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How to Shape Your Organisation’s Culture in a Hybrid Working Environment

Organisations can let events shape their culture, or they can shape it proactively.

By Tim McEwan, Managing Director, SH Leadership and Roderic Yapp, Leadership Consultant

When Apple CEO Tim Cook told his employees that he expected them to return to the office three days a week, around 80 Apple employees responded by writing an open letter in protest. “Apple’s remote/location-flexible work policy, and the communication around it, have already forced some of our colleagues to quit,” they wrote.

This is a great example of how everything that leaders say and do reveals something about their organisation’s culture. Everybody has a culture whether they like it or not. You can’t choose to have a culture, you’ve got one. The question is, is it a culture that you’ve proactively shaped? Or is it a culture that has evolved because you’ve left it to its own devices?

What is an organisational culture?

There are many ways to define culture. At its simplest, some say culture is just behaviour. However, we think there’s a lot more to it than that. Another way to define it is to say that culture is the underlying assumptions, values, beliefs, and expectations shared by an organisation’s members. It can be positive or negative, proactive or reactive.

There are many models of organisational culture. The Johnson-Scholes model suggests that a culture is built on the following six factors:

  • Control systems
  • Rituals and routines
  • Stories
  • Symbols
  • Organisational structures
  • Power structures

We’re going to explore these factors to discuss how leaders can respond to the challenge of hybrid working to help shape the culture they want.

Control systems

Organisations use different means to control employee behaviour, from pay to training to disciplinary systems, and many more. When employees work from home, this reduces the amount of direct control leaders have over them.

Leaders can either choose to trust the individual, give them clear boundaries and expectations, and let them get on, or not. If your people aren’t engaged and motivated enough to work productively, trying to micro-manage them won’t improve the situation.

Indeed, showing that you trust them will go a long way towards increase their motivation. Most of us extend this level of trust regularly. When we hire a babysitter, for example. Or when we have a builder working on our house. So why wouldn’t we do the same for our people?

Rituals and routines

Hybrid working creates huge opportunities to change pre-existing rituals and routines. Many employees now returning to the office have forgotten the old routines. This enables leaders to establish new ones that would be more suited to the culture they’d like to develop.

At the same time, the continuation of full or part-time remote working allows individuals to improve their work-life balance. If people want to finish work at 3pm to pick up the children from school, they can do that. Leaders should embrace and encourage this. If you give them that time and they are the right people, they will give that back to you in spades.

Stories

Stories are important because they are how we share information, how we work out what’s right and what’s wrong. Post-Covid, we have the opportunity to create new stories. However, this means consciously acknowledging what the stories are, who are the heroes of the stories, and what morals, messages, or lessons we want those stories to give.

Stories are most effective when based around shared experiences. Look at an organisation that does this well – Automattic Inc, founded by Matt Mullenweg’s. Automattic has no physical head office. All their 1,300+ employees work remotely in 76 countries.

Yet the company gets all their employees together in one location as often as they feel is needed – at least once a year, but more commonly every six months. When they do, the company makes sure they have fun, because that’s what people remember. In this way, Automattic creates stories based on shared experiences.  

Symbols

The question here is: what is symbolic of your organisation? Leaders and employees alike have symbols in their office they feel represent them, just as, between us, we have a Royal Marines commando dagger and Scots Guards tartan – both heavily symbolic of the military organisations to which we once belonged.

Think also of the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team. Their black shirt is not just a piece of dyed cloth. It’s a symbol that says, “We are the greatest sports team in history, and we are expected to win.”

Most corporations don’t have this kind of strong symbolism. As a result, many confuse symbols with their company logo. Instead, it is better to think more broadly. As we come out of Covid into a hybrid model, you want everyone to be proud of the organisation that they work for, whether they are in the building or remote. It could come from the success you’re having. It could come from the public perception of your organisation.

It could also come from leader’s behaviour. How we choose to bring people back to the office and support them is symbolic of the culture that we’re likely to create or that we want to create.

Our concern for the firms insisting that everybody come back to the office five days a week is that this is perhaps symbolic of the mindset of the leadership in those firms. This might represent a group of people which are resistant to change and unwilling to yield to new ways of doing things.

How much organisations are investing in technology is also symbolic of culture and mindset. Consider that pre-Covid, a conference call took a lot of organising and the help of someone from the IT department to set up. How many companies will now set up systems in their meeting rooms that can connect instantly to Teams or Zoom?

Organisational Structures

These are the formal structures and hierarchy of an organisation, as well as the informal routes of power and influences. In our experience, many organisations can get bogged down in looking to update or change their formal structures while not paying enough attention to the informal.

Changing an organisational structure can be a long, disruptive, and expensive process. Although adapting to hybrid working does present a clear opportunity for change in this area, it is likely to be less disruptive and more cost effective for organisations to focus on other aspects of culture first, and then review what about their formal structures may need to change to reflect that.

Power Structures

This refers to the people and systems who have the power to get things done. Just because someone is at a senior level doesn’t mean that they are powerful. You can have an extremely popular marine or soldier in a troop. They carry no rank, but when they say something people listen. They often get referred to as “that guy’s the morale of the troop/platoon”. If they get hurt and they leave, it has a huge impact on everyone else.

Power structures reflect the strong bonds of social glue within the organisation – a topic we’ve explored in more detail here. Power structures are also about informal influence. We all know that the person to go to to influence the Chief Executive is often their PA, who in the organisational structure is probably quite far down the pecking order but is significant in terms of proximity to power.

Another phrase to describe the most influential people within an organisation is “culture carriers”. This is an interesting word to think about. In a hybrid model, organisations could benefit from identifying who their informal culture carriers are and put a lot of work into influencing and shaping them, because they could be a voice for good, or a voice for ill. And you want them to be as effective and onside as possible, because they have a big impact.

The battlefield for talent

The current shift to hybrid working is a tipping point of evolution and leaders need to embrace this. We have concerns for organisations that are putting their fingers in their ears and just pretending that nothing’s changed and that they can just go back to the way they were.

Who in those organisations are making those decisions? Are they the senior individuals who have been brought up in that culture and who feel significantly more attached to it than those who are 15 years younger and feel that there is a need to change?

As shown by the Tim Cook example quoted above, you’ll get an indication of the organisation’s culture by how they respond to events. If they’re saying you need to go in 5 days a week, don’t expect to go there and get too much personal freedom. If they’re saying you can work from anywhere, you can expect plenty of autonomy and probably plenty of responsibility. It will be interesting to see how that will play out in the battlefield of talent going forward.

Managing the ins and the not-ins fairly

One of the cultural bumps in the road that people are going to need to get over is the combination of ins and not-ins. If we have a meeting and there are some people in the room, and some people not in the room, are the people in the room getting a better experience than the people outside the room? Organisations are going to need to acknowledge that this is a challenge.

You can’t stop informal conversations. But if you make significant decisions, you need to make sure the right people are in the room. You need to have the discipline to say “We’re not going to have this conversation now. Let’s move on. Let’s talk about this when we have the right people in the room.”

This is particularly important to think about in terms of diversity and inclusion. At a time when you want to encourage shared experiences to build the social glue of your organisation, lack of transparent decision-making can increase the challenge of gender or ethnic inclusion.

Conclusion: Culture is a reflection of leadership

Ultimately, organisations get the culture that their leadership deserves. If you’ve got a culture problem, you’ve got a leadership problem.

If we create the environment for positive, engaged, empowerment and autonomy, we hold people to account on things, and we do it in a way that engages them, then we’re going to get a positive outcome. If we micro-manage, we demand everybody goes back into the office, and we bind them up in red tape and bureaucracy, then there’ll be a different outcome. But there’ll always be an outcome. The question is, is it the outcome we want, or is it the one we allow to develop without thinking about it?

For more information or to speak to one of our consultants about shaping your culture, please contact Tim McEwan or Roderic Yapp.