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If you've been reading any headlines this past year, you've read something about how hybrid work environments are the future of work. Or maybe it's that the future is hybrid? One thing for certain: hybrid work arrangements, and new hybrid cultures, are going to be the norm for a while.
Many companies, by choice or default (thanks, never-ending pandemic), are already embracing, if not fully experiencing, a hybrid work model.
Few companies have been intentional about their hybrid culture. Most have been focused on the nuts and bolts of hybrid operations.
Remote teams interact primarily through video calls and async tools, edging back toward the physical workspace with a few carefully planned days a month to gather together. Frontline workers and others whose work requires physical presence still spend most of their days in the physical space, but meetings and team-building time with team members may be more restricted.
The formerly co-located may yearn to catch up with team members in a more casual way while others just want to occasionally escape their homes for the underrated calm of an office environment.
So hybrid work is what many are already experiencing. And whether that move to hybrid was intentional (as with BetterUp) or in reaction to ongoing uncertainty, it means that companies now need to pay attention to hybrid culture.
The workplace culture you had before probably isn't what you have now. The new hybrid work culture you need may not be the same as your old culture, either.
In this article, we look at the challenges of hybrid work models and how leaders can be more deliberate about the hybrid culture they create.
What is hybrid culture?
A hybrid culture is an environment that blends virtual and in-person work arrangements. Although changes in the world of work have dominated our thoughts for the last couple of years (and with good reason, since work is a huge part of our lives), workplaces are not the only environments considering what it means to have a hybrid culture.
For example, colleges were developing fully-online programs prior to the pandemic — but it’s a brand new challenge for K-5 classrooms.
Whereas remote work was a rare perk prior to the pandemic, it’s an expectation now for many workers and employers. In fact, companies that expected their employees to happily return to the office are finding that many of them would rather quit — a factor that helped trigger The Great Resignation.
Prior to March 2020, approximately 20% of people worked from home. Afterward, that number shot up to over 70%. As countries (and companies) went in and out of lockdown, remote work went from being a short-term emergency measure to a long-term solution that presented its own benefits.
The benefits and challenges of a hybrid workplace
The full picture of hybrid work culture is still emerging. Some effects, like a reduced carbon footprint, are a net gain for both companies and employees. However, some areas of life are… complicated by this arrangement.
BetterUp® is a data-driven, evidence-based human transformation company that thrives on a hybrid work model. Even prior to COVID-19, 40% of the BetterUp team worked remotely. Our research and experience gives us a unique insight into what it takes to lead a hybrid work culture — along with the benefits (and challenges) it brings.
Benefits of a hybrid workplace
In many ways, working remotely is shown to be beneficial for work-life balance. Employees with shorter commutes and increased flexibility tend to be happier at their jobs. This boost in satisfaction improves both productivity and retention.
A lot has been said about the freedom that remote workers have to live and work where they choose — but this is a perk for employers, too. With a hybrid culture and remote work infrastructure in place, companies have the ability to recruit talent from anywhere in the world.
Improve diversity in the workplace
Widening the talent pool is one path to diversity. Remote work and hybrid environments make the workplace more welcoming to those who otherwise shy away from restrictive work environments. These include working parents, neurodiverse employees, and people with disabilities.
Data indicate that some employees are feeling more able to be creative in a remote environment as well.
Reduced cost for companies
Those fancy marble offices are expensive. Free from the logistical constraints of trying to house a large, in-office workforce, companies have resources that they can reallocate. This could mean investing in technology, employee wellness programs, or expanding their offerings to the market.
Challenges of a hybrid workplace
Just as school doesn’t work the same virtually, you can’t just throw everyone online and expect the same results you get in-office. In order to work well, you have to build a hybrid workplace — not an “in-person workplace that happens to be online.” That might mean some trial and error.
You have to create “adaptive space” by leaning into the benefits that each provides. At BetterUp, that means a largely remote workforce that (when circumstances allow) gathers for both social and collaborative events. Our offsites provide support and opportunities for professional development, while regional ambassadors plan social events for those who live near each other.
Life can get in the way of even the most structured work arrangements. However, remote and hybrid cultures pose a unique challenge. By nature, they bring less managerial oversight — even though this is often a good thing. Less micromanagement means that managers become more effective, develop more trust in their employees, and increase their team’s sense of ownership.
Inadequate remote work setup
When multiple people are working — or learning — from home, however, it can become difficult to focus. Employees working remotely often have to compete for space and resources at home, where it can be difficult to focus. Organizations may have to redirect the resources that they typically allocate to office space in order to provide the technology employees need to work effectively at home.
While hybrid work is certainly more flexible, that increased flexibility doesn’t always translate to improved quality of life. Our research on remote teams over the last few years indicates that remote workers tend to work longer hours and have more difficulty separating work and leisure time. Especially during the pandemic, which upended our understanding of work and productivity, many feel pressure to maintain pre-pandemic levels of output and presenteeism.
How to promote a sense of belonging within a hybrid culture
There are some things that no one misses about working in an office (the commute has to be at the top of the list). But the most oft-cited regret from remote workers is the lack of spontaneous interaction and connection with their colleagues. Without intentionally setting times to connect, remote work arrangements can increase their sense of loneliness and leave them feeling isolated.
This effect is especially pronounced in younger workers — many of whom graduated college or started their first jobs remotely during the pandemic. For people who have changed roles or industries, it's possible to interview, be hired, and maybe even leave a job without having met a single person off-screen. This trend may have a long-term impact on workforce development, raising a generation who’s never actually had to go into an office.
Developing a sense of belonging in a hybrid environment is tricky for both managers and workers. Some initiatives, like working synchronously, improve real-time collaboration and connection but reduce flexibility — a main benefit of remote work. Workers in another time zone, or who can't attend synchronous events because of other responsibilities, may feel even more isolated — or worse, may worry that they’ll appear uncommitted to their jobs.
The problem doesn't have a clear-cut solution — but it does have one. Companies like BetterUp that have successfully managed hybrid teams understand that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Here are some ideas to help cultivate a sense of belonging and inclusion for your hybrid team:
Plan social events
The workplace is an important source of social connection. Give people a way to spend time with each other and connect outside of their roles. Social events are excellent opportunities for co-workers to build camaraderie. In-person events are great when circumstances allow, but you can also host fun virtual events. Make use of breakout rooms to give people time to chat.
Provide opportunities for employees can work together
While there's a good chance that companies will permanently forgo expensive, long-term leases, your employees should still have a place to gather. Consider offering memberships to a co-working space or hosting offsite retreats so that people can collaborate face-to-face. It will be a nice change from interacting with the screen and provide distraction-free, creative time.
Employee resource groups, or ERGs, are spaces for employees from underrepresented backgrounds to connect with one another. Encouraging these spaces gives employees a place to talk and share their experiences openly. They reinforce the organization’s commitment to diversity and are invaluable in creating a culture of belonging.
In the early stages of the pandemic, people felt more connected to their employers because they felt more cared for as people. People bring their entire selves to work, and their personal experience can’t be separated from the employee experience. Showing that you care about your team’s well-being helps to make them feel that they belong at your company.
BetterUp Staff Writer