After a long winter lockdown, more than a year of home working, and an unprecedented vaccine rollout, firms of all sizes are slowly, cautiously, reopening and welcoming staff back to the office. But this mass return to the traditional workplace will be tough for managers and leaders on a number of levels.
Motivation levels may be low, the organisation’s strategy may have changed radically since 2020 and some employees may be feeling the emotional toll of the past year or so. Then there’s implementation of the hybrid model of working.
After months of home working, many people simply do not want to return to the office full-time. New CMI research, released with the Better Managers Roadmap, warns that nearly half of managers are concerned about staff quitting unless they are allowed to continue working remotely post-pandemic. Some companies that don’t offer more flexible terms over where and when they work, such as Apple, are facing a backlash from their disgruntled teams. It’s led to a large proportion of companies allowing their staff to work a proportion of the week remotely.
Aside from the practical challenges of managing a frequently dispersed team, managers and leaders face a particularly difficult issue when it comes to preserving and building company or organisational culture. This is important stuff: research demonstrates when organisational cultures are positive, you see payoffs in revenue growth, employee retention, stock price and net income.
So how do managers and leaders support a positive organisational culture in a changed post-Covid world?
It sounds like a no-brainer, but if you’re not clearly communicating with your team effectively – wherever they’re based – then whatever culture you are trying to foster within the organisation is doomed to fall on deaf ears.
Teddy Nyahasha CCMI, chief executive of the financial services business OneFamily, says he looks at their company culture as “a collection of individual behaviours.” The key to ensuring cohesion among his 500 employees is finding better ways to converse with each other as a group and as an organisation. It was something the Brighton-based company had been working on before the pandemic, but lockdown forced them to accelerate that activity.
“Because we were not in the same building during the pandemic, I felt compelled to communicate a lot more and, as a result of that, I actually realised that even pre-Covid I was not communicating enough,” he explains.
“While we were locked down, there was a lot of uncertainty of how we will get people working from home, so I started writing a blog, at first every day, then when I realised that was too much, I went to two blogs a week.”
The purpose, he says, wasn’t so much to tell staff about strategic matters, but rather to communicate activities happening within the company that in an office environment would usually get spread through word of mouth.
They also used the Yammer social networking app to create an online space where colleagues could go to have those “watercooler” moments, to talk about their mental health, to bond through sharing pictures of their pets or children and of course to collaborate and share ideas. All the elements of office working that were previously taken for granted. He says it proved hugely popular among staff and helped people feel part of a larger whole – a community – rather than a separate cog in a faceless corporate machine.
Repurpose the office
Hybrid working is also changing how organisations use their office space. For many it’s evolving into a space for collaboration, with concentrated “deep work” done more at home. Organisations are therefore developing spaces that will enable more social interactions – whether it’s a quick chat at the corner of an open stairway to low-voiced gossip by the kitchen counter or the coffee machine. For example, by removing half its desks, WeTransfer was able to create more meeting spaces, workshop rooms and recording studios.
Teddy is on board with this. His ambition post-lockdown is to create a less hierarchical culture – a flatter organisation – where individuals feel empowered. There are now more flexible workspaces at OneFamily that colleagues can use as an alternative to sitting at their permanent desk.
It’s crucial that organisations break down the barrier between boss and employee, says Teddy. This is particularly important now that many team members may not be physically seeing their manager for much of the week. Scrapping separate office cubicles for executives can help achieve that. Staff need to know that you are present on the main office floor and are actively leading the team, rather than locked away in an ivory tower.
Foster a culture of trust
To enhance the organisation’s culture, managers and leaders need to be authentic. “Don’t underestimate the power of your own testimony,” says Teddy. Respect others and show empathy, he adds. Because people will normally see through a manager who’s not being themselves.
“There's a bit of humility that needs to come out from leaders and managers. And I found, at times, exposing my own vulnerabilities is a strength rather than weakness.”
Lead by example too. Work the hours your team works, take time off and, if managing a hybrid team, spend time during the week working remotely. This will discourage presenteeism.
Trust also stems from making staff feel like they belong and are valued. Leaders can do this by asking directly what changes people would like to see within the company. Teddy found the best way to do this through a staff survey. But in larger organisations, he warns, it can be difficult to choose which answers to act upon. Nevertheless, a healthy company culture will always allow constructive debate to happen.
New hires need more space
How do you onboard new recruits in a way that they buy into an organisation’s culture?
The social media agency The Social Element (TSE) first adopted hybrid working in 2002. The management team has long recognised the importance of induction and onboarding.
Wendy Christie, chief people officer, says you have to strike the right balance between giving people enough information and giving them too much.
“I think being onboarded into a remote working job is much more intense and overwhelming than in-person,” she says. “It’s giving people time and space to digest everything that we're sending to them. We do most of it live on a call or a video call, rather than just sending them a bunch of stuff that they have to learn and set up.”
She says then it is about constantly checking in and bearing in mind that it could take someone six to nine months to feel fully onboarded and embedded within the company culture.
If they haven’t worked from home before, it's important to share those now-familiar tips: make sure you create a separate workspace in the home; incorporate a “commute” – ie, a walk – before knuckling down in the morning.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes
For many managers and leaders, this is uncharted territory. Remote and hybrid working may have been around for years but it wasn’t until the pandemic that most people had even heard of it, let alone tried it. So it’s unlikely you’ll nail the cultural aspect right away.
Josh Bersin is a global HR influencer, analyst, and founder of Bersin Deloitte. He encourages managers to test the waters first. He’s been working with a large multinational in The Netherlands that has 1,000 people engaged in a hybrid work experiment. The organisation is collecting regular feedback on what's working and what's not, to figure out how to really optimise the model.
He says: “Most big companies have teams that have already built all sorts of cool models for hybrid work, but they just haven't told anybody about it. They've been experimenting with different work models for years. It's just they never standardised them like this before – now everybody wants to create a perfect model for it.”
“It’s up to each manager to figure out what the right model is for their team. And then for the company to give the managers enough guidance, and policies, that let them optimise this.”
Our recently launched report, the Better Managers Roadmap, can help you understand how to change your culture for good. Over the coming months there's sure to be more change coming, and managers need to be prepared – download your copy now.
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