What is a hybrid work culture? 5 essentials

These leadership strategies will help you build a healthy hybrid work culture - combining office and remote work. Get best practices on communication, disputes, workflow, and more.
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Organizational culture ranks as an eternally important leadership issue. Ignore culture and you’re more likely to end up with negative outcomes: toxicity, inequitability, burnout, turnover, and so forth.

Investing in a positive culture, on the other hand, is both healthy and good business.

How do you foster a healthy hybrid work culture? First, fight the FUD.

Organizational culture discussions took a different turn in 2020: How to foster a healthy one when everyone works remotely? In 2021, that question is shifting again for many companies: How do you foster a healthy hybrid work culture?

Of course, it helps to know what “hybrid work” means, as we recently reported. Hybrid work entails some well-defined mix of on-site and remote work, say on specific days of the week or by specific teams. Given that basic framework, building and maintaining a positive organizational culture can be even more complex, as it needs to encompass the different dynamics of hybrid work models.

[ Want more hybrid work strategies? Read also: Hybrid work: 4 roles to assign in every meeting.]

Hybrid work culture: 5 best practices

Given those dynamics, we asked three C-level executives to share how they approach hybrid work culture from a leadership perspective.

Here are five essential takeaways to consider as you build out your own hybrid organization. The first is one of the overarching challenges of hybrid work cultures.

1. Overcoming the FUD factor

One of the big challenges of hybrid work – regardless of your particular implementation – is that by definition there are at least two modes of being “at work,” at least one of which does not entail being in a central office with the whole team. That throws conventional office dynamics out of whack. Unlike fully remote teams, it means not everyone’s in the same boat by default.

“For a healthy hybrid work culture, we need to help people overcome the FUD factor – the fear, uncertainty, and doubt – of being ‘left out’ of important conversations when they are not physically present,” says Thomas Phelps, CIO at Laserfiche. “If you’re not in the same physical space as others, will this limit your access to others who have an impact on your projects and your career? How do we replace the ad hoc interactions – the ones in the elevator, water cooler or lunch room – that often have an impact on your visibility, your work, and your ability to influence others?”

These questions become more vital when considering the various permutations of hybrid work. An organization with some teams who work primarily in the same location and some that work entirely remote will have to ensure there are consistent experiences or run the risk of essentially managing two (or more) wholly separate cultures. Similarly, companies that have people work some days on-site and some days remotely will need to think about how to have cohesive experiences across those two modalities.

All of the advice that follows can be viewed through the lens of this first item, though of course these approaches are each valuable in their own right.

[ Related read: Hybrid work model: 4 best practices for fairness. ]

2. Delivering consistent tools, services, and experiences

The questions above also drive Phelps’ approach to the internal technology portfolio, among other things. If the tools that your teams use differ significantly depending on their work mode or location, that could be the root of future culture malaise.

“When considering the technology tools and services that enable hybrid work, I’m focused on three things: equity, experience, and enablement,” Phelps says. “Whether you’re working at home, at the office, or somewhere in between, I want to make sure our employees have a fairly consistent experience with the right tools, which enable the desired collaborative interactions, and create equity, so no one feels left out.”

Phelps says, for example, that he wants every employee’s laptop to “embody their virtual office, which is equipped with everything they need to be productive.” That should be consistent no matter where the person is using said laptop.

Just like in software development, continuous iteration and improvement is a good thing.

He notes that some of this is not as straightforward. Making sure the organization is equitable is easier said than done. Just like in software development, continuous iteration and improvement is a good thing.

“The equity question is not easy to solve. We’re still experimenting with hybrid work approaches,” Phelps says. “As long as we are thoughtful about the equity concern, and provide avenues for employees to voice feedback and make adjustments, I’m confident that we’ll get closer to where we need to be.”

3. Committing to high-touch communication

This one can also be tricky, especially for leaders who trust their teams and (rightfully) avoid micromanaging people. You need to differentiate between micromanagement and communication. Open, regular communication is a fundamental part of organizational culture. And the stakes are raised for hybrid workplaces.

“Get good at writing and at scheduling regular calls,” says Chris Nicholson, CEO of Pathmind.

"Hybrid will involve more writing – and more organization to stay in touch with the remote workforce – than you think."

“You stay in touch in a bunch of different ways, which include low-bandwidth (such as asynchronous texts), and high-bandwidth (such as 1:1 video conference calls.) The important thing to do is build strong bonds of trust among people who have never met face-to-face.”

This isn’t just a top-down matter: Checking in is important across the team. This is crucial in any hybrid scenario, and especially any models that entails people and teams who work together on-site and others who are permanently remote. Regardless of your model, treat communication as a strategic priority, not as an assumption.

“Above all, remember that hybrid will involve more writing – and more organization to stay in touch with the remote workforce – than you think,” Nicholson says. “Because the people working together [in-person] might slip into the habits of a fully on-site team. The people working in the same room have to be reminded of remote protocols, and work to maintain those connections.”

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

4. Planning to manage disputes

Even healthy company cultures aren’t immune from disagreement or conflict. In fact, a sign of a healthy culture is often one that is able to mediate and resolve disputes effectively, rather than one that fuels long-term finger-pointing, grudges, and toxicity.

Nicholson suggests two principles for addressing conflict when everyone is not in the same location all of the time – or any of the time, in the case of organizations with some face-to-face teams and some fully remote teams.

  • Private is better than public. Just as the “Reply All” button in your email has long been a dangerous thing in heated or emotional discussions, wide-audience channels such a company or team Slack channel and a variety of similar tools aren’t usually a good place to address disagreement or conflict.

“A 1:1 conversation is better than a comment on a Slack channel,” Nicholson says when it comes to addressing disputes.

People are more likely to get defensive – and less likely to acknowledge that they may have gotten something wrong, or that there may be a better way of doing things, if they think they’re being singled out in front of an audience, especially one where you can’t see faces or read body language.

  • High-bandwidth is better than low-bandwidth. Take that principle a step further: If you’re addressing inherently difficult issues, err toward high-bandwidth communication rather than low-bandwidth channels that are inherently less personal.

“A video call is better than an email or a two-sentence DM,” Nicholson says. “High-bandwidth, private conversations have two advantages: they allow us to perceive each other as complex, multi-dimensional people and build ties. They also allow us to say things, be wrong, learn from others, and change our minds.”

Low-bandwidth communications, such as a quick chat message, can have the opposite effect.

“They reduce us to one-dimensional figments in [an] adversarial drama,” Nicholson says. “They force us to commit to performative, public stances and agitate group dynamics that we can’t walk away from.”

5. Implementing consistent workflows

Similar to tools and services, there should also be shared patterns or processes for how work gets done that don’t change wholesale between on-site and remote work. Obviously, what this looks like may vary by team function and organization. But there shouldn’t be radically different ways of doing things based on a person’s location.

Security firm Perimeter 81, for instance, has implemented a hybrid work model that entails people working three days on-site and two days remotely, which CPO and co-founder Sagi Gidali says promotes better balance and flexibility. Gidali sees hybrid models as the future of work.

But you can’t do this successfully in ad-hoc fashion. There needs to be a consistent pattern – that can be tailored to individuals and teams – for how things get done. Here’s what that looks like at Perimeter 81:

“To keep everyone in unison, we work off of two week sprints and have designed sprint boards that create a level of uniformity across the teams, but are also customized to each team’s needs,” Gidali says. “We also utilize several Slack automations to facilitate quick team calls, collect valuable employee feedback and share notable company updates.”

Like Nicholson, Gidali also believes in the critical importance of committing to communication as a necessity to a healthy hybrid workplace. In addition to Slack, they use monday.com and other tools in a unified manner across the organization.

“We hold bi-quarterly ‘All Hands’ Zoom meetings where [Gidali] and co-founder Amit Baraket]update the company on major announcements, milestones, and achievements, and all the departments have the opportunity to present their latest accomplishments and initiatives,” Gidali says. “Within each department, daily Zoom calls take place to make sure all team members are working in unison, regardless of location. We believe these recurring calls are key in keeping the entire hybrid workforce engaged, involved and connected.”

[ How can automation free up more staff time for innovation? Get the free eBook: Managing IT with Automation. ]

Kevin Casey writes about technology and business for a variety of publications. He won an Azbee Award, given by the American Society of Business Publication Editors, for his InformationWeek.com story, "Are You Too Old For IT?" He's a former community choice honoree in the Small Business Influencer Awards.