Culture and the hybrid workforce for new market entrants

We all know hybrid working is set to become the new norm. After 20 months stuck in bedrooms, coffee shops or shared workspaces, workers are desperate for some real human interaction.

But the environment they are coming back to is very different to the one they last experienced explains Gavin Russell, a work change and innovation consultant specialising in culture, engagement and agile approaches to talent.  Here Gavin explains why this new way of working may prove a benefit, and present some challenges to UK market entry companies:

Collaboration technology has advanced dramatically, worker expectations have transformed, the enforced remote working experiment has dispelled a few myths about productivity only taking place in offices. It is pretty clear that it is no longer necessary, let alone desirable to return to the office 9-5.

And that can prove to be a boon for new market entrants into the UK. Reduced costs of real estate mean lower fixed costs, liberating capital to be diverted to higher value activities. Reduced dependence on ‘local talent’ enables access to bigger talent markets, or even deployment of existing talent, improving coordination, collaboration and continuity.

But those benefits come with a new challenge.

If people are distributed across multiple locations at once, how will businesses benefit from the serendipitous moments created by chance conversations? How will teams bond if colleagues have less opportunity to build the emotional connections face-to-face? How will teams know the right way to behave if they don’t experience carefully crafted on-site engagement rituals and customs first hand?

This is a bigger issue than it may first appear. Organisational culture is increasingly recognised as a key commercial tool. It is a proven driver of competitive advantage, enabling exceptional customer experiences while encouraging loyalty, innovation and productivity. It is a key tool for communicating organisational purpose, values and meaning to customers and employees. In fact, culture is a vital cornerstone of any organisation’s commercial proposition.

But does the move to hybrid working undermine it?

Some pretty important people seem to think so. Goldman CEO David Solomon has called working from home an ‘aberration’. Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman is on record as saying “Make no mistake about it. We do our work inside Morgan Stanley offices, and that’s where we teach, that’s where our interns learn, that’s how we develop people.”

And yet there are a host of fully remote organisations (e.g. GitLabs) that seem to have developed great cultures and delivered great work without the need for office space.

So who’s right? And what does that mean for market entrants new to the UK? who are by necessity much more dependent on a strong culture to inspire and unify their teams sailing unchartered and unpredictable waters?

Well, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that by adopting a much more intentional approach to building and nurturing a ‘distributed culture’, and paying deliberate daily attention to the unique challenges of managing a hybrid workforce, new market entrants can actually create a stronger culture than incumbent competitors stuck with legacy ways of doing and thinking.

Success relies on re-imagining culture from the ground up. Too many businesses assume they only need to digitise their office-based culture so that it can also exist remotely.  Unfortunately, that often creates a two-tier environment, where traditional ‘office-only culture’ is entrenched while non-office workers are increasing treated as outsiders. A strong distributed culture needs to be completely re-configured to flow seamlessly across different locations, breaking the connection with office-centric habits while simultaneously remaining authentic.

Next, companies must focus on creating deeper, stronger emotional bonds. As distributed workforces take on the huge new challenge of building a business in a new market, it is even more important they have a powerful, shared purpose that keeps them focussed, unified and inspired. That means being ultra-clear on your mission, and ultra-clear on the values and behaviours that help achieve it. Purpose needs to be constantly, clearly and concisely communicated to the new workforces and externally to their new talent marketplaces.

And finally, proactively build a sense of community. As teams become more distributed, diverse and discerning, it is even more important to find ways to build the mutual trust and respect that are key to unlocking collaboration. Building a sense of community creates an atmosphere that encourages teamwork and loyalty, self-regulates positive behaviours while incentivising teams to strive for better outcomes.

Culture is an essential tool for new market entrants to exploit their opportunities. By re-imagining their culture for the hybrid age, providing the focus, frameworks, systems and processes to reinforce the right values and behaviours, and investing in culture every day, they can maximise their chances of success.

Gavin Russell is the founder of Pepper Moth, a work change and innovation consultancy specialising in culture, engagement and agile approaches to talent.  He’s also the author of ‘Transformation Timebomb’, a guide to business change in the digital age.