Now that hybrid workplaces are becoming more common (finally!), many people may assume that since not everyone is in the office, there are no “office” issues. That’s not true. “Office” issues still occur, and guess what? They’re harder to spot and solve because we don’t know there’s a problem until something blows up. Companies trying to maintain a cohesive culture outside the physical walls of the office need to put some thought into workplace communications and interpersonal relationships. These still matter … and maybe more when employees aren’t physically in the same place.
Whether companies are just getting started on their permanent hybrid journey, or they’ve always been that way, now is the perfect time to reimagine and redefine workplace culture.
Potential Culture Problems in a Hybrid Workforce
The complexity of a hybrid workforce is surprising to some leaders. On the surface, it’s the best of both worlds – employees get more freedom and flexibility and the employer scores big with higher productivity, lower overhead costs and access to a larger talent pool. But it’s not so simple.
Common issues that can arise in a hybrid workforce can include:
Lack of inclusion
Feelings of isolation
Slower path to promotions and/or career growth
Attempting to recreate in-office interactions just by going online
Losing the energy and innovation that comes with in-office relationships
Does this sound familiar? In the office, it was easy to walk past someone’s desk or stop over to chat to see how they were doing with their work. Remotely, it’s impossible to do that, so management considers employee tracking mechanisms or other ways to “keep tabs” on their staff. The problem with this approach is that it creates distrust and deception.
Or what about this scenario? Employees are given the option to work from home, but when they do it’s easy to feel disconnected from the ongoing, day-to-day conversations. Without meaningful interactions, they can start to feel left out – and perhaps they are. A 2015 Stanford research study examined 16,000 employees of a Chinese travel agency. Some were randomly assigned to work remotely, while others stayed in the office. The remote employees were more productive but less likely to get promoted.
It’s also wise to avoid the default reaction of simply taking in-person experiences and making them virtual. Back-to-back Zoom meetings will quickly burn out employees and leaders alike and forcing virtual communications feels, well, forced.
Thoughtful, deliberate approaches to creating a new, hybrid workforce culture will get better results.
Strategies to Foster Personal Connections
Think of this time as a way to redefine the employer-employee relationship and the employee-to-employee relationship. Creating a successful hybrid culture has to go beyond replacing in-person interactions.
To really be intentional about creating an inclusive hybrid culture, go to the source: the employees. Ask them about their preferences, work styles, ideas and concerns. Questions like “Do you have the tools to accomplish your work?” or “How are you most productive?” are good starting points.
Leaders may want to keep a list of all the employees on their team. Reach out to each person individually just to check in on them and see how things are going. Maintaining that visibility is key to staying close as a team and making sure the employee doesn’t feel left out.
Happy Hours and Coffee Chats
A good idea is to host a bi-weekly or monthly happy hour. BYOB (or BYO-wine) and plan the happy hour around a fun activity, like trivia, a virtual tour of a local attraction or a quick cooking class. Whatever the theme is, make sure it’s not work-related. The goal is to recreate bonding experiences that would otherwise happen in the office. Informal monthly or bi-weekly coffee chats first thing in the morning are also great options.
Let teams decide how results are measured. Lose the one-size-fits-all approach and give autonomy back to the employees. If expectations are clearly delivered and understood, there’s little reason to watch employees’ work on a daily basis. That’s not to say there’s no accountability; absolutely there needs to be. Leaders need to decide how progress and results are measured and communicate their expectations.
Go All-In on Hybrid
Resist the temptation for all the leaders to be in-person. If the workforce is hybrid, so too should the management team. Otherwise, employees could get the impression that to advance their careers at the company, they need to be in the office. If there are employees or leaders who are always in the office, take care that they’re not perceived as “favorites.”
Level the Playing Field
Be prepared to level the playing field with technology. Ensure everyone has the same access to workplace resources and files regardless of where they are. A tip: configure hybrid meetings so remote participants can still see everyone in the room. Some applications will default to hiding remote participants when a slide deck comes on.
As issues come up – and we know they will – leaders should be facilitating group conversations regularly. These regular group conversations will help to identify issues between employees or with the culture and solve them early. Keep the cameras on, just like a meeting in the conference room. Leaders can and should foster parameters for healthy disagreements and conflict resolution.
What About In-Person Meetings?
Seeing coworkers face-to-face is still important in a hybrid workforce. Companies can reconfigure their physical spaces to help employees work better and collaborate easier.
One way to do this is to meet in-person at least once a year. Some hybrid or fully remote companies will meet quarterly or do two on-site meetings per year. These connections are meant for teambuilding or strategic planning, not to mention fostering that sense of camaraderie that can be missed in Zoom meetings. During these on-site meetings, make sure to allow time for non-work discussions, too. It’s nice sometimes to talk to coworkers and disconnect from work – it reminds us of the person we work with, not just the colleague.
However often these on-site meetings occur, budget for them. And then just make it happen.
Another option is to keep the physical location open for occasional collaboration. This can work well if a majority of a company’s workforce is located nearby; the open conference rooms give them an opportunity to get together and work on a project or big deadline as the need arises. It’s not forced, but the space is always there.
A final tip on creating a successful hybrid workforce culture: have a fun channel for regular employee communication. On Slack, this could look like Water Cooler Chat; it’s a personal line for employees to share pictures of their pets, kids, hobbies or whatever. Not everything has to be about business, after all.