More and more companies are welcoming their employees back to office and as they respond to the new reality of hybrid work, two things are clear: Hybrid work is here to stay, and companies have to figure out how to keep the wheels of communication and collaboration turning. The bigger challenge is that how leaders can build a consistent culture across offices (shared or home) in a hybrid work environment to make things work. In an enlightening conversation with CXOToday, Larry Angeli, a culture expert and is currently CEO of Detroit-based technology company Sift, explains how companies can harness an inclusive culture where people feel valued and have a sense of belongingness, in order to succeed in a hybrid world. Excerpts.
Why should leaders care about culture at this stage in the pandemic?
A company’s culture is its bedrock. If it is strong, you’re chance of transforming successfully to a hybrid company increases dramatically. Moving to a hybrid workforce without a strong culture will expose cracks in your cultural foundation — particularly when it comes to how your team engages with one another, and manages to stay focused on the work at hand.
What worked before may not work now when it comes to culture. Leaders need to start thinking more holistically about how people interact with each other outside of their own immediate teams. How are new employees feeling when they start out? Do they feel connected in knowing who does what? Are we giving them the opportunity to interact with other team members outside of their team? How are you able to create a sense of belonging when people may not be physically working and seeing each other all the time.
At Sift, we have been prioritizing our DEI initiatives and coming up with OKRs to help create accountability and make sure we are creating an environment where people want to work and can feel like they can bring their full selves to work. We have done team events, and we even thought about quarterly or bi-annual company get-togethers where we fly team members who are out of town and go to fun events.
Most recently we did this with an afternoon ballgame to celebrate achieving a major company milestone and one of our key objectives as a business. Everyone had a blast, and we cemented the value of staying on track as a business toward our goals. It was well received and gave people the chance to actually see someone in person and know who they are, what they value, what interests them, how is their family.
You can’t just leave out bonding in this whole hybrid process. You need to know and care for the individual across from you if you want to build a solid team, and I think face-to-face interaction can’t be replaced.
With many companies planning a hybrid workplace, what could be the potential risks?
One big risk is not letting team members give feedback on what they would prefer in a hybrid working environment and just going with a policy based on your gut. This goes hand in hand with not being flexible. We recently held a virtual round-table discussion with top HR and IT leaders and the word flexibility came up countless times.
With hybrid, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Everyone is going to be different and have their own needs. So what works for one individual, who wants to work fully remote because of their long commute, may not work for another who is new to the area, already living close to the office, and looking for people to connect with.
We see this here and Sift and have embraced meeting everyone where they are at and making it work for them. This creates a trusting culture and one where people feel heard.
What’s exactly going to be the CEO or the leader’s role in a hybrid workplace?
The CEO has to provide a clear direction on the expectations for how we will navigate the challenges of remote work and the importance of staying focused on the goals of the business.
Create an inclusive work environment where everyone is engaged and valued. You are not “less than” if you aren’t in the office. As CEO I’m always sensing the mood of the team and ensuring everyone is “in the boat” and recognized for their work.
It always comes back to communication and relationships. Why do we exist as a business? What value are we bringing to our customers and the market? What is our strategic differentiation? What are key near-term and long-term goals and strategy and results we need to achieve to hit objectives? These are not new to the role of CEO, but I think it important to ensure that we over-communicate these things to ensure that the message is getting through to everyone.
On the relationship side, ask yourself “am I investing time in caring about my team as people?” This does not come naturally to some CEO’s but is critical in a hybrid work environment where we don’t see each other at the office.
What are the essentials of hybrid work culture?
You need to first start by asking these basic questions.
- What are the core values that drive our organization?
- What needs to be true in order for our teams to work effectively?
- How do our departments collaborate?
- How are decisions made by our leadership team?
- What are our management practices?
Once you know those you can then start identifying starts, stops and continues. It’s important to understand that things will be messy during this transition and that’s alright. Having time to reflect on how things have been going and including all team members as part of that convoy is really important.
After these are answered you need to then identify your Starts, Stops and Continues. We used this practice at Sift and found it really helpful to know which behaviors are inefficient and counterproductive, which ones we should start doing to improve the process, and which ones are net positive and should remain. We gather the feedback on a quarterly basis and will reflect back on it in our all-team meetings from time to time to see how close we have been following along.
Do you think most companies are ready for this hybrid culture and are on the way to adopting it?
I honestly don’t think many are. Since this is so new for many I think it will be much more difficult for larger organizations that are less nimble to adapt. In our hybrid work webinar, we had the chance to hear from Annie Lin, VP of People at Lever. She mentioned that “The hybrid work world isn’t a return to how things were before. It’s actually a completely new model for how we need to think about the way companies run and how we all work with each other. It’s really a moment for us to design from scratch and learn along the way.” This process to get this hybrid thing right will take time and we are all still navigating this ourselves.
Is hybrid here to stay or will it just help employees navigate the next phase of change and fizzle out thereafter?
Hybrid is definitely here to stay. We saw recently how many people have quit jobs across the board when told they would have to return to the office full-time. Many people just don’t want to do this and give up their freedom. The thing is that productivity was still there, if not even higher, during the peak of the pandemic. That just shows you that this can be done, we’ve proven that. I think employees will see that to be competitive and get the best talent you will have to be flexible otherwise you just won’t attract rockstar and superstars. Hybrid also allows you to reach talent in areas you typically wouldn’t. Here at Sift, we have workers in Detroit but also across Texas, Pennsylvania, Illinois and California. This has really worked for us and I see it continuing into the future.