Why Culture is the Key to Supporting Hybrid Teams

By Nicole Bendaly and Lyn Currie

The COVID-19 pandemic and the world’s largest remote work experiment accelerated a new era of hybrid work, leaving leaders to figure out how to integrate in-office, at-home and mobile workers. Getting it right is the difference between being an employer of choice for top talent – or not.

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This new reality is playing out in recruitment interviews across the country, and leading to new strategies to reduce employee turnover. Pre-COVID, candidates focused largely on a potential employer’s organizational purpose and societal impact, and opportunities for learning and development. Increasingly, conversations today are turning to culture, logistics, and the expectations for where and when work will happen. Existing employees are having these same discussions and leaving organizations that aren’t meeting their needs on this front.

Hybrid work is changing culture in the workplace

Through our work in retained executive search and corporate culture coaching, we are finding that there are generational differences when it comes to work environment expectations. Newer entrants to the workforce want to return to an in-office environment where there are opportunities for in-person social connection. More senior candidates and employees want the same. People in between these two groups, who are often raising young families, want flexibility, which can have different meanings depending on the organization.

For employers, talent acquisition and retention becomes that much more difficult as a result. Increasingly, they are leaning into culture to build a sense of connection, meet employee expectations, and become more resilient. Recent research from Gartner, Inc. reveals that when it comes to managing hybrid workforces, one-third of business leaders are most concerned with maintaining corporate culture[1].

Why culture is a difference maker in today’s hybrid working world

Regardless of where work happens, companies should think about the kind of culture they want to intentionally craft. Unless an organization has a clear vision for their culture, it’s very difficult to make decisions about the future of a workplace, workforce, and how people are going to best work together.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of a healthy culture is the sense of belonging team members have. This is what builds trust, engagement and helps drive performance. Even people who are comfortable working from home crave connection. It’s integral to a person’s individual sense of feeling valued and recognized at work.

The pandemic has taken away the organic acknowledgments (e.g., “Hey, great job on that presentation”) that regularly happened as people passed each other in the halls. In a remote or hybrid environment, it takes more effort to pick up a phone, send a text, email or chat request to build a sense of connection.  Intentionally building connection, camaraderie, respect, trust, and relationships in a hybrid or remote world has to be a top priority for leaders. While culture is not a leader’s responsibility alone, it does fall on leaders to connect more and in a different way – with more compassion and empathy – than they may have back when everyone worked together in the same physical location. Because of the virtual nature of work today, leaders need to check in more, ask more questions around how people are doing and intentionally recognize the value people bring.

Ways to improve workplace culture wherever people are

At the start of the pandemic in March 2020, many organizations instituted fun, regular virtual touch points such as optional cooking classes, after-work social gatherings, and more to help people feel connected and boost morale. Now that we’re entering the third year of the pandemic and hybrid work is increasingly becoming the norm, those types of touch points are falling away but the need to focus on connection remains critical.

Here are three best practices to help reinforce culture wherever people are:

1. Be intentional about building connection

In today’s environment, the time leaders have scheduled with their people is precious. How are you using team meetings and one-on-one time with team members? This is the time you have to connect, to show you care, to coach, to motivate, to engage, to learn from team members, to connect people to purpose, to recognize achievements. If leaders are using team meetings as an update or download of information, valuable time is being wasted that could be better used to build a sense of connection that is      no longer happening organically     .

2. Embed questions in one-on-one meetings to build trust

Carve out time during your one-on-one meetings to strengthen relationships and build trust with your team members. Ask questions that demonstrate you value them and want to support them, such as:

  • How are you? How is life outside of work?
  • How do you feel your work/life balance is right now?
  • What does your ‘best day at work’ look like for you?  How often are you experiencing them? How can I help you experience more of those days?
  • What do you look forward to the most at work?
  • What do you look forward to the least at work?
  • Is there anything that is keeping you up at night?
  • What’s most exciting to you about your role and the team you’re leading?
  • What would you like to know about me?
  • How can I better support you?

Don’t stop there. Solicit input on how you can better support growth and development. Ask about achievements and challenges, projects they’d like to work on and how you can improve feedback. 

3. Implement stay interviews

It’s common practice for organizations to conduct exit interviews with employees who are about to leave to find out how they felt about the company, their experience, and their reasons for leaving. While these interviews provide important information to help companies improve, they come too late to help top talent stay.

In today’s tight labor market, where people have more employment options than ever before, stay interviews are emerging as an important retention tool. Specifically, stay interviews help determine how people feel about the culture, the organization, and their role and whether or not they have what they need to stay. Perhaps more importantly, stay interviews demonstrate you recognize and appreciate a team member’s contributions.

As a best practice, we recommend leaders institute stay interviews once or twice a year to understand what’s meaningful to a team member, what they love about their job, what they hate about it, what’s keeping them up at night, and what would cause them to leave. Taking the time to conduct stay interviews tells your people you care about their experience, and you want to help them thrive.

To make sure you move forward in a way that is productive, honest and transparent, clarify the purpose of the conversation in advance. Explain why this feedback is important and how it will be used.

Here are Waterstone Human Capital’s 10 stay interview questions:

  • What do you look forward to at work every day?
  • What makes you feel proud to work here?
  • What do you like least about working here?
  • What keeps you working here?
  • What skills and strengths do you have that are not being fully utilized here?
  • What do you think about how employees are recognized and valued here?
  • How do you like to be recognized?
  • If you could change one thing about your job, team, or company, what would it be?
  • What might tempt you to leave?
  • What can I/we do to make your experience here better?

What people need to thrive in a hybrid work environment will differ from person to person. The best way to support people is to ask them what they need, be honest about expectations and stay connected. In other words, put people – and culture – first.

Finding it difficult to recruit and retain top talent in today’s hybrid work world? Waterstone Human Capital can help. Book a meeting with our team to talk about your needs.

[1] https://www.gartner.com/en/newsroom/press-releases/2020-07-14-gartner-survey-reveals-82-percent-of-company-leaders-plan-to-allow-employees-to-work-remotely-some-of-the-time