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5 Shifts to Build a Strong Hybrid Work Culture

A hybrid workplace is a tough puzzle. Be incredibly intentional about communication, collaboration, and measuring impact.

By Gustavo Razzetti

January 26, 2022

Hybrid can be the best or worst of both worlds – your call

The hybrid workplace is here to stay. The global COVID-19 pandemic has quickly shifted work dynamics. Not only has it debunked the stigma associated with working from home, but it has actually increased productivity to unexpected levels. As most studies show, employees value the flexibility and freedom that remote work has given them.

A hybrid workplace can bring together the best of both worlds: the convenience of working from home and in-person interactions in the office.

Unfortunately, many companies are slipping back into old, unhealthy habits. In doing so, they’re missing a golden opportunity: to build on what they’ve learned during the pandemic.

Digging your heels in, going back to the office, and pretending the pandemic never happened is a mistake. Or, even worse, trying to take what were in-office culture and practices and copy-paste them into a half -emote/ half-in-office experience could backfire.

It could quickly become the worst of both worlds.

As Betsy Bula, an All-Remote Evangelist at GitLab, told me: “Companies are struggling. They use ‘hybrid’ as something they can lean on – a temporary band-aid in the meantime, trying to meet and please the needs of all team members – without considering the differences of each group.”

As a whole, hybrid is difficult to do right.

You need to be more intentional about revisiting (almost) everything about your culture. It requires a lot of experimentation and adjustments. Most importantly, you want to avoid creating a two-tier experience – one for remote and another for collocated employees.

Consider this a chance to consciously design a successful hybrid workplace that bridges the gap between what employees want and what leaders demand.

It’s time for a culture reset.

The 5 Shifts to Thrive in a Hybrid Workplace

There are five key mindset shifts that organizations need to adopt in order to thrive in a hybrid workplace. Let’s examine each one as they form the basis for designing a successful hybrid culture.

1. From Culture by Chance to Culture by Design

Many people believe that culture just happens organically – and that’s why they’re afraid that culture will suffer if people aren't in the office.

But culture can – and, I would argue, should – be designed deliberately. A successful company culture doesn’t happen by accident; it is created with purpose and intent.

It’s true that, left to its own devices, company culture is organic. It will happen naturally and emerge freely. However, in a hybrid environment you cannot take that risk: you need to be more intentional.

Very few companies have had the privilege to work remotely for years. One common thread I observed during my research is their obsession with designing culture with intention – and a healthy emphasis on clarity and transparency.

From a formal approach to informal communication to codifying the obvious: a remote-first culture is the result of obsessive design and intention.

Web development company Automattic, best known for operating WordPress, considers communication “the oxygen of a distributed company.” People are encouraged to communicate as much as possible. Not only about work, but also about personal things.

Another big lesson is to adopt a trial-and-error mindset. Companies like GitLab, Doist, and Google have been experimenting for over a decade – and still believe remote work will continue to evolve. No one got it right from day one.

Most importantly, involve people. Successful remote-first organizations co-design their culture with their employees.

At GitLab, anyone can edit the company values – you’re encouraged to make suggestions even if you don’t work there. Give it a try. Contact GitLab’s CEO Sid Sijbrandij on Twitter with any suggestions you have.

Culture design isn't about imposing a path, but rather setting a framework and building through continuous input from people and iteration.

2. From Input to Impact

Historically, organizations have rewarded input – visibility, effort, presentism, etc. – over outcome.

The notion that “being busy” equals “working” is deeply flawed. Yet employees are rewarded for working late, sending a lot of emails, or being in back-to-back meetings.

Organizations can benefit enormously by shifting their focus away from these traditional input measures and focusing on impact. Don’t reward presenteeism or long hours. Evaluate people based on goals and results, instead of how late they stayed in the office or how many Zoom calls they attended.

Google has been using OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) at both an organizational and team level since long before the pandemic OKRs form a “binding contract” among team members, according to Prasad Setty, VP of Digital Work Experience at Google. OKRs help divide roles and responsibilities, encouraging people to think in terms of contribution, not input.

“As long as the goals are clear and OKR are clear, you don’t need to monitor activity/ input,” Prasad explains here.

Having a team purpose is another way to focus on a most significant goal: the impact you want to create in the world.  

People want to be part of something bigger than themselves. They want to create a legacy. Having a purpose matters more than ever. Research by Humu shows that people who don’t feel their work contributes to their company’s purpose are 630% more likely to quit their jobs than their peers who do.

If you want engaged and productive employees, focus on the impact you want to create and people will follow.

3. From Work-life (Im)balance to Work-Life Integration

As a society, we tend to consider work and personal life separate. But, for most of us, the “work-life balance” remains elusive. Paradoxically, the more we pursue it, the harder it becomes to achieve.

Always-on culture was already breaking down the boundaries between work and personal life. Then the pandemic arrived, and the lines became more blurred than ever. Working from home has created a more human connection to work. Many of us have spent most of the last two years working in the company of pets, babies, spouses, and roommates. COVID-19 brought work to our homes and our personal lives to our jobs.

At GitLab, team members hold "Juice Box” chats. These are similar to a coffee chat, but aimed to bring  employee’s children, grandchildren, or other family members together. These sessions are usually  focused on a topic such as Legos, superheroes, video games, or outdoor activities.

Instead of fighting reality and preventing kids from interrupting ‘business’ calls, GitLab went all in. It created an all-remote version of the “bring your kid to work day."

Accepting the increasingly fluid boundaries between work and personal life – rather than trying to build higher stronger walls between them – will create a more humane and flexible workplace.

4. From Synchronous to Asynchronous Collaboration

One of the biggest mistakes most companies made when forced to work remotely was carrying old habits into a new way of working. They continued approaching collaboration as something that needs to happen synchronously, with everyone reviewing information, making decisions, or brainstorming together.

The result? Most teams struggled with an overload of meetings, Zoom fatigue, and late hours (even on weekends).

Traditional workplaces were filled with synchronous communication. Meetings required everyone to show up and people were expected to take calls and respond to emails immediately, regardless of what else was going on.

Asynchronous collaboration, however, creates a different, more flexible set of rules.

Experts agree: whether your team is fully-remote or hybrid, it should adopt an async-first approach.

Amir Salihefendić, CEO of Doist, says the benefits of asynchronous communication go beyond flexibility: “So people think before they write, and it creates a much more calm environment,” he says. At Doist, people can set their own work schedules, are not pressured to respond outside of work hours, and have the time and space to think about a topic and come back with more thoughtful responses.

Asynchronous communication requires more intentionality and effort. Your team needs to become obsessive about documentation. It could even slow down communication. However, better collaboration and work happen when people are thinking deeply, writing down their ideas, and presenting them—no meetings required.

5. From One-Size-Fits-All to Flexibility

I get a lot of pushback when I tell clients to set a simple, company-wide policy and then give teams the freedom to design their own hybrid approach. Organizations are used to having a one-size-fits-all approach to work. It can be hard for them to accept that the benefits of flexibility more than justify the complexities.

However, that’s the common denominators of all the successful remote companies I interviewed for my new book: teams have a saying in how things get done. From shaping the remote work corporate policy to flexibility to adapt them to their own needs, employees are involved every step of the way.

That’s one of the mistakes Apple recently made: assuming that leadership understood what employees wanted and trying to find a solution that would work for everyone. Messages like, “We know many of you are eager to reconnect in person with your colleagues back in the office” backfired. Employees often felt not just unheard but actively ignored, and Apple’s assumptions made things worse. People felt that the mandate to return to the office showed a lack of empathy.

Apple employees didn’t just push back. They provided concrete, actionable solutions. Their complaint letter is a smart roadmap for redesigning the future of work. Among other things, they suggested that:

• Remote and location-flexible decisions be up to teams to decide (just like hiring decisions)

• A short survey be made available to promote ongoing feedback on topics affecting hybrid work, including employee churn

• The company evaluate the environmental impact of going back to the office

• All employees set their own work schedules according to what works best for them

A rigid approach can create inequality in the workplace. Be intentional about creating an equal experience for every employee, including equal access to leaders, career opportunities, learning and development, and belonging. It’s not that everyone should get the same, but about providing equal opportunities.

Defining which roles are resident, fully remote, or hybrid – like Citi and other companies have done – will create inequality. Why do some people experience the benefits of working from home and others don't?

Also, pre-defining which days people should be in the office emphasizes presentism over impact. The question is not how many days people should be at the office, but when it's better to collaborate in person – and when not.

Even worse, defining fixed days per area will harm cross-functional collaboration.

Managing the complexities of scheduling, integrating individual and collective needs, and overseeing people who work from different locations isn’t easy. Having a centralized, top-down approach won’t work. Team members can make better decisions when given the freedom and authority to do so.

It pays to keep your team rules simple and flexible and include team members in writing their own code of conduct. This isn’t just a perk for employees. Flexibility is one of the best antidotes to the Big Resignation.

A Hybrid Work Culture: Get Started

A hybrid workplace is a tough puzzle to figure out. You must be incredibly intentional about communication, collaboration, and measuring impact.

We're going to see a lot of learning, experimentation, and iteration. The companies that really care about culture will figure it out.

Start by getting your leadership out of the office. Senior executives need to embrace the discomfort of remote work. Experience what people are experiencing – empathize with employees and the gaps that get in the way. Team members are the best sources for insights and ideas to create a powerful hybrid work culture.

Treat working in the office and remotely as one: How can they complement each other? What are the benefits of each work mode? Define which can work best when.

Transparent and empathetic communication is crucial to turn the pain into an opportunity. Culture is a huge factor. You need a reset, not a quick fix.

Experts agree: It will take many years for your organization to find the right model.

My new book Remote, Not Distant is out in June –  sign up to be the first to know when it’s ready for pre-order.

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