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New Ways of Thinking: A Guide to (Hybrid) Culture

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 — January 13th, 2022

New Ways of Thinking: A Guide to (Hybrid) Culture

A couple of years back, I wrote an article “Culture is not a soup that you can simply cook and eat”.

The reason was not that I am a foodie (which I am), but it was a response to the leaders hoping to change culture through long communications and lots of training. If the culture was that easy to create, we would not be serving it strategy for breakfast.

Most often, our aspiration towards a good culture starts with defining a target culture by aligning on a set of values, beliefs, norms, and behaviors that will get us there; followed by identifying the current gaps and eventually doing loads of communication and training to make it all stick.

I am not saying that it is wrong, I like to pressure-test why this seemingly logical approach doesn't usually work with most of the culture change efforts.

Perhaps the answer lies in the quotes of my favorite author Aaron Dignan “Culture cannot be controlled or designed; it emerges. It isn't happening to people, it is happening among people”.
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Culture emerges when we do the right things. When we do the right things not simply to create culture, but because we truly believe in doing things in a certain way:

  • The way we show up, the way we care about something or don’t care about it
  • The way we treat others, what we reward them for, what makes us trust each other
  • What gets us to smile, what makes us frown
  • Things that motivate us to push ourselves out of our comfort zone

There is a lot that goes into shaping culture, but that means there are also lots of variables at play that keep it dynamic and evolving.

In March 2020, almost overnight most of the whole world stepped into the largest live experiment of our times — 100% remote working, virtually instead of in-person. What started with a timeline of a couple of weeks, has now become a two-year hiatus in commuting to the office.

At the start of the pandemic, we all were convinced that there was no way we could retain our existing corporate culture, let alone create a new one. But we continued to contradict our assumptions.

We recruited new people in our teams, onboarded them successfully, celebrated milestones, and supported each other through the thick and thin. All virtually. Who would ever have thought that this was possible!

We were productive (most of the days) and while the digital world is making our minds exhausted, we can mostly agree that our big human experiment has largely been a success.

In my mind, this success can be attributed to a few things –

  • There was a lot of empathy towards each other when we started. The main antagonist was the virus — not company leaders, not the people or HR.
  • We didn’t have a playbook — and this to me is the crucial reason for the success. We did what we had to do as humans. Respond to the crisis by standing together, applying common sense, and keeping an open, flexible mind
  • We didn’t “prepare” for it. Or over-prepare for it. We just did it and continued to evolve our approach as things evolved around us

Yes, we are all zoom-fatigued now and crave office coffee; however, what we crave for most is spontaneous and serendipitous human interaction — the interactions we used to have during the flow of the day without setting up a meeting for it.

It’s the moments that we create while working and interacting among us while applying our norms and beliefs. That is what shaped and evolved our culture.

Now we are again at a momentous point in the corporate evolution timeline, where we are starting to accept that hybrid ways of working will be our new reality. The hybrid workplace was becoming a norm globally anyway,  way before pandemic struck us; and is only going to become more prevalent with the advent of new technology that continues to help us connect in more ways than we can think of.

So why so much swirl around a hybrid workplace and culture? If we continue to connect with people with the same authenticity as before and continue to believe in the things that matter to us, how difficult will it be for us to create a culture we want to create?

There certainly are a few challenges that we will need to find ways to address. We need to find new ways to role model, new ways to communicate, and new ways to action our beliefs:

  • New ways to exhibit role modeling:  Role modeling is extremely important in organizations. When leaders show up, they set the tone for the rest of the teams. Digitally, role modeling gets challenging for leaders to exhibit and for the people to observe. As a result, we assume that we need to come together in-person to see the role models in action. This is really far from the truth. Leaders can show up digitally and connect in ways that help them role model. Do they readily respond to chats and emails? Are they able to make time for virtual coffee sessions? Do they stand up for a social cause? Do they reveal their own vulnerability in front of their teams? How do they make decisions, share success with the team, etc? All this was never so out in the open, but now there is an onus on leaders to exhibit digital role modeling as we all move into a hybrid model.
  • New ways to communicate: The way we connect, communicate and interact has evolved radically in our personal lives over the past decade and we need to embrace that evolution in our professional lives as well. Just like we are drawn to engaging information channels and platforms in our personal lives — whether it’s Twitter or Tik-Tok or Instagram — the same applies in the work environment.  Culture hinges on our interactions; we need to interact with people in ways that are energizing, motivating and that help unite them to a common purpose.
  • New ways to take action: All talk and no action is no good. Culture is not just about defining our values, norms, and purpose. But it is about living and actioning every moment based on our beliefs. Everything we do (or don’t do), helps create the culture around us. For example, if we believe in inclusion, we will ensure we find ways to include our team members irrespective of whether it’s in-person, virtual, or hybrid work environment. If we believe in rewarding certain behaviors, we will have to find ways to reward them in-person and virtually. It's about being mindful of what we do, and not where we do it.

How do we address these challenges? To make hybrid work we need to align on the principles and not on the strict processes. It is almost impossible to imagine all possible situations and create an FAQ document around them. However, it is still OK to define principles and give autonomy to people to resolve an unusual situation.

They can pressure-test to see if the solution is helping us role model in the right way; if we are getting our communication right, and if our actions are aligned with our belief system.

  • Given autonomy to make decisions, people usually make rational choices. Recognize them when they do: Should I travel to the office just for a 30 min in-person meeting? One option would be to provide an FAQ document along with a detailed decision tree, another would be to simply give autonomy to the meeting attendees to decide what is best for them while ensuring outcomes are not compromised.  Is our solution helping us role model in the right way, are we using the right communications, and if our actions are aligned with our belief system?
  • If they are not making good choices, ask them what happened? Ensure there is clarity of priorities and give candid feedback: Why are we coming to the office in person for weekly huddles? Can we do that on zoom, can we use a digital whiteboard instead. Humans are rational. They make choices that maximize their goals. Ask them if they are clear about the objectives and the outcomes. Does that motivate them to do their best work, and if it doesn’t what else would? What challenges and constraints are they facing? Are they the best person to do this work?
  • Create a safe space for them to speak up. Is there enough trust that when people give feedback, they know it will be received well: People don’t tell the truth just because you asked. They speak up when there is a safe space for them to share tensions authentically. Ask without anticipation, listen without judgment, care without expectation. People look out for each other when they have trust. Trust doesn’t depend on location (in-person on virtual), trust is formed based on the previous actions. Reach out to people to understand how they are doing and what can we do better to help them. Then, help them.
Before you embark on the endeavor of creating a world-class hybrid culture. I would urge you to reflect on what we are trying to solve? If we are working towards preserving our culture from BC (Before Covid-19) days, by trying to do more of the same from the past, then we are certainly in for an uphill battle.

However, if we recognize that culture is dynamic, it has already changed since the pandemic and will continue to evolve; we will start to recognize what makes our culture unique and how we can make it stronger by applying common sense and empathy to everything we do among ourselves.

All the best!


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