• As offices partially reopen, hybrid working is set to become the new norm.
  • This has the potential to increase diversity and inclusion in workplaces.
  • However, to realise this potential, organizations will need to create a different kind of working culture for the new era.

Despite early fears, the work from home revolution that swept across much of the world during the pandemic did not destroy productivity. “A new study finds that, in fact, remote work does indeed make us more productive,” Bloomberg reported in April. And in some cases when productivity did suffer, studies show that it was largely due to constraints that workers had no control over, such as “poor telecommunication environment at home” and “rules and regulations that require some tasks to be conducted in the office.”

But what about company culture? Again, fears that it would fall apart did not pan out. In one survey, more people said their work culture actually improved during the pandemic. There’s no guarantee, however, that these successes will continue - or that any problems will be rectified - as more people start returning to offices. The world is entering a new era for what work will look like, and organizations need to adapt all over again.

The vast majority of companies plan to allow employees to work remotely at least part of the time, making hybrid work the new norm in the United States and much of the world. Keeping remote work as an option has the potential to increase diversity and inclusion, making jobs available to people who can't come to the office frequently. They may have caregiving responsibilities, live far from the office where housing is more affordable, or have no means of transportation.

But the benefits to both organizations and employees of the hybrid working era will only be realized if there is a positive culture. Businesses need to create the working culture of the hybrid era.

Making it clear what an organization stands for

Over years working with corporations (such as AT&T), government institutions (such as the U.S. Air Force) and more to design organizational cultures, my company has found that some key principles can apply equally whether employees are in person or remote.

It is essential to establish what we call a “High-Purpose Culture.” This is both employee- and customer-focused, and it makes clear what a company or organization stands for. A High-Purpose Culture engages everyone in the organization. In an extensive analysis, we looked at Glassdoor data in which employees rate their companies, as well as financial data. We found that companies with High-Purpose Cultures have higher returns, customer satisfaction, employee retention, and rates of innovation, as well as other benefits.

A cartoon with the caption: 'as hubrid work becomes the new norm, a strong culture becomes more essential than ever'
The benefits to both organizations and employees of the hybrid working era will only be realized if there is a positive culture
Image: Gapingvoid

Putting community first

At the core of a High-Purpose Culture is a way of viewing an organization that is less hierarchical. Instead, leaders should see their organizations as communities.

For years, some analysts have lamented the loss of a sense of community in business. A 2009 column in the Harvard Business review described “the depreciation in companies of community—people’s sense of belonging to and caring for something larger than themselves.”

As I’ve worked with businesses to instill a sense of community, I’ve found that it involves numerous elements. Employees needs to feel that they simultaneously “fit in” and “stand out” by having a specific role that contributes to the company’s purpose, as well as a sense of joy in being a participant in the collective.

Executives and managers should have conversations with staff across the entire company, both in person and remotely, to help ensure they see the relevance of their role in the organization’s purpose. Be proactive, and help make sure that each employee feels a connection to the company’s purpose, and has an awareness of their own unique role in helping fulfill it.

Actions, words and visual cues

Culture change can’t be achieved through training or simple purpose statements. It needs to be instilled through ideas and beliefs.

As the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins explained, memes are units of culture that people can pass around to each other. To help employees understand what your organization stands for, you need to create a culture through actions, words that leaders use frequently in messages and announcements, and through visual cues.

Powerful visual cues come in the form of signs and symbols. On the walls of your offices, in Zoom backgrounds, on email signatures and more, the use of deliberately designed visual tools with culture statements on them help to implant ideas and embed them in daily experiences.

For example, at Microsoft we created a “blue monster” accompanied by the words “change the world or go home.” This captured a belief that Microsoft had to become more customer-centric and more empathetic in dealing with coworkers. The more employees see these messages, the more these cultural ideas become part of their daily work lives.

Offices of the future

There will always be some benefits to having personnel come to the office some of the time. Face-to-face experiences can build relationships and inspire unplanned collaborations, for example.

But businesses should make it worth the trek to the office. To that end, build the office around experiences. Give employees a chance to be hands-on with products that are in development. Structure the office as a place to do collaborative work face-to-face. Provide time for people to interact and collaborate to drive social capital when they’re there.

Creating a High-Purpose Culture requires intention and commitment. But the rewards are clear. As the world moves forward into a new era, businesses can help lead the way, and pave a path to a better, more inclusive future.