We’re nearly there.
In just a few months, almost all organizations will allow their employees to return to their offices after over a year of working from home. And even at that point, almost no organizations will have 100% of their teams in the same physical space five days a week.
Based on all indications, neither employers nor employees will abandon remote work altogether: Less than 1 in 5 business owners intends to return to pre-pandemic office conditions, and the majority of U.S. workers want to maintain some regular telework schedule going forward.
Most likely, we’ll all settle into a hybrid work environment where a portion of our team is in the office and a portion is working remotely on any given day. After a full year of working almost exclusively from our separate homes, this will be yet another disruption for our organizations to endure.
The good news is that this go-around we have time to prepare.
Mistakes made; lessons learned
Years ago, my company expanded to bring a couple out-of-state employees aboard for the first time.
We brought them into the office for their first week for orientation, training, and our traditional Friday Breakfast cooked fresh by their new teammates in our office kitchen. Then we sent them home, confident that they had been successfully imprinted with our award-winning corporate culture which would continue to be magically transmitted to them over the airwaves.
If you guessed that both of these folks later quit, you’d be correct.
What we learned, the hard way, is that our corporate culture was deeply rooted in our physical office, and the routines and traditions we had built there. This is true for a lot of us, which is what made a sudden quarantine even more challenging from an engagement perspective. And when that’s the case, it is extremely easy for workforces to splinter into perceived groups of “us” and “them.”
In a hybrid work environment, the risk of developing such internal factions is high: You’ll have your permanent remote workers, those who are in the office every so often, those who are in the office frequently, and those who will be in the office day in and day out.
Each of these groups will necessarily experience our companies differently—this is simply the reality of hybrid work. The trouble creeps in when these “different” experiences become imbalanced, impersonal, or inequitable.
Based on the lessons from our past mistakes, and based on 30 years of serving the technology needs of law firms and associations, we’ve since uncovered a number of subtle culture–killers that, if left unchecked, can do serious damage to employee engagement and retention.
I’ll walk you through them below, along with how thoughtful policy and technology solutions can help flip a weakness into a strength.
Five ways hybrid work will undermine your corporate culture
1. Scheduled Meetings
The first potential culture-killer is your everyday internal meeting. After living on Zoom and/or Teams for a full year, we all know how to hold virtual meetings. While a screen full of tiny boxes can grow tiresome, each of the people in those boxes takes up the same amount of space, has the same means of contributing to the discussion, and experiences that meeting in the same way everyone else does.
Now, consider a meeting where half the participants are in the office, and half are at home. Will the office group join a video call from your conference room, where the remote folks are projected onto a small TV screen? Will the remote participants be able to distinguish who is speaking when? Do they have the same access to any whiteboarding or relevant visuals? How hard will it be for them to interject and be heard?
2. Unscheduled Meetings
Outside of formal, planned meetings, a return to the office means a return to spontaneous chit-chat that snowballs into meaningful conversations and innovative ideas. In some cases, you’ll be able to yell down the hall to any other stakeholders and have them join the discussion, and everyone will walk away on the same page. In most cases, at least one person will be left out.
Do you have a way to quickly pull more people into a conversation on the fly? How are the whiteboarding capabilities now? Is collaborative note-taking an option? If some people simply aren’t available, is there a place to share a full summary afterwards? A policy for how and when to do this? Or will one or two people be forced to chase down the information they need to get up to speed while the rest of the team carries on?
Looking beyond day-to-day meetings, our overall team- and relationship-building strategies also need reevaluation. Nine months into the pandemic, a Pew Research survey found that 65% of employees felt less connected to their coworkers. Those of us who have been used to building and maintaining relationships through in-person interactions and events have been struggling to translate those skills digitally. Some, viewing the pandemic as a temporary scenario, probably didn’t try all that hard to begin with.
If we continue to treat in-person activities as our default for team-building, with virtual participants “included” as exceptions that need to be accommodated, we are almost guaranteed to exclude a segment of our team, make them feel less-than, erode engagement, and risk turnover.
4. Coaching and Advancement
This is another one for managers. When your direct reports all report in the same way, evaluating performance is fairly straightforward. Over the past year, for example, we’ve all more or less settled into a routine of virtual delegation, collaboration, check-ins, and so forth. But what happens when you see one member of your team in person three times a week, another twice a month, and another never?
Will the person with the most face-time get preferential treatment simply because they’re the most accessible? Will they naturally receive more coaching from you, and advance more quickly because of it? Will you develop an unconscious bias that the remote teammate isn’t as invested because you can’t physically see how hard they work every day?
5. Shadow Cultures
Lastly we have the more insidious threat of what I’ll call shadow cultures. Say, in the spirit of inclusion, your in-office cohort shares photo after photo of all the fun things your team does in the office in Slack for your remote workers to see: meals shared, pranks pulled, kids and pets visiting, and on and on.
Behind the photos there’s plenty of silent hard work, open conflict, and all the other facets of a normal company that aren’t so photogenic. But your remote team doesn’t see this side, and they start to invent their own concept of your culture—one that is entirely separate from both them and reality—as a result. At that point, there’s no scenario that does not leave that employee feeling disconnected and dissatisfied.
Best practices for a strong, inclusive culture
Fortunately, we can head these challenges off with some thoughtful planning and a new technology tool or two.
Be intentional with your meetings.
For every internal meeting, make a habit of thinking through who needs to join, where they’ll be joining from, and how to empower each person to contribute effectively using the various technologies at your disposal. Opt for whichever format creates the most equivalent experiences, not what’s most convenient.
There’s a logistical element here as well—can you simplify meetings by having groups who regularly collaborate come into your office at the same time? (There’s an app for that.)
Upgrade your conference room.
You don’t have to invest tens of thousands of dollars in conference room technology, but you do need to consider solutions that will level the playing field for on-site and remote participants. Interactive whiteboards with app integration (like the Vibe) and high quality sound bar/camera combos with speaker tracking (like this from Poly Studio) will help your remote workers feel seen, heard, and able to fully participate.
Revisit your existing collaboration tools.
If you rushed to implement Slack, Teams, SharePoint or any other real-time communication and collaboration tool, kudos—this was a smart way to keep your team connected. It’s time to take a deeper, more thoughtful look at these packages and all they have to offer in the way of features and integrations—because they offer quite a lot.
And make sure any “new” findings filter all the way through your organization, not just the savviest departments.
Get your team trained and aligned.
As you bring new tools into play, be just as thoughtful with the implementation as you were with the selection; make sure your team knows (a) how the thing works and (b) your company’s guidelines for when and how to use it. A mix of group training sessions (record these for new hires!), individual sessions, and how-to guides or infographics for reinforcement generally work well.
Your management team in particular needs to understand the purpose behind the changes you’re making, and the consequences of not taking them seriously. They also need to be made explicitly aware of factors like proximity bias that might influence their treatment of direct reports.
Experiment and solicit feedback.
Once you have your foundational procedures and technologies in place, you’re in for some trial and error; this is new territory, and we’re not going to achieve perfection no matter how many hypotheticals we anticipate. This is why the most critical element of success is to involve your team.
From formal company-wide surveys to spontaneous polls to pilot groups to one-on-one discussions, keep your finger on the pulse as you navigate this transition. Get your team’s input as you craft your strategies, and collect their feedback once you try them out. And listen. Your team’s perception is the only reality that matters here.
Where to start
Our first order of business is to make sure we have a clear vision of what our workplace will look like once our teams are vaccinated and able to return safely. Who will work from where, and when?
From there, consider how the different people or groups in your company will experience your culture given the routines in place and tools at their disposal today. Will they get facetime with your leadership every single week? Will their only exposure to those outside their department be through a monthly all-hands video call where they can’t reasonably contribute? Will they fall somewhere in the middle?
Identify the spectrum at hand and where your culture has room to fall down.
As you begin to take action, I encourage you to be transparent with your team about the steps you’re taking and why. The more clearly you communicate your intended outcome, the more buy-in you’ll generate and the more useful feedback you’ll receive.
We’ve been presented with a new opportunity to show our people that they are, in fact, our most valuable asset.
I hope you’ll seize it.