Fostering a healthy and productive workplace culture is one of the most difficult but important responsibilities given to business leaders. Workplace culture affects every aspect of an organisation, from staff retention to customer relationships, to share prices.
It’s never been an easy thing to get right. Maintaining morale, productivity and a sense of purpose among a large group of people – many of whom might want different things out of a job – requires determination, expertise, a deft hand and great communication skills.
And those challenges have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. An instantaneous mass switch to remote work meant that almost all the lessons that had been learned in the past decades about how to nurture a successful workplace culture had to be learned again.
Now, as we start to slowly emerge from the worst of the pandemic, people are starting to wonder how things will look in the future. How will work, work? And what challenges does this present for establishing and maintaining workplace culture?
Firstly, it’s necessary to understand just how important company culture is to the development of a successful organisation.
There’s a lot of literature about leadership in a military context, and this can be useful for showing what can go wrong when leaders fail to keep a productive, purposeful culture. In the military environment, this has led to disasters, tragedies, and sometimes criminal acts.
The effect of poor leadership in a corporate environment is unlikely to be as dramatic as in the military environment, but it serves as a useful reminder of just how important leadership is in shaping everything underneath it.
Academic research has shown that when cultures are more effective, organisations experience revenue growth and better retention, stock price and net income figures.
What’s also clear is that “hybrid” work is here to stay. It’s clear by now that full-time remote work won’t last forever – as some had predicted at the start of the pandemic – but it’s also clear that many businesses are unlikely to return to full-time office work.
Employees have come to understand the benefits of remote work – things like convenience, the lack of a commute, the ability to pursue hobbies and exercise on breaks, and reduced costs. But they’ve also seen the drawbacks: communication can be difficult, family life can be hard, and motivation, productivity and innovation simply all work better face-to-face.
With that balance in mind, some of the UK’s largest companies have said they’ll move to a hybrid model post-covid. Such companies include BP, PwC, Unilever and a number of large banks.
Forbes cites a study by the Society for Human Resource Management, which states two-thirds of employers are struggling to maintain employee morale, and more than one-third are facing challenges in maintaining company culture.
Leaders must therefore now learn to bridge the gap. It’s difficult to maintain culture remotely, but remote working – to some extent – is definitely here to stay.
Forbes recommends a series of high-level principles to maintain company culture in a hybrid environment. All of these principles, Forbes says, are about maintaining the perception of proximity, which is one of the key drivers of close personal relationships. It’s possible to recreate this feeling even when people are not always physically close.
Leaders will have to be more explicit and intentional about “articulating purpose”, discussing the big picture, and helping people feel connected with the organisation’s goal.
It’s good to provide people with space, and very important to treat them with empathy – but it’s also important to keep them accountable. “If purpose is the big picture of how things matter, accountability is the mechanism which operationalizes how the work matters,” Forbes says.
This is closely related to accountability. People will lose motivation if they do not feel a sense of equity and justice. This is particularly true in hybrid environments because people don’t get obvious immediate feedback about who is being rewarded and held to account.
Conflict is inevitable and can be healthy. But with people further away, it can be harder to make conflict productive. You can establish protocols for disagreement; doing this will help both keep them from spilling over into anything more, and also help them to continue their useful purpose.
Visibility and accessibility
A key quality for leaders is that they must be perceived as “present and accessible”, Forbes says. Hybrid working makes this more difficult, but simultaneously more important. Leaders must go out of their way to connect with team members and keep in touch with their needs. A famous example of this from outside the corporate world is former US president Barack Obama’s policy of reading letters from citizens every week about their concerns.
This is connected to visibility. People won’t pick up on the goings-on of the company as easily as if they were physically in the office, so make sure to keep communication open and transparent.
Despite improved technology, face-to-face communications are often best, and workplaces with good face-to-face communication can be very positive places with lots of room for personal relationships and innovation. And because the hybrid workplace is likely here to stay, offices will increasingly need to become places that people want to be, rather than where they must be. “This means influencing offices that help people work better through spaces to collaborate, focus, learn, socialize and rejuvenate,” Forbes says. It may be time for a re-think of your office space.
At the core of all this is that leaders must make explicit, intentional moves towards boosting workplace culture – knowing now that it’s harder but more important than ever before.