Chances are, by this point in the pandemic, hybrid working is a solid feature of your world. You’re used to seeing colleagues on video calls as often as in person. Perhaps you’ve also been feeling the pain when the tech doesn’t want to play ball where you’re one of the only people dialling in remotely for a meeting. Or maybe you’ve felt a slight sense of FOMO creeping in as you hear about conversations that happened in spaces you weren’t…
The case for belonging is deeply human. As social beings we long to be included, and studies show us, exclusion actually hurts with a sensation similar to physical pain — being inclusive carries the ethical weight of being decent humans. There’s a clear economic case too — a sense of workplace belonging can result in increased performance, reduction in turnover risk, and a decrease in sick days.
Conversations about work have turned to questions of culture, consistency, and inclusion. How might we make sure everyone feels they’re part of the same company culture? How might we make sure everyone feels included regardless of their location? How might we make sure people feel included no matter who they are?
Companies are recognising that remote and hybrid working creates new opportunities for an inclusive workplace, while surfacing new challenges. In this article we’ll examine some of the opportunities, the challenges, and the ingredients of a great hybrid culture.
Avoiding a two-tier culture
Two-tier culture is one of the biggest concerns amongst employees and managers alike when it comes to the future of working. In a two-tier culture, a discrepancy appears between those who work remotely and those who are physically present, with employees feeling undervalued, excluded, or even invisible for the choices they make on where to work. When combined with presenteeism, (already a pervasive problem) two-tier culture offers a real challenge to ideas of fairness. After all, past research has shown that part-time, or remote workers, tend to be promoted less often. How do we design our work to mitigate against this?
Somewhat paradoxically, if you want to design for successful hybrid work, design it to be remote-first.
In our research, we’ve seen a big difference in the challenges faced by ‘remote-friendly’ vs ‘remote-first’ companies. ‘Remote-friendly’ policies allow for a greater range of choices beyond traditional work, but require employees to adapt around existing structures, processes, and culture. By contrast, ‘remote-first’ companies have designed their business with minimal face-to-face contact in mind for everyone, meaning a more consistent employee experience, regardless of location.
Businesses that are succeeding at hybrid working prioritise remote collaboration tools, transparent workflows, and constant sharing of work. Check-ins happen often, and accountability is high. Performance is assessed according to data and objective measures, and feedback is given regularly, to ensure everyone has a chance to learn, and remote workers aren’t passed over for advancement. Importantly, purpose is clear throughout the organisation as a whole as well as the individual teams, to make sure everyone is pulling toward the same goals.
Break down the hierarchy
One of the early advantages that emerged from remote working en-masse was the erosion of hierarchy in virtual meetings, as physical norms no longer held. In a virtual meeting everyone appears equally — there’s no head of the table, and no one sidelined to the extra chairs at the back of the room. The introvert-friendly chat functionality, and emoji reactions allow anyone to add their thoughts on any topic at any given moment. Importantly, video calls only allow one person to speak (and be heard) at a time — giving equal focus to a director’s voice as to an intern.
For many, this has created a level of access that they previously didn’t have, and afforded them more opportunities to share their work and thoughts. It has shown that great ideas, and knowledge, can come from anywhere. Keeping important meetings virtual, as much as possible, will ensure companies can hang on to this benefit as they move to hybrid working.
Building psychological safety
Psychological safety, a term defined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmonson, is the belief that you can speak up without being punished or humiliated. Psychological safety encourages us to ask how team members might learn together and learn from each others’ mistakes, exercise greater curiosity in problem-solving, and challenge the status quo.
We’ve seen from our research into Fear that building trust as a team is one of the most important factors in creating the conditions for innovation. Psychological safety is an essential ingredient in high-performing teams, and effective organisations, and it’s key to inclusion too.
Building psychologically safe teams is more than possible even at a distance, but requires proactive design to build social bonds, self-awareness, and a feedback culture, underpinned by consistent communication. There are many resources available to teams looking to develop a psychologically safe culture, from how to build social time into meetings, to how to run effective, and candid, project retrospectives. Leaders are key, both as role models and reinforcers. And, you can get started with the Bravery Toolkit that we put together to fight fear.
Bonding and belonging
Research by Gallup shows that despite being on calls with colleagues all day long, remote workers can often feel lonely and isolated. However, effective team bonding, and a sense of belonging can alleviate isolation.
At &us, we regularly come together for virtual team activities that have ranged from pasta and scone making, to creating balloon animals, painting classes, building terrariums and more! We celebrate people’s &us joining anniversaries with surprise sets from comedians, musicians, and storytellers in our team meetings. And, having grown so much throughout the pandemic, we made time to spend together IRL, and meet everyone, on our summer retreat.
These moments are intentional, and essential to our sense of community and belonging with each other. We even measure sense of belonging through our internal, quarterly People Pulse survey, and we know this intentionality works.
We’re not the only ones.
Pandemic-time internships at giants like A&T and Proctor & Gamble took on a new shape with mentoring, movie nights, breakfasts, and opportunities to work on impactful, real-world projects, all taking place remotely, with a focus on building community.
Universities such as Imperial College London know that sense of belonging is one of the most significant factors in students’ success and retention, and are focusing research on how to measure and support students’ sense of belonging to better support individuals.
Tech companies like Tyk are building ‘cafes’ into their weeks — virtual meetings with the sole purpose of creating a social moment in the day, to connect with colleagues and chat in a way that ‘work’ meetings don’t allow.
How might you understand how belonging shows up in your organisation? Where might you build in intentional social or bonding moments?
The pandemic may have brought remote work to the forefront but regardless of where employees are, inclusion is key. Employers must be more mindful of how they manage inclusion in a world of hybrid working to attract new talent and engage their existing workforce.
The good news is that it’s a great time to be experimenting with new ideas. Talk to your teams, try to understand what they would benefit from, and co-create solutions with them.
You can read our Future of Working series which covers what the future of working might hold, how we might design for hybrid work, and how to get started with experimenting with hybrid work.