Debate continues to rage about hybrid/work-from-home arrangements.
On one side of the argument are businesses where all decisions about where and when to work are left to employees (or are implementing fully remote working arrangements). On the other side are those attempting to mandate a full-time return to the office. In the middle are all sorts of variations on the theme.
And, from what we hear in our conversations with business owners and leaders, there's still a sizeable number of cases where a workable solution has yet to be arrived at. Few of us have experienced the challenges of leading remote employees as their predominant “employment type”, so we figured it would be useful to highlight some of the issues that owners/leaders need to bear in mind.
Where will we end up?
Our take on the issue is that in the end, neither extreme of the debate will win the day.
For one thing, the work-from-home genie is well and truly out of the bottle and highly unlikely to be put back in. Right now, employees hold all the aces in a hot market for talent and have shown an increasing propensity to switch jobs if their current employer isn’t meeting their needs.
Even if the heat goes out of the market somewhat, it's not easy to imagine employees readily surrendering the flexibility that the hybrid model offers
At the same time, many employees value being in the office for at least some of their working week. They value the ability to collaborate more efficiently and to socialise with colleagues. We also hear some say that being on-site makes professional development opportunities more accessible and effective.
It's all about workplace culture
One constant in the discussion is the matter of culture.
Many in the "return to the office" camp argue that the result of employees working remotely, even for part of the time, will be a complete breakdown of the culture of their business. In comparison, the other side says that the culture issue can be satisfactorily managed but also accept that it will take a more conscious effort to create the "right" culture.
Only time will tell, but one thing's for sure...business owners and leaders will need to keep a closer eye on the culture in their business than they ever have.
In our last Insight we explored the connection between purpose and culture and how culture can (and arguably should) be changed to align to purpose.
If you missed it, we – with James Rutherford, one of GrowthCatalyst’s collaborators - defined culture as the way “things are done around here”. Clearly, moving to increased and more permanent remote working is a distinct change “in the way things are done around here.” As a result, we are often seeing a lack of alignment relative to business purpose and strategy. It’s fair to say business owners and leaders are concerned about the implications of this.
We also highlighted the challenges and tools that can be used to curate a culture that adds value. These included the propensity of people in the business to accept and adapt to change, the level of leadership commitment to the change and how systems and processes align to the aspired change in culture.
James joins us again to share his views on the impact of hybrid work on culture and what can be done to minimise adverse outcomes.
What's different about culture in the "new" workplace?
In the hybrid/work-from-home environment, the culture drivers we identified still apply. But how employees experience them has changed.
Typically, says James,
"these cultural cues can be very subtle. I suspect it's more difficult for leaders to influence culture in more remote and hybrid working patterns simply because of the lack of visibility of their behaviours and decision-making approaches compared to office environments."
While research on this is scarce (so far), we'd bet that most business owners and leaders would attest to this being true.
This suggests that in the hybrid/work-from-home environment, leaders need to be "tuned in" to their employees, arguably more so than when they're in the office. It's a challenge, but maintaining a strong culture among remote employees requires leaders to be alert to – amongst other things - the sometimes very subtle signals that culture might start to move away from where they’d like it to be.
For example, a previously great performer may begin to struggle when working remotely purely because they miss the structure that the office can provide. Frequent, meaningful conversations with employees have always been important, but they're even more crucial in the hybrid/work-from-home world.
And to change culture?
In addition, if leaders are to sustain or change culture in a remote work environment, they'll need to be "more explicit in their communications on the "what and why" of their decisions and the "how" implications of those decisions for them and their people". Businesses with purpose as their validation for decision-making will likely find this easier to do than those where purpose is absent or unclear.
There's no doubt that cultural change is difficult to undertake successfully. And remoteness magnifies that difficulty.
We'd encourage business owners and leaders to think about their own experiences here. Doing so will highlight how changes in practices – especially around new working patterns -might be influencing culture and, most importantly, how those changes are being perceived differently by different employees as either "good", “bad", “generally ok”, or potentially “not what they signed up for”.
That assessment is likely to be made relatively quickly in businesses where culture is strong and well-established. It will be more challenging for organisations that are less mature or have experienced more extensive change in the recent past.
What's your position on remote/hybrid work?
As we mentioned at the beginning of this post, many businesses have yet to clarify their stance on remote work. James believes it's essential for businesses to address this.
"We've been through considerable disruption, and more organisations need to map out expectations for their people on hybrid work practices. Up to 75% of workplaces are yet to do this."
An alarming number, to say the least.
Suppose businesses are reluctant to commit to a longer-term "policy" right now. In that case, a good compromise is to be open to trialling different options, given that we're still learning how best to work most effectively in the hybrid space. The key considerations in James' view are "employee health, wellbeing, engagement, the nature of work and the type of collaboration that's required" to get the work done.
This lack of clarity won't necessarily have a negative impact on culture, but providing employees with guidance on what's expected will be of benefit in establishing new cultural norms and mitigating less aligned norms becoming prevalent “by stealth.”
The importance of purpose
The impact of a clear and well-articulated organisation purpose is even more important in a hybrid work environment because it's a guide and potential validation for every decision and action taken in a business. Therefore, a strong and embedded purpose means it's relatively easier to make decisions on highly personalised preferences like the hybrid working mix.
James agrees. "In ambiguous situations or during change, ensuring that there is guidance around decision-making and actions is a good thing, and purpose definitely provides that guidance."
Culture can be changed, and it takes effort. Holding back on deciding how your business will deal with hybrid/work-from-home arrangements (that is, if yours is one of the 75% of businesses yet to make up its mind) may not be the best idea. While keeping your options open is positive, you might end up with a culture you don't want.
And that's not in anyone's interests.
Making a clear decision based on your purpose and how best to achieve it, explaining to employees and other stakeholders the rationale behind the decision, and then going all out to align “the way you do things” around the working patterns you decide on, mitigates that risk.
How's your culture holding up in the hybrid environment?
Is it really what you want it to be?
Is it purpose-driven and helping execute strategy?
GrowthCatalyst can help you answer these questions and more.
We invite you to contact us to arrange a conversation, face-to-face or virtual.
Alternatively, you can book a time for an initial discussion here.
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