Future Work

Company Culture for Hybrid Teams: An Action Plan

Crafting Company Culture: Our Latest Column Dives into Research to Formulate a Proactive Action Plan for Organizational Growth.

Welcome to
Future Work

Every week, I scan the news for must-know stories about the employee-centric, happier, distributed, and AI-driven future of work.

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Weren't we so fearful of decreased productivity when the lockdowns – and remote work – hit? Didn't we think that no work would get done by hybrid employees?

As Antti Toivonen, Superson APAC's Managing Partner, said in our Singapore Hybrid Work Roundtable, the truth is that during the lockdown, "Productivity went up, but Culture went down."

That productivity went up was seen across the board. Mercer's research showed that ninety-four percent of employers said productivity stayed the same or improved in the months following the lockdowns. That productivity increase makes sense.

In a great discussion with work futurist Dror Poleg, Stanford professor Nick Bloom reminded us that commuting is an hour alone and getting ready another 15 minutes. At least. We now spend that time starting work earlier and ending later.

(Due to 'management by walking around,' there is still widespread 'productivity paranoia,' no matter how unsubstantiated.)

Productivity Up, Culture Down

But let's leave all that in the rearview mirror for now. The topic of today's article focuses on the second half of Antti's point: that culture went down when switching to a hybrid model.

The dictionary defines culture as "the set of shared attitudes, values, goals and practices that characterize an institution or organization." It is no surprise then that culture previously often stemmed from the physical office. Artifacts like core values framed on the wall, amenities like a massage room or gym credit, and how people behaved happened in person, in the office.

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Image: HBR – WFH Doesn’t Have to Dilute Your Corporate Culture

As Stanford Professor Pamela Hinds shared in HBR:

"How can [leaders] reimagine their culture for a world where rituals and ceremonies enacted in the office are inaccessible, and workers have little or no face-to-face interaction with each other or their leaders? How can they build the types of bonds that establish a lasting culture, not to mention integrate new employees? How can they redefine company culture to match the new rhythms that emerge when some employees are in the office, and others work from anywhere?"

Pamela and Slack Executive Brian Elliott even noted that corporate cultural beliefs and norms are more open to outside influences when the workforce is remote. That's why culture can suffer when employees spend less time in the office and have less face-to-face interaction with each other and their leaders.

Their connection to the company's mission and values lessens without a purposeful and programmatic approach to culture in the hybrid workplace.

In short, culture is more important than ever but harder to cultivate.

So, what to do? Let's look at a few thought starters and open the comment section to improve on it collectively.

1. Know your culture and activate it

If you still need to define your culture, do so. Zappos' founder, Tony Hsieh, once said, "if there's one thing I could do over again, it's to define my culture earlier."

HBR's Eight Types of Company Cultures is a great starting point. The authors of this article parsed 100 social and behavioral models to identify eight styles of culture. In doing so, they found that culture is Shared, Pervasive, Enduring, and Implicit.

And that the key differences in culture are on two dimensions. One, People Interactions: do people mostly act independently, or is there strong interdependence? Two, Response to Change: do people show a lot of flexibility, or is there a desire for stability?

These two dimensions lead to the 8 Styles of Company Culture: Purpose, Caring, Order, Safety, Authority, Results, Enjoyment, and Learning. Think and decide which type of culture fits your company best. Or better said, which kind of culture do you aspire to have?

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Image: HBR – The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture

Once you've set your sights on the style of culture you want to pursue, you can:

  • activate it by articulating the aspiration
  • select and develop leaders
  • use organizational conversations
  • reinforce desired changes through organizational design

Remember to start as early as job descriptions and onboarding and continue throughout the employee journey.

Focus on building trust.

One thing that holds for every company, no matter which style you pursue, is the importance of trust.

Research from Great Place to Work shows that companies where employees feel trusted outperform companies where this isn't the case. 

The authors of this study, Evelyn Kwek and Pamela Sng, shared an example of Cisco. Their 'Conscious Culture' is a pact with its workforce that states how its goals to win in business and bring about a better world are aligned:

"It makes every individual accountable, empowered, and expected to act in creating a positive and fulfilling workplace where every employee feels safe and can thrive. Its 'People Deal' is a relationship of give and take—employees expect the resources and support they need to succeed, and so equipped, Cisco expects them to take bold risks, innovate, and collaborate, always with each other and its customers in mind."
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Research from Great Place to Work highlights the need for trust.

2. Specifically, review your company's purpose

A 2019 survey showed 93% of employees believe companies must lead with purpose.

In the powerful McKinsey article, "Help your employees find purpose—or watch them leave," from earlier this year, Naina Dhingra and others said, "Employees expect their jobs to bring a significant sense of purpose to their lives. Employers must help meet this need or be prepared to lose talent to companies that will."

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McKinsey – Purpose at Work

The problem? Seventy percent of employees said their work defines their sense of purpose, but only 18 percent believe they get as much meaning from work as they want.

And this divide splits right across the lines of seniority: "whereas 85 percent of execs and upper management said that they are living their purpose at work, only 15 percent of frontline managers and frontline employees agreed. Worse, nearly half of these employees disagreed, compared with just a smattering of executives and upper management."

Take action to understand your employees' sense of meaning and review your company's purpose in light of it. Then, ensure that the company's purpose is followed, especially as modeled by leadership.

A real-life example from Grab

Chin Yin Ong, Chief People Officer at Grab, shared at the recent Culture First APAC 2022 conference how Grab creates a company culture that empowers employees to feel a sense of belonging, fulfillment, and purpose.

"A huge part of Grab's culture is reflected in its mission to improve the world. How can we help people living in far-flung towns, cities, or villages so they can participate in the digital world? How can we ensure that the social and earnings gaps within our country and communities narrow instead of widens? Grab tries to solve that problem so we can progress together and not leave anybody behind. It's a responsibility and a meaningful problem set to solve."

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Grab at Culture Amp: Business & Purpose

Companies who want to follow suit and define their purpose have a considerable incentive. According to the McKinsey above research and Glint's 2021 Employee Well-Being Report, employees who feel their purpose aligns with the organization's purpose are more productive, engaged, loyal, and willing to recommend the company to others.

3. Focus on activating relationships

As the World Economic Forum states, "One of the main characteristics of strong organizational culture is the intricate web of social capital—the networks of people across the organization."

The Great Place to Work research mentioned before shows that meaningful connections are essential to influencing employees to stay with a company. 

The authors share that "this is even more critical in a remote or hybrid workplace where a sense of isolation and lack of interaction can negatively impact employee morale and trigger or reinforce the idea of leaving in search of greener pastures."

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Grab at Culture Amp: Business & Purpose

This sense of isolation is real. Research from workplace expert Dan Schawbel recently found that at least 1 out of 3 remote workers feels lonely, disconnected, or isolated and that most don't feel that their coworkers care about them. 

The situation is so dire that 2 out of 3 executives believe their employees may quit for a job at another company where they'd feel more connected.

Activating relationships to fuel your specific culture

The HBR Hybrid Culture authors pose that "organizations can send new and stronger signals by reaching out to employees more often and being explicit about the purpose and meaning of doing so. 

An organization that wants to reinforce an agile, innovative culture, for example, might have regular events that prompt creative engagement, such as improv activities, and showcase collaboration tools that enable brainstorming and sketching."

I've shared that building stronger relationships is crucial to building culture. But it has to be done at scale, and it has to be done in a data-driven way. This is why we focused on building tools to understand the various potential sub-communities within your total employee base. And to introduce these coworkers to each other during niche events that are tailored to their interests with the help of targeted messaging.

In the spirit of last week's "Shared Mission" article, employees should be involved in building relationships and strong cultures. And they want to be.

Our upcoming The State of Hybrid Work in Singapore research shows that 90% of Singaporean employees want to participate actively and create small events like lunches or doing something fun after work to ensure the team stays connected. 

Of these employees, 58% would do it without any reward, whereas 42% think getting rewarded for taking the initiative would be motivating.

Get them involved with this or that questions or icebreaker questions and go from there.

4. Focus on leaders

Line managers are often the way employees experience the culture most directly. The role of people leaders has become more critical in a hybrid workplace—they interact with their teams daily, and their actions and behaviors can make the difference between team members having a good or bad day at work.

Managers in the middle of the networks that fuel great cultures have a greater capacity to create social capital, according to Ronald S. Burt's paper Brokerage and Closure: An Introduction to Social Capital. Why? Because information flows through these managers from multiple channels. They coordinate, cooperate, and advise to create an information advantage for the organization.

At Culture Amp's conference, Jack Nicolaus, Facilitator at Lifelabs Learning, said, “relationship skills are the foundation of all leadership skills. They are no longer just nice-to-haves but essential for being a good leader. For isolated and disconnected employees, leaders must learn to take a human-first approach at work."

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This theory sounds good: "To maintain positive cultures in a hybrid working model, leaders need to connect people across departments, providing cross-functional learning opportunities and creating time for people to have virtual coffee or networking discussions with colleagues from across the company."

But, as discussed last week, managers may have great intentions, but they don't always have the time or the ideas to drive engagement and build strong cultures. We must support them and ensure Engagement is a Shared Mission for the Whole Company.

You can (re)read the article for the whole story, but to summarize:

1. Find Your Ambassadors

2. Explain the Need

3. Fuel them with Ideas (our weekly newsletter is a great starting point)

4. Expand the Group

5. Data, data, data

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We love Rising Team to get managers together and activate them to make an impact!

5. Measure, Learn and Optimize

Data is more important than ever, especially if it's the kind of data you use. Frequently survey your employees on where your culture is the weakest, and overlay that with your business and people strategies.

What needs the most attention? How can we get there? Change doesn't happen overnight, but every journey starts with a simple step. Understanding where you stand and taking action on it is crucial.

Tools like Officevibe, CultureAmp, and others can help in frequent listening and helping map out where the action is most needed.

In Summary...

Culture is more important than ever. But building and maintaining a great culture is also harder than ever. These five steps will help in 'closing the gap' as we navigate a new world of work. Of course, the literature can say whatever it wants; the reality matters.

What have you done? What worked, and what didn't? I look forward to hearing about it and collectively getting smarter about this important topic.

Have a culture-centric week!


Welcome to
Future Work

Every week, I scan the news for must-know stories about the employee-centric, happier, distributed, and AI-driven future of work.

Not a member yet? Join over 10,000 people-centric managers and subscribe here.

Rather listen? The spoken version will be available tomorrow on YouTube, Spotify, and Apple Podcasts.

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