The timing and necessary steps for returning to in-office work are the subject of a tremendous conversation. Yet, there is a broader, and potentially more important, conversation to be had around workplace flexibility and how this will likely shape company culture post-pandemic.
Changing Workplace Attitudes
The pandemic affected every facet of life, including both the feasibility and effectiveness of remote work. Whole industries shifted to accommodate a newly-remote workforce. Industries that couldn’t make the shift, like manufacturing or hospitality, were forced to explore creative solutions to allow employees to adjust to changes with childcare, healthcare, and travel restrictions. We’re slowly seeing the consequences of these shifts in 2021, both in employee attitude toward remote working and, more broadly, with company culture.
A recent study from EY found that nearly 50% of “employees globally would quit their jobs if not provided post-pandemic flexibility.” This finding, while shocking, was upheld in a March 2021 survey conducted by Prudential where feedback from employees discovered, “87% wanted to work remotely at least one day a week and 33% did not want to work for a company that required full-time, onsite work.” Additional studies have found similar results, with lifestyle focus and workplace flexibility increasingly driving both employment incentives and job retention rates.
Remote Work and Company Culture
Company culture often dictates leadership’s willingness to explore remote work options or even hybrid models of employment. Exploring these options can actually drive shifts in culture, generating a sort of feedback loop that can have profound implications for the organization over time.
Organizations, for example, pervaded by a top-down management style, where leaders exercise tight control over processes and procedures and limit employee flexibility, often resist remote work. They believe that the dispersion remote employees introduce runs counter to their management style. Note, no value judgement is in play here. Whether such a top-down style is good or bad is secondary: cultural norms impact, and can even determine, policy and practice, and when those cultural norms run at cross purpose to prevailing employment trends, there will be hiring and retention challenges.
The key is to understand and drive the right culture for the organization: a culture that adequately reflects the values and behaviors of its employees as well as aligning to the market in which the organization operates. In these terms, culture has been explained as the “why we do it” and the “how we go about it” of a company, generating the unique expression that comes to define each organization. A company’s culture impacts the experience and longevity of its employees as well as how the company is perceived in the marketplace. Ignoring company culture is a little like ignoring that funny-shaped spot on your back: you might get lucky and it turns out to be nothing, but sadly, it also might be what does you in.
Further, there must be a willingness on the part of the organization’s leaders to engage in an honest and transparent discussion about company culture and whether that culture is in need of adjustment. If your organization went from in-office to wholly virtual over the course of the pandemic, you need to consider the impact that has had on your culture and whether current culture aligns to the reality of the new marketplace.
For companies driven by the employee experience, where employee satisfaction is a predominant concern that underwrites the mission and values of the organization, it is critical to consider how a remote workforce can continue to effectively live those values and sustain employee satisfaction. An employee-first culture is possible with remote teams, but the organization will need to shift how employees experience connectivity with peers and colleagues, connect to organizational goals, and create a sense of shared participation in company outcomes. Ultimately, either the culture will need to absorb this new way of working into the existing cultural norms, or those cultural norms will have to change, shifting focus to reflect a new orientation to the marketplace—in fact, a new marketplace reality.
How to Reinforce, or Shift, Company Culture
There are instruments for evaluating company culture, and this work can be both helpful and meaningful. However, whether a formal instrument is utilized, or whether companies rely on engagement surveys to gather employee feedback as a proxy for cultural data, the responsibility still sits with senior leaders to engage with, drive and create accountability for company culture. This is simply part of the responsibility leaders assume when they accept the role to lead in the organization.
“Town Hall” style meetings are often an excellent way for senior leaders to engage with employees, offer their vision for the organization and invite participation from employees to share in that vision. Further, these sessions can often remedy the extreme myopia that leaders can be guilty of, especially where direct communication, or direct engagement, has been challenged by remote working. The act of sharing your vision and soliciting honest feedback—even when that feedback is negative—has a profoundly positive impact on company culture. The invitation to share and be heard is a critical component to any healthy company culture.
Lastly, leaders engage with and set company culture through how they choose to lead their direct reports. Again, honesty and transparency are critical to healthy buy-in from employees, and, by extension, to the larger culture. But, additionally, by making time to connect with direct reports on a routine one-on-one basis, to foster their individual development and address concerns, further strengthens the leader-employee bond and sets a blueprint for how the company views, treats and values their employee base.
More than ever, as companies adapt to meet a volatile marketplace and a newly minted employee demand for more flexibility, creating awareness around and reinforcing company culture has never been more important. A positive company culture allows for a degree of grace to exist between employee and policy as well as between employee and leader. When trouble strikes—and it will—that grace may offer the only path forward to connect new business solutions to the employees necessary for enacting that solution.