The majority of businesses would agree that company culture is important. The value of a strong workplace culture is supported by countless studies; for example, Quantum Workplace found that two-thirds of employees believe their culture positively impacts their work on a day-to-day basis.

At the same time, there is little doubt that the pandemic has had a major impact on company culture. Quantum’s study revealed that 35% of employees say their culture has changed dramatically in the past two years, with 23% of those saying it has changed for the worse.

This begs the question: What does company culture actually mean in a post-pandemic, hybrid workplace? To help answer this and other related questions, we spoke to Nathan Ross, HR Manager at Michael Page, to discuss:

  • What candidates expect from employers today
  • How employers can foster a more collaborative environment
  • Top ways for employers to make the office more attractive to staff

What do candidates expect from employers?

Prior to the pandemic, flexible working was a highly desired but often unattainable employee benefit, one that was most likely to be offered to parents. “Parents were most commonly able to get hybrid working allowances when they were able to demonstrate the rationale and how it was tangibly going to affect their time and their productivity,” Nathan explains.

This is no longer the case, with data from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) showing that 78% of organisations in the UK now allow hybrid working, either through formal or informal arrangements. Meanwhile, just over half of employers expect hybrid workers to be in the office for a certain number of days per week or month, and two-fifths have no minimum expectation.

Unsurprisingly, the growing prevalence of remote and hybrid working has had a substantial impact on candidate expectations. “Candidates often won't enter a conversation about a role where they are expected to be working more than three days in the office per week,” says Nathan. “In some areas of HR, like Reward and Talent Acquisition, they don't want to be in at all – possibly one day a week maximum”.

Is culture still tied to the office?

While the CIPD’s figures show that the vast majority of organisations have embraced hybrid working to some extent, the same study reveals that many businesses are skeptical about its long-term future. Indeed, 42% of senior decision makers agreed with the statement: “The memory of the pandemic will fade quite quickly and it won’t be long before we revert to the way we worked before COVID-19.”

Where employers are most eager for team members to return to the workplace, culture is typically cited as one of the key factors. “They feel as though culture is going to be driven by people being in the office” says Nathan.

It is easy to dismiss this concern as a smokescreen hiding business leaders’ desire to recoup a return on their investment in physical office space. However, research suggests that hybrid working can have wide-ranging negative impacts on culture. For instance, Genpact found that: 

  • 91% of bosses believe employee interactions have moved toward problem-solving, to detriment of socialising.
  • 48% say remote working has negatively impacted their organisation’s ability to integrate new hires into the culture.
  • 42% claim remote working has negatively impacted the connection between grassroots and senior employees.

This is backed up by anecdotal evidence from Nathan’s conversations with clients. “A lot of customers that I'm working with – and even those that I haven't fully worked with but I'm talking to – have said that when people are leaving, remote working is part of the rationale, because they don't feel as connected to the community that they are part of.”

Employees need a reason to return

If culture is closely associated with people physically being in the office, it is clearly in the interests of businesses to increase attendance. But this is easier said than done. 

Having worked remotely since early 2020, employees now find it hard to justify visiting the office unless they have a clear reason for doing so. 

In some ways, this problem is self-perpetuating. When employees feel compelled to go to the office – either for practical reasons, or because their attendance is mandatory for a set number of days – there is a risk that few, if any, of their colleagues will also be in. This makes it even harder to convince them that being in the office is worthwhile.

For this reason, some employers are eager to build a natural “fear of missing out” into their office-based activities, Nathan explains. “Businesses have to ask, ‘What is the value of being in front of your colleagues?’ And whether you consider what's in the actual space that they're in, the aesthetics, or the workability and ergonomics.”

How do leaders impact hybrid culture?

In any organisation, leaders have an outsized impact on company culture. If they buy into the mission, vision, and values, there is more chance that their direct reports will do the same.

However, hybrid working throws up a number of leadership challenges. While some workplaces are fully hybrid, others – particularly in traditionally blue-collar industries like manufacturing – might have a mix of remote and fully site-based workers. This can create a culture of “them and us”, where some employees feel they are missing out on the benefits in comparison to their colleagues.

Likewise, remote working can pose a problem when it comes to performance management. With less ability to sit down with someone and help them overcome a challenge, it can be hard for leaders to assess whether a direct report is facing a genuine problem, or simply isn’t doing the work.

The solution lies in more effective communication and training, Nathan insists. “The business and its leaders need to really upskill their managers more appropriately from a pastoral support perspective, so that they can connect with people, get the best out of them, and understand performance drivers.”

Dealing with the “optics” of hybrid working

Reassuringly, the widespread adoption of hybrid working has resulted in greater confidence that employees are still working hard when they are away from the office. According to the CIPD, three-fifths of senior decision makers agree that business leaders and managers are more likely to trust people to work from home and be productive following the pandemic, while only one in eight disagree.

However, employees cannot afford to take this for granted. If a manager questions their performance, it is not necessarily a case of poor management and a lack of support for hybrid working; the manager might have justifiable cause for concern.

As Nathan explains: “If people don't fully believe that you're doing the job at home then there is an optics problem there. Someone has responsibility over that, and it isn't always the audience. Sometimes that is you. If people don't think that you're working hard at home, then why is that? And how do you change that?”

Once again, it comes down to communication. For hybrid workplaces to thrive and build a strong company culture, every employee should be fully transparent in communicating their actions and being accountable for their own performance.

What’s next?

Struggling to build or maintain your workplace culture in a hybrid world? Read our guide to creating a motivating culture for remote teams to boost morale.

Looking to expand your HR team with top talent? Get in touch with one of our specialists today for an introductory conversation.

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