Hybrid work: 3 cultural pitfalls to avoid

Adopting a hybrid work model takes time and effort. Consider these common cultural norms to overcome for hybrid success
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Culture is – and always has been – the biggest determinant of organizational success. The organizations that thrived during the pandemic recognized that the way work was done had changed significantly and that the experiences between team members would also need to change.

They focused on the well-being of their people and recognized the fear and anxiety they felt. Leaders created a space where it was safe to talk about these feelings while still bringing their most productive selves to work. These organizations challenged their existing cultural norms and asked, “Does the way we’re working fit in a hybrid world?”

Many organizations, however, tend to focus on tactical issues rather than proactively building culture. Despite their best intentions, few CIOs I’ve worked with over the last 12 months have a hybrid-ready culture. They might have the technology and staff buy-in, but there are still some traditional norms that are preventing their teams from successfully adopting a truly hybrid model.

3 cultural norms to rethink in the age of hybrid work

Here are three common cultural norms to overcome if you want to make hybrid work succeed for your team.

1. Letting culture take care of itself

Far too many teams (and organizations, for that matter) still talk a good game when it comes to culture. Traditionally, they leave culture to chance, then wonder why it evolves negatively and they end up losing key staff.

[ What are today's candidates looking for? Read IT talent: 6 ways job expectations have evolved. ]

Toxic culture is the number-one reason employees leave. In toxic environments, priorities are unclear, behaviors are questionable, miscommunication abounds, and excessive hours worked are considered a badge of honor rather than a cause for concern.

Because culture is the sum of everybody who works within it, it’s essential that these people (or representatives for larger teams) are involved in redefining what it means to work in a hybrid world. I’ve worked with teams between 8 and 80 people over the last 18 months to redefine the culture so that it’s fit for hybrid working.

This exercise helps organizations build a foundation of belonging, understanding, and empathy where relationships are strong and people push each other to succeed, regardless of where they work.

2. Doing everything face-to-face

Since the pandemic, many people are demanding more flexible working arrangements on a permanent basis. To address this, some organizations are turning to a hybrid model in which employees go to the office a set number of days – say, three days – each week.

The inference is that the business can only be productive, innovative, and achieve its results if team members work face-to-face three days a week. But there is no proof that this is true.

If you want to adopt hybrid work, you must first trust your employees to decide where they can work most effectively. A team member might come to the office for collaboration-based tasks, for example, but prefer to work remotely on projects that require deep focus and minimal interruption.

If you want to adopt hybrid work, you must first trust your employees to decide where they can work most effectively.

Consider meetings as well. Too often, face-to-face meetings consume endless hours of productive time when a simple chat message, email, or phone call would suffice. By reducing these in-person interactions, organizations can boost productivity and encourage the work-from-anywhere approach.

[ Productivity tips for meetings: Hybrid work: 4 roles to assign in every meeting ]

3. Failing to trust

Finally, if there is no trust among leaders, individuals, and teams, hybrid work will never succeed.

There are two elements to trust; affective and cognitive. People high in affective trust are empathetic, kind, and focus on understanding the challenges that others face in getting their jobs done. People high in cognitive trust respect the accomplishments and experience of others and focus on how this can contribute to the quality of team outputs.

For hybrid work to succeed, team members must assume the best of each other. Everyone should trust each other to show up on time and do their best, regardless of where they’re based. When managers doubt the intentions of their team members, teams lack autonomy, feel unempowered, and motivation – along with performance – will suffer.

Making a hybrid work model succeed isn’t easy. It requires organizational changes and challenges existing norms. Which norms do you need to address to make a hybrid model work for you and your team?

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

Colin D. Ellis is a culture change expert, an award-winning international speaker and a best-selling author. His latest book, "Culture Fix: How to Create a Great Place to Work" (Wiley), has seen him travel all over the world to help IT departments transform the way they work.

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