ACBJ: 4 Hidden Ways Hybrid Work Erodes Your Culture (and How to Avoid Them)


Over a year after the pandemic turned much of the workforce virtual, less than 1 in 5 business owners intends to return to pre-pandemic office conditions, and the majority of U.S. workers want to maintain some regular telework schedule going forward.

Ultimately, most of us will settle into hybrid work where some employees are in the office and some are working remotely on any given day.

While hybrid work offers many benefits to our teams—and by extension our businesses—it also opens the door to a number of subtle culture-killers that can do serious damage to engagement and retention.

Top 4 unexpected culture-killers

1 – Meetings

As tired as we may be of all-virtual meetings on Zoom or Teams, in this format each participant takes up the same amount of space, has the same means of contributing, and experiences that meeting the same way.

Now, consider a meeting where half the participants are in the office and half are at home. Can the remote participants distinguish who is speaking when? Do they have the same access to whiteboarding or visuals? How hard will it be for them to interject and be heard?

A return to the office also means a return to spontaneous chit-chat that snowballs into breakthrough ideas. Do you have a way to quickly pull more people into a conversation on the fly? Is collaborative note-taking an option?

2 – Team-Building

Nine months into the pandemic, Pew Research found that 65% of employees felt less connected to their coworkers. Those accustomed to building relationships through in-person interactions have been struggling to translate those skills digitally.

If we continue to treat in-person activities as our default with virtual participants “included” as exceptions to accommodate, we set ourselves up to erode engagement and risk turnover.

3 – Evaluations

When your direct reports all report to you the same way, evaluating performance is fairly straightforward; we’ve all more or less settled into a routine of virtual delegation, collaboration, check-ins, and so forth.

What happens when you see one member of your team in person three times a week, another twice a month, and another never? Will the person with the most face-time receive more coaching from you and advance more quickly? Will you develop an unconscious bias that the remote teammate isn’t as invested because you can’t see them?

4 – Shadow Cultures

Say, in the spirit of inclusion, your in-office cohort shares photos of all the fun things your team does in the office in Slack for your remote workers to see: meals shared, pranks pulled, kids and pets visiting, and on and on.

Behind the photos there’s plenty of silent hard work, open conflict, and all the other facets of a normal company that aren’t so photogenic. But your remote team doesn’t see this side, and they start to invent their own concept of your culture as a result. At that point, there’s no scenario that doesn’t leave that employee feeling disconnected.

Best practices for a strong culture

In a hybrid environment, employees will necessarily experience your company differently depending on how frequently they visit your office.

The trouble creeps in when these “different” experiences become imbalanced, impersonal, or inequitable – which is precisely what these hidden culture-killers can cause.

To protect against these new threats:

  • Be intentional with meetings. Think through who needs to join, where they’re joining from, and how to empower each person to contribute effectively. Opt for whichever format creates the most equivalent experiences, not what’s most convenient.
  • Upgrade your conference room. Consider solutions that will level the playing field such as interactive whiteboards (like the Vibe) and high quality sound bar/camera combos with speaker tracking (like this from Poly Studio).
  • Revisit collaboration tools. If you rushed to implement Slack, Teams, SharePoint, or similar tools, take a more thoughtful look at these packages and all they have to offer—because they offer quite a lot.
  • Align your management. Your management team needs to understand the purpose behind the changes you’re making, and needs to be made explicitly aware of factors like proximity bias that might influence behavior.
  • Involve your team. From formal company-wide surveys to pilot groups to one-on-one discussions, gather as much feedback as much as possible during his transition. Your team’s perception is the only reality that matters.

Getting started

First, establish what your workplace will look like once your team returns to your office. Who will work from where, and when?

From there, consider how the different people or groups in your company will experience your culture given the routines in place and tools at their disposal. Identify the full spectrum at hand and the nooks and crannies where the threats above can creep in.

We’ve been presented with an opportunity to show our people that they are, in fact, our most valuable asset. I hope you’ll seize it.

As originally published in the American City Business Journals.

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