Successfully building culture in the changing world of work

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Written by Kate Pritchard

Over the last year lockdowns and the pandemic have dramatically changed how (and where) people work. This shift to remote working has had a major impact on culture. 39% of companies cited culture concerns as a priority reason for re-opening offices.

However, given that businesses will not be able to mandate everyone to return to the office, most are adopting some form of hybrid working. This means employees have a greater choice about when and where they work.

There are two key dimensions to hybrid working that will fundamentally change company culture: Distance and time.

New cultures – the opportunity and the threat

This disruption to the world of work will change cultures. Whether this is positive or negative will very much depend on the organisation and how it responds. However, trying to return to an existing pre-pandemic culture will be difficult due to the changes of the last 12 months.

Employees have got used to operating in a more independent way. Essentially, they were trusted by their managers to get things done when working remotely.

6 key factors to focus on when evolving your culture

Understanding these key factors is vital to understanding and updating your post-pandemic culture.

1. Take control of the process

Given the changes to the world of work, your culture will evolve, whatever you do. Therefore, intentionally set out to create a company culture that links to your brand, values, mission statement and objectives. Otherwise it will mutate in ways that are out of your control.

That requires you to be proactive. Set your purpose, mission and values, led from the top, but with input from employees.

The desired culture needs to then be translated into the core behaviours you are looking for, from both employees and managers. Being explicit about these, and using them as part of appraisals, promotion decisions and recruitment will make organisational culture clear to everyone, whether they are inside or outside the office. It is vital that you take everyone with you when culture evolves. Ensure you have buy-in down to a team level.

2. Keep up the focus on communication

Staff are used to being kept informed by leaders at all levels during the pandemic, from CEO-led town hall meetings to one-to-ones with line managers. It is vitally important to keep this support in place, particularly given current levels of uncertainty. That requires a strong focus on communications and ensuring that information flows across the organisation. Staff who are working from home need to be kept as informed as their colleagues in the office. Otherwise messages will be inconsistent, undermining workplace culture and engagement.

Good everyday communications are everyone’s responsibility, from the CEO down. However, HR and internal comms teams can support this through frameworks and training for managers. These must explain what they should be saying, and when they should be saying it, in order to drive the right cultural behaviours.

3. Ensure managers live and reinforce culture

Even before the pandemic, managers were increasingly vital in a team-based working environment. Now they could be the only leader that many employees see on a regular basis. That makes them even more important when it comes to living and reinforcing culture.

Managers must therefore be role models for great culture, operating with openness and transparency and building connections with their team. That means ensuring they have the time to regularly check-in with team members, outside scheduled meetings. This allows them to take the pulse of their people. It ensures that the right culture is being followed across their teams.

Managers must encourage psychological safety within the team and focus on incentivising the right behaviours. Setting the tone at this level is crucial to team building and creating a positive company culture.

HR and senior leadership can help by setting key long-term management behaviours that revolve around corporate culture. They should then measure/hold managers accountable, for example through 360-degree feedback and assessments.

4. Create and sustain connections

Culture develops outside normal working activities. For example, when employees bump into people in the office kitchen or pop out for coffee with colleagues from other departments. Keeping this social connectivity going when staff are spread across different locations is difficult.

It needs to be planned, but natural, encouraging people to connect and reinforcing culture and engagement. Scheduling cross-departmental meetings can help, along with leaving time at the beginning and end of meetings for more social interactions. Organised social events (either physical or virtual) will also help to replace those watercooler moments where people meet accidentally and chat.

5. Continue the push to increase inclusivity

Organisations understand the need to build, develop and retain a diverse workforce that is open to all. A range of perspectives, skills and experiences generate innovation and new ideas, ensuring you meet the needs of all your customers.

Alongside diversity and inclusion activities, that means valuing every person as an individual. With hybrid and remote working many can find it difficult to split their home and work lives. Managers therefore need to have empathy with everyone’s individual home needs and environment. Taking this approach will increase employee engagement, get the best from top talent, and ensure there is a strong cultural fit with your people.

The new world of work also requires a shift in focus. It means being inclusive when people aren’t physically there so that they continue to feel included, and that they belong. Create two-way dialogues with every employee and ensure that messages are clear, simple and understandable by all.

6. Define your purpose

Post-pandemic there is now a much greater push from organisations to question and define their purpose. Businesses are increasingly looking at their wider societal impact. Customers and employees want to buy from, and work for, purpose-driven organisations.

That puts the spotlight on culture. Simply talking about purpose (and commitments in areas such as sustainability and diversity) is not enough. Rhetoric has to be matched with behaviours, otherwise there will be a loss of trust in the organisation. Changing behaviours requires the right culture, managed actively to ensure that purpose drives the organisation forward.

The new world of work is uncharted territory for every organisation, particularly when it comes to culture. While every organisation is different, focusing on these five areas will help create the open, transparent culture required to thrive in an uncertain world.