Since the move to remote and hybrid working began, a key concern among many employers has been the potential damage to company culture, team cohesiveness and innovation due to a lack of face-to-face interaction.
This anxiety would appear to be reflected in the findings of Microsoft’s Work trend index, which was based on a survey of 31,000 employees and managers in 31 countries. It indicated, for instance, that 43% of leaders found relationship-building to be the biggest challenge they faced.
This situation was mirrored among employees, too. Some 59% of hybrid and 56% of remote workers said they now had fewer work friendships than when they were based in the office full-time. Also, although most hybrid employees felt they had been able to maintain a relationship with members of their own team, the same applied to only about half of remote staff.
These things matter. According to the Work trend index, a higher proportion of employees who have positive relationships with immediate colleagues say they benefit from feelings of wellbeing (76%) compared to those who do not (57%). They also feel more productive (50% vs 36%) and indicate they would be less likely to change employers over the year ahead (61% versus 39%).
Employee recognition solutions provider OC Tanner’s Global culture 2022 report found a similar link between positive relationships and good business outcomes. It revealed that if employees felt high levels of connection with each other, they were generally five times more satisfied with their work experience and organisational culture. They were also eight times more likely to produce great work, while business results tended to be 11 times more positive.
Is hybrid working damaging company culture?
So, in the light of these findings, a key question is: just how damaged are workplace relationships and culture becoming as a result of moving to new working models?
Robert Ordever, OC Tanner’s European managing director, points out that the aim of moving to hybrid approaches in the first place was to counter the problems generated for many employers by lockdown-induced remote working. As such, it was about trying to “balance the business benefits of togetherness, relationship-building and connection to purpose with the new expectations of employees around more flexible ways of working”, he says.
It was also about making it easier to innovate and share ideas, which tends to be more difficult in a virtual context – even though tools, such as virtual whiteboards, can help to a certain extent.
Robert Ordever, OC Tanner
But Ordever also acknowledges that the hybrid experiment is still a “work in progress”, which means most employers are at an “early stage” in terms of learning and finding their way towards achieving the benefits. But although the approach may lack maturity, Ordever is convinced it is more effective than a pure remote working model.
“I am nervous about those pockets of the business where roles are completely remote, even with great technology, which really helps,” he says. “That’s because it’s still really difficult to connect people to your purpose and each other if they’re not physically present.”
As to why physical interaction is so important, Ordever says it is because: “We take cues from body language and facial expressions. We’ve learned to interact that way and have become expert at it, so having to learn different skills is difficult.”
But Russell Miller, director of learning solutions and innovation at Imperial College Business School, is not so sure. “Organisational culture was a challenge before remote and hybrid working, but if you had a strong culture before the pandemic, you’ll have suffered less with the move than those that didn’t,” he says.
“In my view, the fundamentals of good leadership, strong organisational values and a purposeful business all come before worrying over whether hybrid working is destroying or enabling your culture.”
The difficulties of hybrid relationship-building
The stance of Alanna Harrington, senior research consultant at talent management and assessment services provider Talogy, falls somewhere in the middle of these views. While she acknowledges that hybrid working undoubtedly has the potential to harm company culture, she says: “It’s not a definitive ‘yes’ that it’s happening as there’s a lack of research here, so it’ll be interesting to see what the outcome is as we settle into the status quo. It doesn’t have to be that way, as long as the way that culture is created adapts in a way that reflects the new environment.”
Harrington adds: “The knee-jerk reaction of ‘we have to go back to the office to have culture’ is a mistake as employees don’t want it, so you can’t just go back to the way things were before. Culture is about shared practices and values, or what we do around here. So if, for example, the office is decorated in a certain way, you could also ensure that Teams or whatever is customised in a similar way.”
But Harrington does believe that the ability of employees – and their managers – to build relationships is being “challenged” by a lack of opportunities for spontaneous interaction, which includes knowledge- and information-sharing. This situation has inevitable implications at both the personal and professional level. Innovation is another area that research indicates tends to benefit from being undertaken in person, she adds.
Learning how to boost ‘social capital’
To try to address these challenges, what employers such as Forterro have done is embrace hybrid by making it clear to their workforce that the office is a place for “collaboration and camaraderie”, while home working is more about deep-focus work.
Sharon Looney, the enterprise resource planning (ERP) vendor’s chief HR officer, explains: “We see days in the office being about building social capital, so the old norm of coming in and sitting at a desk isn’t adding value. Instead, it’s about learning together, sharing, building face-to-face connections, socialising together, and rejuvenating our purpose – those are the positive impacts we want.”
Another important point of consideration, she says, is that “innovation can never be healthy if people spend long periods of time in isolation from the core team”. For those days when employees are working from home though, Looney points to the importance of having suitable tools in place to enable the equivalent of “five-minute ‘water cooler’ chats”.
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She adds: “Tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams are super platforms for more formal meetings and interactions, but they are very structured. So you also need to balance them with something more unstructured that will let people communicate on the fly and inject a bit of fun into their working lives.”
To this end, Forterro is implementing the Yammer enterprise social network to enable its employees to interact with each other more informally. But Looney would also like to see the integration of this kind of tool into more formal platforms to “build social capital and camaraderie” and to avoid the need to invest in two separate environments.
A key consideration here is that, like many companies during the pandemic, “we over-engineered our approach a bit”, she says, by introducing too many technologies “to ensure leaders had the right tools and structures to support the preservation of our culture”. These have subsequently been rationalised.
A 2022 Collaboration report by tech consultancy Whitespace confirms this widespread phenomenon. It indicates that workers are currently becoming overwhelmed by the noise and distractions generated by social media, communications technology and networking platforms.
Is the tech up to the job?
Another problem is that existing communication and collaboration tools are simply failing to hit the mark in enabling staff to collaborate effectively and build dynamic relationships. The situation is also not helped by a lack of easy ways to personalise communications and boost opportunities for interaction, says Talogy’s Harrington.
Options here could include being able to schedule emails when sending them to people in different time zones, the provision of virtual micro-feedback capabilities or live polling opportunities during company townhalls.
But Imperial College’s Miller believes there is more to it than just inadequate systems. “There’s a definite element of some technology not being up to the job, but what’s overlooked most is leaders knowing how to use it in the right way at the right time,” he says.
Russell Miller, Imperial College Business School
“During the pandemic, there was some basic training on platforms like Zoom, but people mostly figured it out as they went along, which means the average leader doesn’t know how to use these tools effectively to drive engagement and collaboration.”
The forthcoming technology that OC Tanner’s Ordever believes could make a significant difference in both fostering culture and building social capital in future is the much-hyped metaverse.
“It’s at such an early stage, but when you’ve got companies like Apple and Meta developing products there, you feel there’s so much more still to come from the technology,” he says. “I can see it bridging the gap between being remote and developing personal relationships by enabling people to read the virtual room and chat at the virtual water cooler.”
As evidence of the technology’s potential, Ordever also points to the fact that KPMG in the US and Canada has just introduced what it describes as an immersive “Metaverse collaboration hub” for employees and customers to work together.
“We couldn’t have gone hybrid without technology, so it has been helpful, but it also needs to become closer and more personal,” he says. “Technology hasn’t moved as quickly as workplace culture, which means you can feel like the poor relation if you’re working remotely, but the tech is being developed fast and furiously, so the balance will return.”