Remember when everyone came into the office daily? The office buzzed with productivity, meetings were more creative as people ping-ponged ideas back and forth, and employees bonded over impromptu happy hours. The company culture felt alive and strong.
Well, at least that’s how many business leaders are recalling it. So, as they’re deciding what remote work looks like for the company, they’re concluding that the only way to protect its culture is by pulling people back into the office.
But that could be a mistake.
It’s a mistake because these leaders are making their decisions from a romanticized memory of what was really happening in the office. They’re overlooking that not all workers reported to their cubicles daily because they wanted to; many showed up because they didn’t have a choice.
Pandemic-era workforce surveys revealed the truth: Workers prefer flexible work because they are more productive, feel less mental and emotional stress, and, especially for Black employees, don't have to deal with an unwelcoming office culture every day.
McKinsey research shows that now that offices are dusting off their desks, people still favor flexibility. When given a remote work option, most people (87%) accept it, working from home three days a week on average.
But what about those memories of passionate in-office meetings and coworkers moving in lockstep? Perhaps what business leaders interpreted as unity was just compliance.
Don’t be fooled by the office
There’s no empirical evidence that corporate cultures grow stronger when employees work on-site. Yet many leaders still want people to file back in. Why?
According to Upwork CEO Hayden Brown, seeing employees in the office wasn’t just about fostering culture. “It was always also about control. It was about controlling where we worked, how we worked, and the terms of our work.”
During her keynote address at the 2022 Work Without Limits summit, Brown told the audience, “Business leaders thought the office was their secret sauce, but it wasn't. The truth is the office wasn't great because of the office, it was great because of the people and the office was the backdrop. Millions of teams delivered during COVID and showed that it wasn't the office.”
People are your secret sauce. And people have shouted across computer screens that they want more flexibility, which means the office is optional. Time and progress (fast-tracked by the pandemic) have changed the workscape so much that “I think we’re potentially living through the end days of corporate cultures as we know it,” said Aaron McEwan, Vice President of Research and Advisory at Gartner.
“I think we’re potentially living through the end days of corporate culture as we know it.”
—Aaron McEwan, Vice President of Research and Advisory at Gartner
What is company culture?
When McEwan said we’re living through the end days of corporate cultures as we know it, he wasn’t suggesting that corporate culture is dying—it’s evolving.
To understand how culture is evolving, we must first understand what culture is. Many mistakenly include office trappings like catered lunches, microbrews on tap, and game halls as the main part of a company culture, but these things are merely environmental attributes.
Offering such amenities can make offices more pleasant to work in and attract new talent, but they’re not enough to keep employees highly engaged. Otherwise, tech companies, well-known for having offices stuffed with perks, wouldn’t have the highest turnover rates of all industries.
Some think culture revolves around purposeful work, which is often rooted in an organization’s mission and vision. It’s shown that purpose boosts engagement, but offering meaningful work isn’t enough to create a shared culture. One reason is because how a person defines meaningful work may vary greatly from person to person.
A modern model states that culture is made up of three elements:
- Identity—The values and norms that define who you are
- Purpose—This is your “why,” your reason for existing
- Community—The body of people who share a set of values and beliefs and treat each other a certain way
CEOs and HR professionals have invested a lot of money into aligning employees with the company’s identity, purpose, and community. But ongoing low engagement rates show that focusing on alignment isn’t enough.
How culture is evolving now
Gartner researchers identified that a company culture succeeds when employees are both aligned and connected to it. Alignment means employees agree with and behave in accordance with the company’s culture. Connectedness means employees personally care about the culture and identify with it so personally that they feel they belong within it.
Note that connectedness has nothing to do with where a person works. The fragile threads of connectedness are formed and strengthened by how a person feels about the company, their work, and the people they work with. It’s how closely each employee identifies with the company’s values, how deeply they feel they belong to your community, and how psychologically safe they feel to speak up and show up as their true selves at work.
How you meet their desires is where the biggest shift in culture is occurring. Unlike times past, the company, on a macro level, doesn’t build connectedness. Most connections happen on a micro level, through teams.
Subcultures take a lead role
In the past, culture was dictated from the top down. Now, it’s organically built from the bottom up.
Teams have always developed their own cultures based on the leader, the team members, and the work they do. In the past, these individual team cultures played a secondary role in the larger, macro culture of the office. Then the pandemic flipped everything around.
During the pandemic, employee ecosystems shrank as their team became their dominant connection with the company. People communicated mainly with their team members as they were no longer running into people from other teams in the hallways. Subcultures got employees through the pandemic as teams openly shared their fears, encouraged each other through taxing workdays, and hung out online with their pets.
Instead of a one-size-fits all culture, teams organically tailored their subculture to the unique nuances of their members. Employees didn’t have to be sitting within arm’s reach to feel valued and included.
As the workplace becomes increasingly hybrid, employee ecosystems continue shrinking. More interactions are happening virtually as coworkers come into the office on different days, if at all. And as employees spend more time in their own workspaces instead of the one controlled by the employer.
The hybrid paradox
Most HR professionals (76%) believe a hybrid workplace (people working onsite and remotely) makes it more difficult for employees to connect with the company’s culture. However, a recent survey shows the opposite is true as:
- More than half (53%) of remote workers who had the most flexibility in where, when, and how they work reported high culture connectedness
- Of the employees with the least flexibility, only 18% felt a strong cultural connection
Despite having empirical evidence that culture is not weakened by remote work, some leaders remain stuck lamenting for the office. Perhaps it’s why Gartner tees up its roadmap to thriving in a hybrid workplace with this instruction:
“Understand hybrid work is not a threat to workplace culture or leadership success—it is an opportunity to strengthen them.”
Leaders must get their head around how people may not want to be in the office every day, but they still value culture. In fact, 76% of employees say culture is very or extremely important for them to be effective at their job.
The takeaway here is, “Hybrid and remote work hasn’t necessarily changed our culture, it’s changed the way we experience culture,” said Alexia Cambon, Research Leader at Gartner.
So, if you want to preserve your company’s culture, the answer isn’t to revert back to bygone practices by forcing workers back into the office. The solution is to progress with modern times.
Building connectedness in a hybrid world
You can start by encouraging teams to build their own subcultures, but don’t expect them to do all of the heavy lifting. Although individual teams take the lead in building culture, connectedness requires a unified effort from the top down and company wide.
For example, Upwork is a remote-first company. Our internal teams are made up of over 600 remote full-time employees and more than 1,700 hybrid workers engaged through the Upwork platform. This means roughly 73% of our workforce is made up of independent (on-demand) professionals. Specifically, these are members of our Hybrid Workforce Program (HWS).
Here are a few ways we build connections from the top:
- Monthly All-Hands. These meetings help the entire workforce—employees and HWS members—see how their work contributes to larger goals and get updates on company initiatives, organizational changes, and other big-picture projects.
- Weekly meetings with CEO Hayden Brown. Having more frequent interactions with Brown helps people feel connected with the leadership team and company. These weekly gatherings are a relaxed, open forum where Brown and the leadership team answer questions submitted by team members.
- People-first onboarding process. It may be difficult for new team members to develop relationships with coworkers and feel close to the company when they work remotely. One way we encourage connectedness is by assigning each new member an onboarding buddy. In addition to periodically checking in on the team member, the buddy becomes an instant social connection with whom the new member can feel comfortable asking questions or just talking about their day.
- On-site work options. Being a remote-first company means people predominantly work off-site. However, they also have the option to gather in or work from our San Francisco and Chicago offices.
- Valuing independent professionals as much as employees. Most companies treat independent talent as second-class citizens. Upwork views them as remote specialists who are important parts of a team’s success. Employees engage with independent professionals in various ways, including in virtual meetings and by encouraging their input.
- Employee resource groups. Diversity, inclusion, and belonging (DIBs) efforts warrant the same strategic focus, rigor, and discipline as top-line business objectives. At Upwork, we approach belonging as a feeling, inclusion as a practice, and diversity as an outcome.
We’re all figuring it out together
For decades, business leaders confused compliance with culture, but the modern workscape isn’t letting leaders get away with that thinking any longer. The world of work has evolved to where company culture develops through connectedness. And how committed and connected workers feel to a company has nothing to do with where they work—whether on-site, remote, or a combination of the two, according to a survey by The Conference Board.
Unfortunately, there is no tidy list of do’s and don’ts for creating connectedness, as every business is unique. And society and technology have changed so drastically in the last three years that every business is facing a world they’ve never dealt with before. We’re all figuring it out as we go.
Creating culture is an ongoing experiment requiring innovation and a willingness to change courses, learn, and most likely—change again. Your goal shouldn’t be to create a system, check the box, and think it’s done forever. Your goal is to create a culture that honors the people within it so much that they feel that the company and the work they do is an extension of who they are. Then they can show up as their best selves doing their best work. Now that’s something everyone can rally around.
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