Probably the most asked question by every Leadership team today:
How do we create and maintain a strong and consistent culture in a hybrid workplace?
A culture that suits our company and where our employees thrive?
That drives engagement and increases employee retention?
If you are a HR or Business leader in a tech company, you are probably working on finding a solution to this as well.
For sure it is on the agenda of the HR Directors who participate in our Future of Work Leadership Circles.
In these circles, HR Directors come together to exchange best practices and find the best solutions for new and complex HR and Organisational challenges of their companies.
Tapping into the collective intelligence of experienced, forward thinking peers is a powerful way to find better solutions in less time.
In this article we have wrapped up a summary of the outcomes of our group season on:
How to build great culture in a remote working environment?
In a minute, we will move the business challenge but first I want to highlight something that we discussed during the session. I have been elaborating on this over the past weeks and I find that it holds the key to a sustainable solution.
When thinking about culture in a remote working environment, we see that organisations are primarily focussed on trying to reproduce or recreate office based culture (building), rituals and connection to an online environment.
However, that is trying to solve new challenges with new solutions.
And it won’t work.
Trying to recreate a physical environment in a virtual space will leave companies with a so-so culture at best, and an ongoing feeling of discontentment because it is impossible in nature.
And not only will companies not get the desired outcome, it will block them from developing and implementing solutions that fit culture building in a virtual working environment.
It is important to break down the existing structures and rethink how we build culture in a remote or hybrid workplace.
Leaders need to develop an in-depth understanding of organisational dynamics, tap into academic knowledge and get the right feedback from their industry peers to be able to lead the strategic discussion and introduce new solid solutions in their company, with confidence.
I invite HR and Business Leaders to first of all reflect on the expectations within organisations when it comes to interhuman connections, culture and the ways they want to build that culture.
Is that expectation based on transferring real life connections and engagement into a virtual environment? If so, you might want to start working on creating realistic expectations for the desired culture.
With that in mind, let’s dive into the business challenge and the learnings from the groupwork.
Business Challenge Building Culture
The business challenge for this group session is a challenge in the company of a Head of People from a Tech Company:
‘Our biggest challenge is: how to embody company culture and share values’
The large advantages of remote work are fully embraced by the company but now they face new challenges. One of them is culture: how to create rituals, how to share informal moments, and create that sense of belonging when people are not co-located.
When working together in an office people can adapt to working routines, absorb language use and align with, for example, clothing styles.
All non-written culture that bonds people and gives them a sense of community. They understand this is part of the transformation towards a new world of work but the how is a big challenge for this company.
The company is striving for a workplace where people genuinely feel they are part of a united team. They feel that a company where people care about each other is key to finding better solutions and more resilience as an organisation.
Therefore, finding the best solutions for this challenge is high on the agenda of the Head of People.
These are the main insights from the group work of the Leadership Circle session:
Virtual connections are different
We should start with acknowledging that virtual interaction is always different than in person interactions.
In a virtual environment, we build other kinds of relations, and we build them in different ways. Our feeling of connection and the overall experience, plus the rituals that we develop are different in a remote or hybrid setup.
We have to realise that, first of all, it might not even be possible to create the same kind of connection as in co-located organisations.
And maybe it is not even the BEST outcome.
Accepting this as the new context will change the expectations on both outcome and the way forward, leading to a valid reassessment of how culture will be formed in a new world of work.
Data driven Culture Building
Understanding and building culture In a virtual environment requires a more data-driven and analytical approach than we might be used to in a co-located working environment.
It is important that companies gain a deep understanding of HOw they measure culture and WHAT they actually want to measure.
If we survey with questions like: ‘I feel connected to the team’ – are we measuring culture, or are we measuring something else, like engagement?
When building culture in a remote or hybrid world, organisations should ask themselves:
‘How can we make culture building more analytical and data-driven?’
Focus on building the most effective culture for knowledge workers
When talking about building culture, organisations need to know what our desired outcome is. The culture that they are focussing on to create should fit the organisations’ need.
Organisations often think the “right” culture is having a focus on teamwork, collaboration, talent management, empowerment, or inter-personal relationships.
However, for a company with innovative knowledge workers it is more effective to have a focus on innovation, creativity, articulating future vision, transformation change, or entrepreneurship.
Placing this in the competing values culture model of Cameron and Quinn, we see the first ‘culture mindset’ in the upper left corner (CLAN) and the second, more effective culture, in the upper right segment (ADHOCRACY):
Effective organisations with innovative knowledge workers are held together by a desire to innovate, experiment and create quickly.
The needs of customers are prevalent above the needs of the organisation itself because of its external focus. Employees need clear strategic goals and high-autonomy, and a higher purpose to be innovative and effective.
For the academic foundation of this I recommend to
Download the whitepaper ‘KnowledgeWorkers, who is the boss’ to get a better understanding of the most effective organisation structure, culture and management style for knowledge workers.
Companies that are going to focus on culture building in a remote world, should re-asses both their current and desired culture. After deciding which culture is most effective, they can focus on deliberately building it.
To do so, I recommend that you use the Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument (OCAI).
Define > Build > Measure
Finding the most effective culture, deliberately focussing on building it, and measuring it will help your company to be more successful.
Focus on growth
Focussing on creating culture by inter-human connection can become counter productive when the online working environment lacks clarity around growth, development, procedures and common rituals.
‘Having to log on a Monday morning to talk about my weekend felt really unproductive. I wanted to be supported in my growth and development’
For a new generation of employees, growth is becoming more prevalent than culture and connections.
Build a clear purpose story
Having a common, higher goal creates a strong sense of connection between people. Therefore an organisation should create their purpose story and keep on repeating it for both current as new employees
Dehumanise culture building
‘We should focus on what is bigger than people. If we cannot bring people together we should not depend on building culture just by human interactions. We should create a layer above that and dehumanise culture building’.
This might feel counterintuitive at first but placed in the context that we know that for knowledge workers to be effective a common higher purpose will give this strong sense of connection and intrinsic motivation.
And professional development and working (together) on challenging projects is a strong culture builder as well for these employees.
And these are ways of building culture and connection that are not depending on face to face contact moments or social or professional interactions.
Use personal common interests
Another way to bring a stronger culture is to build on common interests, on something that connects people on a personal level.
What do people value beyond work and create (sub) communities around these topics or common interests where employees can participate in.
You can do this online for global communities around interest, and a local, onsite community for activities and meetups for people that might not be direct co-workers but happen to live in the same city.
A company can have a global online community for employees who love baking.
And also a running group that goes for a run on a sunday morning in the city they live.
By facilitating communities within the organisation you will have ways to build culture not necessarily connected to bring direct peers together.
Creating culture by alignment on processes
A way of defining culture is a set of rituals and “how we do things around here”.
As the People Director referred to how people adapt to clothing styles in a co-located organisation, we can create a sense of belonging and connection to a common culture by having a better understanding of how a team does things.
For example, ask this question:
‘how do we ask for help in this organisation?’
Another way is building online murals and whiteboards where teams can add their background, interests, where they are from, what they love, what their favourite food and much more.
Make it inclusive by making it format free so everybody feels comfortable to contribute in a way that suits them.
Deliberately creating clarity around processes and building new (online) rituals, purposely designed by the teams themselves will create that new culture.
On a final note:
Building culture in a remote or hybrid organisation is different and it is fairly new for the most of us.
We will have to rethink not only what culture exactly will look like in a remote or hybrid organisation, or in a virtual collaboration environment.
We will also have to learn how to apply it and we might encounter conflicting ideas and mindsets around it.
In this phase, it is important for leaders in companies to move away from what they think they know about culture and what their intuition might tell them and adapt a more analytical approach to gain a better understanding of what is coming up.
After all, this is not based on our experience of what was, but about being prepared for what is to come.
Ps: if you want to join one of our Leadership Circle Sessions, please send us an email to request an invite.