The changing role of culture and the office in a remote working world

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Written by Kate Pritchard

2020 transformed the workplace, with the pandemic and lockdowns forcing businesses to shut offices and embrace remote working overnight. Many staff has now not been into their workplaces for over a year, while others have joined businesses without ever physically meeting their colleagues. As we prepare to move out of the restrictions, it seems likely that there won’t be a complete return to full-time office working with many companies considering a hybrid model.

Transforming the office environment

The role of the office is likely to change from being somewhere we commute to every day in order to ‘do’ work, to somewhere where we will go when there is a clear reason to do so – whether that be to meet face-to-face with colleagues, customers or suppliers; or to collaborate, brainstorm, discuss or innovate in teams or groups – those things that are difficult to do remotely.

How offices are structured and where they’re located will therefore likely evolve. After all, if people are still going to work in separate cubicles or offices, they might as well be at home. Instead, we expect office design to incorporate more room for meetings and collaboration. Some space will likely be re-purposed into multi-functional work and leisure areas which can be used to tempt employees to come in.

Businesses may re-locate their offices away from expensive city center locations as, with staff coming in less frequently, this becomes less important. Some companies may even do away with offices altogether and rely on hiring out hotel conference facilities or serviced offices at specific times of the month.

Keeping the focus on culture

So, how do you build and maintain a corporate culture in an environment in which employees are meeting face-to-face less often? What does it mean for embedding company values and what about onboarding new employees into the organization? Given the importance of culture to success and differentiation, there are lots of factors to consider.

For one, organizations will need to make an extra effort to create and maintain connections, both between employees and between employees and the company. In an office, some of this connecting happen naturally, particularly if you have been employed for a while. However, with remote work, employees can often feel detached –especially new joiners. No wonder that even the most forward-looking technology leaders such as Google, whom you would expect to make the transition more easily than others, are concerned about the impact of hybrid working on company culture, creativity, and competitiveness.

Some simple yet effective ideas we have observed include setting up a buddy system for new joiners so that these employees have individuals they can reach out to for a virtual coffee and a chat. And to recreate those watercooler moments and casual office conversations which are part of the fabric of a shared workplace experience, reserving five or ten minutes during team meetings for employees to share news and informally chat about what is happening within the company.

The role of the manager has become even more important. With everybody facing different challenges, managers need to understand the circumstances of their team members and provide appropriate support. For some employees, working from home can be isolating. This is especially true for younger workers who live alone and look forward to the camaraderie of the office. And there is evidence that many are putting in more hours when working from home which makes burnout more likely. Regular conversations help to identify problems early and support managers in making appropriate decisions.

Attracting and keeping staff

Office culture is often part of the overall package that attracts and binds people to an organization. However, those firms that have invested in modern workplaces and physical employee benefits like lunches, fitness classes, social gatherings, and team activities may face an identity crisis if these can’t be adapted to virtual environments.

Of course, some of this can be replaced by alternative perks and rewards. And virtual group activities, as well as team away days, can contribute to team bonding. The new ways of working will likely lead to more emphasis on the key moments in an employee’s career. We know that how people feel about their employer is impacted by the way they are treated in the important “moments that matter” – such as their first day at work, a major project achievement, or the birth of a child. Without being physically together, employers need to think about appropriate ways to mark these milestones.

Keeping company values alive

A company’s mission and messages are typically communicated to employees during onboarding and kept alive in office interactions and meetings, but will this work as effectively in a virtual environment, where very often people’s focus can be pulled in different directions?

Organizations need to be very clear about ensuring that the company’s purpose and values are reinforced in written and verbal communications. With people working remotely, it has become more important to hear regularly from senior leaders in virtual town halls in which they are referencing company strategy, mission, and values. This is also an opportunity for leaders to show their authentic selves which can help employees to better understand and identify with them.

There is also a greater need for all managers to role model the company values in a hybrid setup, and to set expectations of the behaviors required. Regularly finding ways to recognize employees who embody the values will help to reinforce the right behaviors regardless of where employees work.

Successfully adopting hybrid working goes well beyond simply providing employees with the right infrastructure – organizations that thrive will be those that continue to derive a competitive advantage from their corporate culture and use it to bring everyone together. In order to negotiate these changes successfully, organizations must involve everyone in defining and understanding the “new normal” and then create a shared experience with new practices, aligned to culture in order to help meet their long-term goals.