Over 25 years ago, I started a major purchasing company, and while dozens of people stayed with me from the beginning, others have gone on to do great things. Many still stay in touch, and one thing they always say they miss most is the culture. “Everybody had each other’s back,” an ex-employee recently told me. “You just knew you were safe.”
After a long stretch of remote work under the COVID-19 lockdown, we spent considerable time planning for our reopening, but with these plans came new questions about keeping that culture alive. Just like the hybrid model itself, developing a positive company culture in this new work environment will require a mix of what worked in the past with something totally unprecedented. Here are five ways to manage it:
1. Make a Real Effort to Stay Connected
Whether rebuilding a positive company culture or starting one from scratch, staying connected enough to cultivate that in a hybrid work environment requires serious effort. Particularly for the younger team members who may not know the previous company culture, encourage open communication. Make calls to these groups in support of their particular challenges and build a comfortable foundation for them to open up to you.
Create a reliable communication tree that people can turn to when they need support. In our company, I kept in close contact with about 10 senior people in the office, and they kept in touch with those just below them. Whether aimed at solving work problems or just managing a rough time during COVID, a reliable communication network lets your team know they have someone to help them deal with what’s on their plate.
2. Stay Close
An environment where your co-workers feel like friends and family is healthier for business, but this can be easy to forget in a hybrid workplace. Before the lockdown, I made an effort to know everybody’s significant other, their children’s names, and even their pets. Take away the office for constant interactions and as you get busier, these details can get lost.
Healthy teams support each other during major milestones, so take the time to be aware of your teammates’ struggles. The other day, while communicating a task to a work associate, I made sure to check in with her on a personal level and found out that she had suffered a devastating personal loss, but without opening that space, I may have never known that she needed support. Always try to extend your focus a little bit beyond the general work that needs to be done to include room for genuine care.
3. Understand That the Factors Have Changed
The hybrid work environment is naturally fluid and different, which means your approach to cultivating a company culture must be, too. Sitting down with someone to try and understand their life can teach you so much about them, but with everyone in the office behind masks, those conversations are harder to start. Communication loses its personal touch over Zoom calls. The “going out for a beer” element is no longer an option.
The more isolated people become, the less they feel part of a team, so think outside of the box to keep everyone from getting too locked up inside of one. For example, when the lunches I used to love hosting at my house started to pose health and safety risks, I got creative. Instead, I send these little trolleys around the office to deliver boxed lunches to their desks with personalized notes. Let people know that even though the environment has changed, you still care about them in the same way.
4. Put Yourself Out There to Listen
One-on-one or in a group environment, put yourself out there as someone who genuinely cares. People used to come to me personally with their problems, but after the lockdown, they came by less. In my 35 years in supply chain management, there’s never been a more stressful time, so even though their visits stopped, I knew they were still experiencing problems, but without the same office support they had come to expect. So, instead, I put myself out there and went to them.
Being more concerned with your own output than input from your team can be dangerous, so remember to be a good listener. When your only focus is being the speaker, it takes longer to find out when others have problems. The longer they go undiscussed, the tougher they become to handle. It may require a little more individual outreach than in the past, but when you constantly put yourself out there for others, they rest easier knowing they can depend on you.
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5. Make Them Feel Supported and Safe
When everyone feels supported and safe, their greatest talents come to the surface. Reliable support from their teammates lets people become better decision-makers, less afraid of making mistakes. With a safe place to share their ideas, they also become more innovative. On the other hand, when people are afraid of the repercussions of failure, the stress over one thing not working out can keep them from ever trying anything.
Listen to your team and be sensitive to their circumstances. Hear each individual opinion about office safety protocols to avoid controversy. Private conversations with my team members let me know that everyone would feel safe returning to work without having to impose any mandates. Instead of simply demanding behaviors without their input, when you consider everyone’s individual opinion, they’re more likely to do the right thing for the team.
Flexibility Is Key
When the lockdown hit and we went remote, we needed to make changes so everyone would still benefit from our positive company culture. Now, shifting to a part-time return to the office, we needed to change again. It takes more than just talk to create a positive company culture, and as the workplace environment continues to shift, it’ll take even more than that. Stay flexible and focus on letting your team know that you always have their back for a positive company culture that will overcome anything.