The pandemic has driven an enduring shift toward hybrid work, upending deeply held beliefs that the physical workplace is central to the organization’s culture. Executive leaders must shine a light on their in-office behaviors and rituals and adapt them for their culture to thrive in a hybrid world.
Physical location no longer drives organizational culture. Executive leaders must recognize culture is not about where we are, but how we behave.
Rituals must adapt to hybrid work and drive enterprise outcomes. Executive leaders must pause to examine their rituals explicitly and adapt and scale them for a hybrid world.
Cultural conflicts demand solutions instead of silence. Executive leaders should be mindful of the tensions that can emerge between employees as a result of this transparency.
Executive leaders seeking to build a more human-centric culture should:
Challenge behaviors and rituals they assume require colocation by identifying the behaviors that reflect their organization’s cultural values and adapting them for a hybrid world.
Rethink how to maximize the benefits of collaborative meeting time and individual focused time by designing deliberately for that time in a virtual environment in a way that supports well-being and engagement and maintains spontaneous collaboration for employees.
Design for a human-centric culture by promoting more respectful interactions. Illuminate the conflicts that can emerge in a hybrid world by acknowledging potential inequities between employees using cultural compassion. Be aware of the “have” and “have not” biases that can emerge, and co-create norms with employees to allow respectful conflict while fostering acceptance.
Strategic Planning Assumption
Nearly overnight, organizations had to flex immediately to a hybrid or remote model and adapt their culture to support it. Hybrid (working away from the office at least one day a week) and remote work has remained a permanent feature of the workplace since early in the pandemic. Our survey of HR leaders found 48% of employees expected to work remotely at least some of the time postpandemic. As the pandemic persists, employee expectations for remote or hybrid work — and their preferences to continue working remote or hybrid — will require leaders to adapt their culture to this new environment.
Adapting our culture for hybrid work requires us to explicitly define culture.
Often, these norms and unwritten rules are demonstrated through rituals. Rituals are collective behaviors that are repeated, shared, learned. Together, they build and reinforce connections among employees, and hence express the culture. They may be visible through onboarding activities, the ways we meet, celebrate and reward employees in our organization, and how we make decisions and resolve conflicts.
Executive leaders should illuminate their actions in the office-centric world, making implicit behaviors explicit. To reshape the culture, executive leaders should challenge behaviors and rituals designed for an office-centric world and reshape them for a hybrid world (see Figure 1).
Success in reshaping the culture requires unprecedented intentionality. Leaders must recognize there are things they implicitly believed when everyone was colocated in an office environment. These implicit beliefs and behaviors were often not articulated, but they were taken for granted as an intrinsic part of how we work. However, we can’t change what we can’t see.
Reshaping the culture demands a close look at the implicit beliefs that have evolved over time and that have been handed down within the organization. In an in-office environment, for example, it may be common for leaders to share all important organization updates in town halls or through other top-down communication channels. In a hybrid environment, communication channels may have shifted entirely, and employees may receive updates on internal intranets or collaboration platforms. These beliefs shape behaviors. Once identified, executive leaders must examine them to determine if and how they must be shifted or if they should be carried forward as part of a new, hybrid culture. All of these beliefs and behaviors must become explicit. Only then will the culture be able to adapt and reshape themfor a new model, often through small, but significant, culture hacks (see Figure 2).
Impacts and Recommendations
Executive leaders must challenge their beliefs about where work happens and the belief that colocation drives culture. For many organizations, meetings were one hallmark of colocation in an office-centric environment.
Implicitly, leaders may have believed that meetings are the best “tool” for getting work done, yet evidence suggests we are not productive in them (see Figure 3). Over 7,000 employees tell us meetings prevent them from being productive. They say there are unclear decisions, commitments or next actions, low participation and interest from attendees, and the overall presence of too many meetings in the workday.
Having shone a light on the real productivity that’s achieved through meetings, we may pause and reflect on the goal of our workday, which is to create an environment that fosters productivity and meaningful engagement. In a hybrid world, we must create the space for productivity, allowing employees time to complete their “real work” tasks. Critically, leaders must recognize that presence does not equal productivity.
In a hybrid world, executive leaders seeking to maximize productivity and engagement from time spent in meetings and focused time should consider the following rituals:
Require good meeting hygiene. Stipulate that agendas be posted in advance and attendance be scrubbed to only the most critical attendees to prevent meeting fatigue and burnout.
Collect virtual feedback from virtual attendees first in an “around the virtual room” to ensure opinions are not second to those that may be in an in-office setting.
Take advantage of opportunities to maximize focus time over the long term, including time-blocking and instituting rules that limit the number of meetings for decision (i.e., a “two-meeting decision rule”).
As remote work became the norm during the pandemic, many leaders bemoaned the loss of water cooler synchronicity (see Figure 4). Implicitly, many leaders saw these as opportunities for spontaneous collaboration among employees. Employees similarly grieved the loss of water cooler interactions for their social value. Not surprisingly, 55% of employees reported feeling more lonely and isolated working from home once the pandemic started, leaving many, but not all, longing for the social interaction that was taken for granted before.
In the absence of this spontaneous physical collaboration, leaders are now confronted with an explicit reality: These interactions fulfilled a number of purposesin the in-office environment. It was that transitional space for impromptu and serendipitous interactions. It was one driven by employee participation and contribution, with little to no direct involvement from management other than to endorse their value and champion the time needed for such interactions. And it served a number of objectives, from mentoring and coaching, sharing “news of the day,” promoting unity on teams, or allowing for brainstorming and collaboration, each with a real impact on the organization.
Leaders must understand the many roles that the water cooler interactions served for employees before trying to replicate them and achieve similar outcomes (see Figure 4). However, one common thread is clear across their use cases: leaders can reinforce “we-ness” and create the outcomes associated with spontaneous collaboration anytime employees gather, and it doesn’t matter where they gather.
This is good news for most. Organizations have already experienced a surge in virtual water cooler interactions by staff exploiting collaboration tools that have been deployed to support remote work. But executive leaders should be intentional in deciding the best approach to promote these interactions based on the virtual experience they are seeking to create and the organizational objective they are trying to achieve.
Invite colleagues to teach their peers a class to promote a “show and tell” atmosphere.
Promote “walking one-on-ones” to alleviate screen time and offer an opportunity to connect together through some physical exercise if colleagues are in a remote setting.
Build on the morning huddles so common around the on-site watercooler with a virtual morning huddle to keep employees similarly informed.
Borrow from the concept of “speed dating” with a 30-minute “speed water cooler” event once a week or once a month. Encourage eight to 12 employees to sign up for these half-hour sessions that build relationships and promote coaching and mentoring.
Reinvest in coaching and mentorship programs over the long term, and develop more Connector managers to build deeper relationships among hybrid staff. See .
The potential benefits of hybrid work policies to an organization include increased intent to stay (nearly three times higher for women), stronger commitment from employees and greater attractiveness to top talent. Yet, leaders must also recognize the disparate impact remote and hybrid work can have on various types of workers, adding a new dimension to existing inequities in the workforce and tearing at the fabric of the organization’s “we-ness” culture.
The social ramifications of these inequities — between salaried and hourly employees, independent contractors and gig workers — have been the subject of robust public debate. The pandemic is magnifying the potential consequences of certain employees being unable to work remotely, for example, or unable to take sick leave. Leaders now also recognize that remote and hybrid work has also shone a light on inequalities that exist between the “haves” and “have nots” as employees’ personal and family lives are on full display through video technology.
As these disparities move to the forefront, executive leaders struggle to balance the conventional approach of silencing conflicts, typical in a colocated, office-centric setting, with a new approach that shines a light on that conflict and fosters common ground.
In the past, the hallmark for the conventional approach to workplace divisiveness in an office-centric environment was silence. Talking politics at work was considered a faux pas, because employees generally accepted that even if their co-workers had different opinions, they could still work together to advance the organization’s goals. However, the landscape has changed rapidly. In a 2020 poll, 69% of employees have overheard their co-workers talking about politics, and 28% have argued with co-workers about politics.Further, 66% of respondents in another survey said talking politics at work is more common today than it was five years ago.
If political conversations and other controversial topics are inevitable in the workplace, and even more commonplace in a hybrid world, executive leaders must take an active role in these conversations, illuminating these potential conflicts. One strategy for shining a light on these conflicts is to promote listening tours for leaders and managers to hear firsthand the conflicts employees are confronting. Another strategy is to build employee resource groups for employees to come together.Executive leaders, leading sensitive discussions, should look to these sessions to build support and understanding with a spirit of compassion.
Executive leaders must act to establish ground rules and ensure sessions lead to respect and understanding rather than vitriol and division. At the level of core values, nearly universal agreement exists on common principles of safety, security and improving our environment. It’s at the level of more granular issues — such as specific policies, organizations and data sources — that disagreements arise. So, corporate messaging that focuses on these granular issues will naturally create division and reduce trust from some employees. Instead, root your messaging in employees’ shared values and the specific actions your organization will take to support those values. For example:
Don’t simply comment on your local government’s decision to open or close schools, and don’t remain silent about it, either. Instead, communicate the specific resources and support you will provide to parents with children to help them navigate the educational challenges caused by COVID-19.
Instead of commenting on divisive environmental issues, communicate specific actions and programs in your organization, such as commuter benefits, to help interested employees reduce their carbon footprint.
This process works with most divisive issues, but because each culture is unique, be open to experimenting, and take action on feedback. The key is to break down the issue, separate divisive specifics from unifying values and identify action steps your organization can take in support of those values.
Executive leaders should refer to the four key principles in Figure 5 to navigate tensions within their organizations in pursuit of common ground. They include accepting that good people throughout the organization may disagree on critical matters, but that in the course of conversation, staying respectful is key and resisting demonization of others is essential. As another ground rule, hostile situations should be deescalated. For more on ground rules for healthy and respectful discussions, including insights from the nonprofit Common Ground Committee, see .
Shift from a position of silencing underlying conflicts to a position that uncovers and resolves them by first confronting marginalizing behaviors that may emerge among employees in a remote or hybrid environment (see ).
Host listening tours or engage with employee resource groups to better understand employee experiences and perspectives.
Train managers and other senior leaders on key principles to navigate tension to build common ground among employees and create health, respectful dialogue.
Gartner Recommended Reading
Gartner COVID-19 Crisis Benchmarking Against Your Peers Webinar Poll, n = 421 leaders, 2 April 2020
2020 Gartner Well-Being Employee Survey
2013 Gartner Global Labor Market Survey
Gartner U.S. Election Employee Sentiment Survey, n = 400, July 2020