Organizational culture is generally understood as a company’s beliefs, values, and attitudes, and how these influence the behavior of its employees, as well as the overall strategic vision for the company. With the dramatic shift to remote and hybrid work that has taken place since 2020, some business leaders have raised concerns about the challenges this brings for maintaining a strong company culture. Here are some key recommendations based on research evidence and practitioner insights.
- Understand the current culture.
Before one can develop strategies for maintaining culture in a hybrid working environment, it is important to measure how aligned employees currently are to the culture. Organizations usually define their culture and values based on the views espoused by the leadership or founders, but that may not necessarily reflect the values, attitudes, and beliefs of their workforce.
Research has shown that despite values being relatively stable, massive life events such as the COVID-19 pandemic can cause a shift in personal values. Furthermore, due to the Great Resignation that impacted organizations across most Western countries and industries over the last two years, many organizations may have a substantively different workforce than they did prior to the pandemic. Consequently, it’s a great time to take stock of organizational culture.
As a first step, the leadership team should be encouraged to review their culture, mission statement, and values and determine if this is still how they see the company today. If not, they should take the time to realign and identify their target culture. Once core values have been established, the culture alignment of employees can be examined through surveys, focus groups, or interviews that assess employees’ perceptions of the organization’s values, beliefs, and behaviors.
Once organizations have a baseline understanding of where employees stand regarding the organizational culture, they can then develop targeted interventions to address any areas of misalignment.
- Embed culture into learning and development (L&D).
One of the most effective ways to maintain company culture in a hybrid working environment is to embed culture into learning and development initiatives. This means designing training programs that not only teach employees the skills they need to do their jobs, but also reinforce the organization’s values and mission.
For example, if a retail organization is developing a training program on customer service skills, and among its core values are respect and empathy, the content of the training should emphasize how to embed these values into interactions with customers. Linking the skills employees are learning to the organization’s culture helps to reinforce key values and behaviors that are essential to maintaining a strong company culture.
- Emphasize culture from the very beginning.
Not only is it important to maintain culture among current employees, it is also vital to ensure that individuals joining the organization understand the culture and will embody the values.
One way to do this is to identify “champions” who embody the culture and assign them as buddies or mentors for new joiners. This has been identified as a useful strategy for onboarding in research conducted prior to the pandemic, as well as for large-scale remote working. However, it is important to ensure that these buddies understand and have bought into their responsibilities, as a negative experience or absence from a buddy could sour the onboarding experience.
Learning and development initiatives also can provide an opportunity for meaningful connections. Rather than a shift to deliver all learning content online in an asynchronous format, consideration should be given to synchronous methods. Or even in-person when this is an option, where it adds benefit and opportunity for relationship building. For example, leaders could complete asynchronous learning on the topic of diversity and inclusion but then take part in a live facilitated discussion where they share personal experiences and learning takeaways.
- Provide key moments for connection.
One of the downsides to remote and hybrid working is increased feelings of isolation. This is supported by research, including a study conducted in Finland, which found that remote work frequency was related to isolation and consequently greater levels of psychological distress. However, researchers found that the impact of this could be mediated by frequent communication between colleagues.
It is important to take steps to counteract these feelings of isolation, as a recent survey suggested this was a key reason remote workers would consider leaving an organization.
This can be done through a variety of means, including virtual teambuilding activities, online social events, and regular check-ins with managers and colleagues. By providing opportunities for employees to connect and interact with each other, it is possible to maintain the sense of community and shared purpose that is essential to a strong company culture.
- Highlight flexibility and well-being as core to the culture.
For most employees, the option to work from home some or all the time is likely to be seen as a positive aspect of organizational culture. Organizations can utilize this to provide flexibility for employees and help them to maintain their well-being.
Although flexible working arrangements can be beneficial for job satisfaction and organizational commitment, the increased use of technology can result in additional strain, and individuals may struggle to maintain a healthy work-life balance.
Organizations that want to promote a healthy hybrid work culture should take steps to help employees manage their workload and maintain healthy boundaries. They also should provide them with opportunities to increase their competence with new technologies, including sufficient training on communication technologies such as Teams or Slack.
In conclusion, there are challenges to maintaining company culture through hybrid working. But equally, there are tools and techniques organizations can use to effectively address these challenges. This starts with taking important steps to define your current culture—and how closely your employees are aligned with it. And it continues through the employee lifecycle from onboarding and L&D to flexible working arrangements and opportunities for connection.