Culture is a catalyst for the hybrid squeeze

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What’s the single most enduring change that’s come out of COVID? It’s remote work.

“The war is over,” Stanford University’s Nick Bloom recently tweeted, “and hybrid work won.” It’s profitable for companies. And workers are unwilling to part with their newfound flexibility, suggesting managers “pry it out of their cold, dead hands.”

The breakdown looks like this:

  • 60% never work from home
  • 30% are hybrid (using the office a few days a week)
  • 10% are fully remote

Younger workers want some in-office time to be mentored, to socialize or even to find a partner. (Cover your ears, HR. One in three romantic relationships start at work.) And their living quarters are often shared, meaning WFH is trickier with a roommate.

For folks in their 30s and 40s, flexible work has been a major unlock—allowing them time for stage-of-life caregiving. Braiding in time for children, an aging parent or pets during work hours quells an enormous psychological burden.

The Hybrid Squeeze

In an approach dubbed “the Hybrid Squeeze,” workers on average want to come in three days synced with their team. Why should they ditch their sweatpants and endure a commute to send emails from a less convenient (or empty) location? Workers come to the office for the alchemy of creative collaboration, not the snacks. Research shows that companies following this recipe are the ones leading in growth.

With the shift to hybrid and remote structures has come an overdue shift in how leaders must motivate and evaluate productivity. In the new model, there’s much less desk-watching and a greater focus on the ways we empower people to do their best work.

But according to the 2024 Workplace Flexibility Trends Report, 75% of companies are still
“terrible at remote work,” failing to adopt best practices for working across distance. One foundational concern is maintaining culture.

Even in the office, senior leaders struggle to identify and leverage the functional aspects of culture. So, how do we reframe culture-building when people are consistently farther from the proverbial campfire?
Culture is a catalyst. And while its ideal purpose is to catalyze your strategic aims, an unintentional culture will inevitably thwart those aims.

Culture is a catalyst. And while its ideal purpose is to catalyze your strategic aims, an unintentional culture will inevitably thwart those aims.

Scientists describe culture as “a medium containing nutrients for growth.” Organizational culture is made of values, beliefs and the behavioral norms derived from them. It’s what most people do, most of the time. And not dissimilar from Bill Nye’s refrain, these beliefs and behaviors also contain nutrients for your growth.

We can’t think about culture without thinking about leaders, because culture and leaders are two sides of the same coin. Leaders’ behaviors carry the culture. And the culture is a mirror image of the leaders—everything they celebrate, and everything they tolerate in or out of an office setting.

In flexible work environments, leaders need extra clarity around the specifc behaviors that will catalyze the things you as a leader want and ward off the things you don’t.

If a culture’s inherent purpose is to GROW something, ask yourself, “What is it we’re trying to grow?” Is it more accountability? More transparency? Maybe it’s more connection.

Whatever you’re aiming to grow ought to help you move toward your strategic aims. That’s the de􀀁nition of intentional culture. When behaviors are modeled and lived out (not just said and decorated with), the compounding effect is commitment over compliance. This drives autonomous decision-making, preserving your culture even when you’re working somewhere else.

Here are four steps to keep your culture growing, while your people are spread out:

First, get clear on the culture you have today: We use a tool that measures culture objectively by surfacing the behaviors of the leaders and organization through all employees’ anonymous perspectives. Different levels and locations of leaders experience the culture differently.

Second, operationalize your core values: Only about 10% of organizations do this! Leaders can’t carry something they can’t describe in or out of the office. Reverse-engineer core values from speci􀀁c, observable behaviors (see above: building blocks of culture) that will help catalyze your strategic aims. Ensure they’re inclusive for remote and in-o􀀃ce workers.

Third, create rituals, activities and systems: Train your leaders to set the tone for how employees should interact with one another and represent the organization in and out of the office.

Fourth, integrate your operationalized values with performance and evaluation: These unique, guiding behaviors provide strength and structure for decision-making, coaching, recognition, feedback, performance management and accountability.

As technologies improve, hybrid work will continue to grow. We’re living in a strange time, but it’s also a time that insists we primarily define ourselves by our differences, leading with what makes us unique. Indeed, your culture will continue to grow … something. Let it be a catalyst for good.

As published by Indiana Business Journal on May 10, 2024.