Three-quarters of HR leaders feel that hybrid work challenges employees’ connection to organisational culture, but adapting to working at home will improve retention and performance by a third.
A poll of more than 200 HR leaders by business consultancy Gartner found that the most challenging aspect for businesses of setting their hybrid strategy was adjusting organisational culture to support a hybrid workforce.
While 40% of HR leaders said they had increased their culture budget since the beginning of the pandemic, the survey of more than 3,900 hybrid/remote knowledge workers in December 2021 revealed only one in four are connected to their organisation’s culture.
“Hybrid and remote work hasn’t necessarily changed our culture, it’s changed the way we experience culture,” said Alexia Cambon, director in the Gartner HR practice. “While employers used to be able to frame their cultural values and hang them on the walls for employees to see, this no longer works today when hybrid and remote knowledge workers spend 65% less time in offices than before the pandemic.”
The pre-pandemic workplace cultural experience was grounded in the physical environment employees worked in, said Gartner. The analysis said it was defined by three experiential attributes: working in an office space controlled by their employers; being surrounded by colleagues and having physical proximity to each other; and experiencing culture at a macro-scale via interactions with colleagues that employees worked with directly and indirectly.
With the poll finding that most employees (76%) agreed that culture was very or extremely important for them to be effective at their job, it was not surprising that the majority of HR (61%) leaders said that to achieve organisational goals, culture was more important in a hybrid work model than in an on-site work model.
Cambon said that for a culture to truly succeed, employees must be aligned and connected to it. Culture alignment means employees understand and buy into the culture of their organisation, she said, while culture connectedness encompasses employees identifying with, caring about and belonging within their organisation’s culture. Both were key to assuring culture impact, she added.
“Historically, senior leaders have intentionally invested in driving culture alignment, but have primarily relied on culture connectedness to occur through ‘osmosis:’ relying on time in offices, in-person and at a macro scale to make employees feel connected to culture,” said Cambon. “Employees at all levels, and across demographics, are suffering from a connectedness crisis, which suggests this problem isn’t just related to hybrid and remote work, but to organisations’ lack of intentionality in driving connectedness historically.”
She said some organisations were trying to ensure employees connect to the culture by forcing a return to the office.
Organisations that take this approach faced a significant attrition risk. In fact, organisations that forced their employees back to a fully on-site arrangement could lose 33% of their workforce, according to Cambon.
“Contrary to popular belief, flexibility is not in tension with culture. The more flexibility an employee has, the more likely they are to be connected to their culture,” added Cambon. “Of the more than 3,900 hybrid and remote knowledge workers we surveyed in December 2021, only 18% of those with the least flexibility felt a high degree of connectedness to their organisational culture, while 53% of those workers who had radical flexibility in where, when and how they work reported high culture connectedness.”
Gartner said there were three shifts businesses needed to make to ensure culture remained connected to employees. It said:
- Organisations should identify opportunities to enable employees to see and feel connected to the culture through the new cultural constant: the work itself.
- Put value on emotional rather than physical proximity. As in-person interactions become rare, HR leaders should identify the moments where employees are most likely to feel seen — rather than be seen — to connect them to culture. These moments of emotional proximity occur when an employee feels important, valued and recognised.
- Businesses should optimise micro-cased experiences because “the hybrid world shrinks ecosystems”. As employees engage with fewer people, these relationships intensify and make up the bulk of the employee experience. Leaders must equip teams to create vibrant and healthy micro-cultures that encourage greater connectedness.
The organisations that succeed at connecting employees to their culture can increase employee performance by up to 37% and retention by up to 36%.
“In today’s volatile business environment, these gains translate into significant competitive advantage,” said Cambon.