In a post-pandemic working world, your company’s culture will be the first thing to crumble. Saving it starts with rethinking your role as a leader.
By Dave Gloss
Leading the transition to a hybrid workplace can feel like a gymnast attempting a difficult vault. The potential reward is huge: For individuals, the hybrid workplace will increase autonomy and produce better work-life balance. Teams will be more engaged and productive. Organizations will be more competitive and more profitable. If, that is, you stick the landing.
But we’re only just emerging from a global crisis, and now face complex and, at times, confounding business conditions. These conditions have left leaders feeling disoriented. And, if leaders can’t find their bearings and come down wrong, the consequences could be devastating.
The Culture Crash
Teams require two fundamental ingredients to function: culture and productivity. Culture describes communication, trust, and cohesion. Productivity describes how efficiently and effectively a team gets work done.
The good news? Studies show the shift to the hybrid workplace has increased productivity. In a massive survey of business leaders around the world, 94 percent say their employees are equally or more productive at home than they are at the office. But for many teams and organizations, the shift to the hybrid workplace has absolutely decimated culture.
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Analysis of our database of team assessment data shows since the beginning of the pandemic, while average scores for productivity have remained steady, culture has taken a dive. As a result, there has been a marked increase in what we refer to as “driven” teams, or those with a high degree of productivity, but a weak culture.
On the surface, driven teams appear to be built for success: team meetings are structured, team leaders establish clear roles and priorities, and team members hold themselves and each other accountable for their work. In other words, they’re built to drive results. But without a foundation of a strong culture to support productivity, team performance will eventually collapse.
This happens especially quickly in a hybrid workplace. Why? Because a lack of interaction highlights a lack of culture. In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Ron Friedman writes:
“When it comes to building extraordinary workplaces and high-performing teams, researchers have long appreciated that three psychological needs are essential: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Of those three … the desire to feel connected to others has always been the trickiest for organizations to cultivate. While working from home is a boon for autonomy … a lack of physical proximity to colleagues has made it exponentially more challenging to create close personal bonds.”
When members of a driven team are all in the office, interactions around the water cooler or before or after meetings can act as a pseudo-culture, masking the team’s dysfunction and allowing it to maintain performance—for a while.
When these interactions are replaced with endless video conferences that are strictly business, team members experience a sense of disconnection and disengagement. Without context about each others’ lived experiences, team members start to make assumptions about how much or little others are working, sparking conflicts that go unresolved.
Eventually, faced with the pressures of maintaining productivity without the energy organic culture creates, team members burn out. And, because individuals on driven teams tend to operate more as independent contributors and focus primarily on protecting their own self-interest, that burnout leads to attrition. Witness our current struggle with the “Great Resignation.”
Reimagine Your Role
For teams to succeed in the hybrid workplace, leaders must rethink their roles, shifting their focus from aligning the functional tasks and strategic priorities and responsibilities of team members to building the culture and shared mindset that helps team members feel connected to each other and empowers them to work toward the team’s goals.
To do this, leaders need an unparalleled understanding of not only the processes, but also the interpersonal dynamics that drive their teams. While many teams will experience the challenges described above, all will respond to those challenges differently. And, in an environment in which many team interactions are remote, it can be difficult to spot and solve problems before they impact team performance.
Assessment will be an essential tool for team leaders in the hybrid workplace. A good team assessment can provide leaders information about the relationships on their teams. They can tell leaders whether the members of their team trust them or each other. They can give leaders concrete information about how team members communicate and handle conflict.
Build a New Culture
It’s easy to understand why, in the rush to adjust to a hybrid workforce, leaders have invested most of their effort in maintaining productivity—it’s difficult to demonstrate the return on investing in culture. But team culture is the foundation that enables productivity and, ultimately, team performance.
Yes, it can be difficult to replace the small interactions team members would naturally have during meetings, in the breakroom, and around the watercooler, but leaders can encourage their team members to take a moment at the beginning and end of phone calls and Zoom meetings to check in with their coworkers.
While some may see these interactions as a waste of time, studies show even taking a moment to share the hottest office gossip triggers the release of oxytocin, a powerful neuropeptide key to social attachment and building trust between individuals.
These moments also give team members an opportunity to hear about the personal and professional challenges their colleagues are experiencing, and to build cohesion by showing empathy for the needs and concerns of their peers.
When individuals on a team understand each others’ contexts, they waste less time on the unproductive conflicts. And when individuals value their membership in the group, they work harder than they would otherwise.
Building a team capable of sustaining high-performance in a remote or hybrid workplace will be difficult, but not impossible. We have coached countless high-performing geographically dispersed teams.
Before the pandemic, AIIR’s core staff was located almost without exception at our headquarters in Philadelphia. Today, most of our core staff is distributed across the United States and around the globe. We’re still working out the kinks. But we’ve managed to maintain a strong enough culture that our twice-annual company offsites feel more like a homecoming than what they really are: a chance for many of our team members to meet in person for the very first time.
The key to success is for leaders to put conscious, daily effort into fostering a shared sense of belonging and commitment to the team and organization. And, more than anything, it’s important to remember the hybrid workplace is new. Like any new skill, it may feel clunky at first. The idea is to keep experimenting to see what works.
Dave Gloss is a principal at AIIR Consulting. In his role, Gloss serves as a member of the company’s senior leadership team driving AIIR’s corporate growth strategy. In addition, Dave works intimately with AIIR clients to ensure their organizations are prepared to meet the challenges posed by a faster and ever-evolving world.