Are you ready to go back to the office? Ready to get out of your loungewear, pick up a ‘proper’ coffee on your commute, and see your colleagues face-to-face for the first time in over a year? Or are you happy to stay at home, getting up that bit later, making lunch in your own kitchen, and picking your kids up from school?
Wherever you stand on the subject, you can guarantee there will be differing opinions, and a range of needs, within your team. The prospect of widespread homeworking coming to an end raises a multitude of questions and concerns for employees; something which we, as leaders, should be addressing. While there is much uncertainty around how and when offices will begin to reopen, individuals need reassurance that conversations about their future are happening, and that when the time comes, they will have choice in whether they return to the office. How positively the process is managed will be defined by the company culture: historically the domain of HR, it will need to evolve to become a top tier, bilateral concern. Fundamentally, I believe how company culture is shaped will be critical in ensuring that employees are treated with equality and respect when we move forward into this ‘new’ normal.
Over the past year, company culture has been heavily impacted by the mandate to work from home. Our recent EMEA-wide study of 4,250 office workers, found that during the pandemic, company culture has improved for 24%, but has got worse for 29%. Clearly some companies have managed better than others to translate their company culture to a remote environment, but with hybrid working looking most likely in the longer term, businesses must find ways to build culture that translates equally between home and office, so that everyone is treated fairly.
Company culture will play a strategic role
Company culture begins with a business’ core values: at Citrix, for example, these include integrity, respect, curiosity, courage and unity. Historically, these values and the resulting behaviours are developed and role modelled centrally, and then rolled out to individual offices and territories. In a pre-pandemic world that model seemed to make sense, to help build a shared vision and sense of purpose across the entire organisation; also as a way to unite global teams and resolve cultural differences. However, the global pandemic has forced us to rethink many of the ways in which we do business, and due to the geographic variations in how the virus – and vaccination programmes – are evolving, I believe we need to start thinking differently about how we create company culture. Maybe it needs to be strategised at a local level now, instead. In the same way that we receive our targets and KPIs from the top down, which we manage by individual territory; we will need to be doing the same thing for company culture, so that it reflects local pandemic nuances.
Creating a culture that supports hybrid working
Our research found that 52% of European office workers would like a hybrid work model where they can choose to work remotely, or from the office, each day. We have proven over the past 12 months that individuals do not need to ‘go to work’ to be productive. Once stay-home restrictions ease and offices can safely reopen, it will be the responsibility of business leaders to ensure employees have complete choice in whether they return to the office, or not.
Company culture will need to embrace this hybrid model of work, so that remote and on-site workers can co-exist happily. Some individuals will not want to go to back the office, for a variety of reasons: they may be anxious about the virus, have an at-risk family member or they might have relocated outside of the city, over the last year. As leaders, we need to create a culture that ensures people working remotely some or all of the time, are treated the same as those who go back to the office. My worry is if we are physically connecting with someone in the office daily, our instinct may be to give them more responsibility, more opportunity, or more areas for growth, than someone who we haven’t seen in person for a while. As leaders we need to be aware of this “location bias” and make sure it doesn’t happen. Fundamentally, employees cannot feel that there is a requirement for them to go into the office for opportunities to be available to them.
Additionally, over the past year, we have temporarily lost the ‘incidental’ contact that would normally take place within the office between employees, and across teams. What I mean by this is the informal cross-team dialogue that can happen around hot desks and in office kitchens, from which big ideas and fresh thinking can often come. And so, as we begin to reinvent and revive company culture around hybrid working, leaders need to find ways to drive connection and collaboration in this new environment, so that incidental contact can resume, albeit in a slightly different, virtual, way.
Challenging unconscious bias
It’s important to receive regular training in unconscious bias, teaching us to question our inherent prejudices and judgement, and to embrace diversity. Post-pandemic, I believe hybrid and remote working will need to be included within this, to challenge the presence of any unconscious bias towards individuals who choose to work from home. In organisations where there is a strong office-based culture, it is possible that rifts, or cliques, will form between those working on site and those working from home. These attitudes will need to be challenged.
To consider the inverse perspective, a lot of us are very productive right now, working harder and longer hours, without a commute or in-office distractions. When we go back to the office, there is a risk that we will see a temporary decline in productivity, while people who stay at home are likely to maintain their output. This could also cause challenges if we are unprepared for it.
Supporting the physical and mental wellbeing of employees
Employee wellbeing has received much attention over the past year, and it is unsurprising that in our recent research, 89% said a company culture that promotes mental or physical wellbeing is important to them. It is likely that once restrictions ease and employees have their freedom returned to them, we will all be in a much better place, in terms of mental health. However, it will be up to leaders to instil a culture of fairness that translates across the hybrid environment. If we fail to do this, we may end up in a far worse place, with individuals feeling isolated, constrained, or pressurised into returning to the office.
Stress levels are understandably high among employees right now, partly due to the pandemic, but also largely due to the uncertainty around how and when offices may reopen. Will we be required to wear face masks, will vaccines be mandatory, will we need to work in shifts? There are many unanswered questions and while no one knows precisely how things will pan out, leaders can show these concerns are a priority so that when the time comes, we will be prepared, strategies will be in place, and employees will have the same opportunities and support, wherever they may choose to work.