coffee chats, water cooler hangouts, chatter between cubicles or desks, formal and informal meetings. 

During and after the coronavirus pandemic, those spontaneous everyday moments that had been shared between colleagues became scarce. This, naturally, was reflected in company values and culture as well. 

According to the California Management Review, values such as collaboration, being detail oriented and being customer oriented took a hit during the forced remote working period. Employees were simply less connected to their teammates and their company’s mission, which had a continual impact on the culture.

On the other hand, values like flexibility and transparency were highlighted under the new circumstances that employees found themselves in. The different (and often unfamiliar) ways of working resulted in employees re-evaluating their work, their working relationships and their roles in their companies. 

Company culture in a remote environment

After the pandemic started letting up in many regions, companies were faced with new questions: were they going to continue to allow the maximum flexibility remote work could provide, set up their own version of a hybrid model or insist that all employees be back in the office full time?

For employees, remote and hybrid conditions are often a perk, and 76% of newly remote and hybrid employees report a positive perception of the workplace.

From the perspective of building and nurturing company culture, however, the question is more complex. While digital tools make it possible for most professionals to tackle their to-do lists from wherever they are, sharing a physical workspace with people still plays a role.

“Face-to-face still matters because it creates rapport and trust,” 

highlights James Thomas in Strategy&, which is PwC’s online magazine. Many companies are struggling to implement ways of working to ensure true connection between employees while maintaining some flexibility, all whilst moving the company forward.

Pull, don’t push - culture is about collaboration

This leaves companies with a tough balancing act. How can you maintain and even intentionally cultivate a specific culture when it’s a possibility that your people may never be in the same room again full time?

Building culture starts from clarity: the shared vision and clear objectives that guide employee performance. When employees understand the organisation's long-term goals and how their contribution links to those, it creates not only clarity but also a sense of purpose.

For most leaders this part is clear, but what might feel harder is turning the theory into practice and creating an environment where the values lead to the intended behaviour. According to Gartner, 70% of surveyed HR leaders were confident that they knew the culture their organisation needed to drive business performance. Still, only 30% were confident that their desired culture was obvious and visible in the everyday life of the company.

When translating the values and the culture into the day-to-day running of the business, it’s important to keep in mind that culture is created in collaboration, not from the top down. It’s about “pull”, not “push”; it’s about giving the employees a genuine seat at the table and a chance to voice their thoughts and concerns instead of being told what to do.

Create space for connecting

Another element is creating opportunities for employees to get to know one another at work and outside of work to foster meaningful relationships. 

In a remote environment, these practices often need adjustments. While an annual corporate off-site event might have worked for team building in the past, remote and hybrid teams might benefit more from more frequent yet shorter getaways. This will allow them to reconnect with existing relationships or build new relationships with colleagues they have never met. 

I continually witness the power of gathering teams around a shared vision through Collaborative Art® team building workshops. Clients report back that connections are built, and more conversations are ignited in the corridors long after the event has finished. 

Take, for example, the workshop hosted for Kinetic Consulting post-covid to unite them around the legacy of the footprint they’re creating. Admire their masterpiece in the showcase video below.

Examples: how to sustain company culture in a hybrid work model

There are also several practical solutions that companies have trialled during and after the pandemic. One solution could be creating a remote working handbook and framework that sets common rules for working together in a hybrid environment, suggest People XCD.

The leadership at Slack, the company that created the communication app bearing the same name, strategised about the ways to keep the culture alive no matter where their experts were coming in from. They set up remote wellness courses and offered resources for working parents, while watercooler chats were replaced by virtual meetups. 

“It’s important that we model the behaviours that we want to see,” says Nadia Rawlinson, the company's Chief People Officer. “Saying that I have to duck out of a meeting to turn on a home-schooling class for my 5-year-old shows that it is normal. It says that we are flexible, human and in this together.” 

Building company culture is not a sprint

Shaping culture is not a speedy endeavour. It requires a commitment that starts from the top and leaders who set an example for consistent communication, accountability and transparency. The leadership team needs to be willing to walk the walk and talk the talk through role-modelling the values and culture they want to integrate into the company.

Still, now is as good a time to start as any. As Mark Settle resumes in his article for Forbes, tough times are often turn points for the culture: “The 2022 downturn gives executives a second chance to use a crisis to shape the cultures they are seeking to establish within their companies. The 2022 downturn is enough of a crisis in many companies to galvanise the attention of employees and provide an opportunity for executives to display true cultural leadership.”

How is your company approaching this new opportunity to shape its culture intentionally and future-proof itself for upcoming challenges?

I would love to hear how your company culture has changed with the new remote and hybrid working practices. What are the wins, the best practices and the struggles you’re still facing while implementing new models of working? Are you organising off-site gatherings more often than previously to nurture culture and connection?

About the Author

Steph Fonteyn is an internationally exhibited artist, corporate facilitator and the founder of Collaborative Art® team building. She ties together the fine threads of creativity, courage and leadership to provide her clients with transformative team-building and workshop experiences. Her mission is to empower professionals worldwide to tap into their inherent creativity to be better leaders and bring about change.

Steph founded Collaborative Art® in 2011 to unite teams around a shared vision through art, and she has developed innovative techniques to unlock both the creative and collaborative potential in teams. With her artistic talent, public speaking skills, HR experience, and team-building expertise, Steph has become a respected figure in creativity, communication, and leadership.

As an award-winning public speaker, she has shared her expertise on creativity and courage at various events, including TEDx in 2015.  

Steph splits her time between creative artwork and supporting companies through creative, collaborative team-building activities. She lives in Switzerland, near Geneva.I
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