Company cultures are hard to maintain at the best of times. In the era of hybrid working, it’s even more challenging to manage the blend of personalities – and clashing egos – while steering company direction and keeping goals in focus.
When your staff are distributed and working in a hybrid set-up, it’s much harder to keep tabs on who is happy with their lot and who is unhappy. And the problem’s going nowhere, with the workplace of the future likely to involve some element of distributed, hybrid working. One in four employees in the UK is hybrid working now, according to the Office for National Statistics, with 84% of staff planning to blend working at home and in the office in the years to come.
So how can bosses identify potential issues in their company culture and head them off before they mushroom into bigger problems? Here are five signs that act as early warning blips on the radar, plus some advice on how to stop them becoming bigger issues.
1. New staff don’t know what to do
One of the most crucial moments in any employee’s engagement with a business is their first few days and weeks with the company. It’s then that they learn the ropes and begin to broker friendships. Unfortunately, this can be difficult to orchestrate, especially when working remotely.
Human resources platform Applaud got rid of its offices during the pandemic and plans on remaining fully remote. But its leaders recognise the risks involved. “Now we have to put more effort into supporting our workers through all stages of their journey with us,” says Ivan Harding, co-founder and CEO of Applaud. “That applies from the day a job offer is accepted through those crucial weeks of onboarding and beyond into career development and progression.”
The company developed a common framework for new members of staff to ensure they feel fully equipped to join the company. “They have their calendars pre-booked with meet and greets, learning sessions, a handful of socials and, crucially, calendar breathing space to take it all in,” says Harding.
In addition, each new starter is allocated a buddy. “In the old days, this used to be your desk neighbour,” he says, “but nowadays it’s someone waiting to give their buddy support over instant messaging or a web conferencing application.”
2. People have problems switching off
Work/life balance used to be an easier seesaw to manage. You would work your allocated hours, then travel home and turn off your working brain and relax for the evening. But when your commute is from the bedroom to the dining room table or a home office and your work devices are constantly within reach, that idea of discrete shifts becomes more difficult.
It’s one of the odd ironies that can blight a company even when they’re offering something that initially looks like a boon for workers. “For employers, hybrid working provides a means to create a happier and healthier workforce, resulting in higher levels of employee engagement, retention and ultimately productivity,” says Emma Parry, professor of human resource management at Cranfield School of Management. “However, if not implemented carefully, hybrid working can actually lead to a blurring of the lines between work and life, therefore damaging employee wellbeing and satisfaction.”
3. Meetings dominate the calendar
One of the greatest challenges of hybrid working is retaining strong, clear communication without bogging people down to such a degree that they’re unable to interact with each other – or do their jobs. “Without the face-to-face environment of an office, proper communication can slip among hybrid and remote workers,” says Parry.
Communication and a shared purpose are key elements that contribute to a company’s culture, so you need to have regular check-ins. But go too far and you risk clogging up calendars with endless Zoom calls about how many Zoom calls you should have. This can have a negative impact on employee wellbeing, lead to endless turnover of staff, and tank your company culture anyway.
A massive survey by MIT Sloan School of Management analysed 76 companies with more than 1,000 employees each. It found that when companies introduced one meeting-free day per week, productivity rose by 35%. Slash a second day of meetings from the company calendar and productivity rose 71%.
It’s a fine balance to strike, but if you can instigate meet-free Mondays while keeping employees abreast of what’s expected of them, you can improve the workplace culture even when your staff are distributed.
4. Conversations revolve around work
Casual chats in the office kitchen or around the watercooler have long been the bane of business leaders’ lives. The idea that some staff dawdle in those shared breakout spaces in offices has often been seen as a problem for productivity, with hard-line managers keeping track of time spent away from the desk and cracking down on anyone who drags on the company’s efficiency.
Yet responsible employers recognise the soft benefits those conversations have on a company’s culture. “Like many companies, we found that the introduction of hybrid working required a change in how we approach communication between teams,” says Alexander Wiede, HR director at SAP UK & Ireland. “To ensure staff do not feel isolated from colleagues, we launched our Never Lunch Alone digital initiative, connecting remote employees around the world for virtual lunches during the working day.”
The idea is to provide a place where staff don’t have to talk solely about work and aren’t beholden to an online meeting agenda, but instead can converse about whatever they want. This could see them raise issues that can be thrashed out among themselves before they spiral into bigger problems.
5. Staff won’t always come in
There remain some things that are too important or difficult to do well remotely. In a hybrid workplace where remote working is a possibility, at times you might struggle to convince people who are used to working from home that some things are best done in person.
“While we’re embracing an open approach to flexibility for our people, it does mean that coordinating those ‘together moments’ – which are an important part of our culture – is more challenging,” says Elizabeth Hardwick-Smith, group people and culture director at construction consultancy Pick Everard. “All of our people are working different patterns that suit their own needs, but also any working pattern must allow us to uphold our obligations to our clients.”
Some Pick Everard staff have previously queried whether they need ever come back into the office. “We’ve had to set a policy where if you’re needed for a particular piece of work, a discussion or event, then it has to be in person,” says Hardwick-Smith. That’s important because of the sense of togetherness it brings. It also helps cut back on the duplication of work involved with catching up employees who couldn’t be there in person.
“We’ve also pushed ourselves to think more broadly about ways in which we can bring people together,” she says, “so that such events are more accessible for everyone. Maintaining a mix of virtual and in-person occasions works well.”