When the “Workplace” Isn’t Just a Place: 3 Ways to Build Strong Workplace Culture on Hybrid Teams

Catherine Tansey
August 30, 2022
workplace culture, office culture

The ability to flexibly work from afar has given us a lot—the chance to keep business operations afloat, an opportunity to support more diverse workplaces, and the ability to establish better work-life balance.

We can also see very clearly that virtual interactions will never replace the connections we form in person, connections that can lead to spontaneous and exciting innovation and collaboration. 

A study by Microsoft supports this. They found that while remote work didn’t negatively affect employee productivity, it did cause “a strain on team culture [that] seems to be hampering innovation.” 

Which leads us to wonder, when the workplace isn’t necessarily a place anymore, what happens to “workplace culture?” 

What is workplace culture, and why does it matter?

Workplace culture is the personality of an organization. 

It’s how people work and interact, and the common set of expectations, values, and norms that guide how people behave while “at work” and working. A healthy workplace culture is essential for supporting employee engagement, driving innovation, and even contributes to better profitability for the business.

With many employees of hybrid companies working from multiple locations, including from home, from the office, or from other spaces like coffee shops and coworking spots, companies must intentionally place connection at the core of company culture to reap these benefits. 

Hybrid employees will experience less pre-meeting chatter, impromptu hallway meet-ups, and proverbial water-cooler talk, but companies can still cultivate closeness and connection in meaningful ways. 

Here are three ways to build a strong workplace culture at your company—even when “the workplace” isn’t a physical office that your team comes into every single day.

Related content: How to Boost Employee Happiness: 4 Strategies for HR and People Teams

3 ways to build positive workplace culture as a hybrid company

1. Make mental wellness a priority

As we mentioned above, hybrid work lets us be more flexible and can improve work-life balance. But, some employees may also be struggling with feelings of isolation. 

On top of feeling alone, many employees are dealing with the cumulative stress of the last few years, and may still be struggling to find their footing when it comes to hybrid work. 

Workplace productivity suffers when employees are struggling with mental health challenges—Gallup found that isolation can make workers up to 21% less productive. But, it’s important to focus on more than negative business implications: companies should emphasize employee happiness and wellbeing as humans, not just workers. 

Support employee wellness by embedding in your culture through your benefits offerings, philosophy on work-life balance, and commitment to reducing burnout for employees. You can offer wellness stipends for gym memberships, workout classes, meditation application subscriptions, and more. And, be sure your benefits package includes an EAP with mental health sessions.

Even easier and more immediate is creating space for employees to share feedback about workload or workplace concerns, and demonstrating that it’s ok to be vulnerable at work. 

Start by surveying employees to better understand how they feel about their workload and their employee experience at the company. 

Requesting employee feedback on these matters does two things. One, it keeps HR in the loop as to potential issues with burnout, which can help the org create better processes to avoid it. Two, it illustrates to your team that you care about what they have to say and want to make changes to improve the workplace and culture. 

Next, train managers on the power of being vulnerable and open at work. Hearing, “I’m ok. It’s been a tough week, to be honest. I was feeling a little overwhelmed by my competing priorities at work, and it’s been difficult to balance those responsibilities with caring for my aging father,” from your manager shows employees it’s ok to share openly, too. 

2. Have fun with opportunities for cross-functional connection 

The traditional workplace created not only opportunities to bond and feel close with our immediate team members, but also across the organization. In a physical office, it’s common for co-workers from various departments to form bonds based on physical proximity in the office or casual meetings throughout the hall.

This is important as it helps build social capital—the collective value that exists across all the connections and networks within the company.

Plus, research from MIT finds that communication outside of formal meetings and with members outside of your team is linked to better outcomes for creative teams, like those responsible for innovation.

In the hybrid world, the opportunity for these chance encounters isn’t so common. 

Companies can help build social capital and support company culture in the hybrid office with meaningful initiatives aimed at helping team members across departments bond remotely

Organizations could organize once-monthly, 20-minute coffee dates connecting members on different teams.

Another idea is to pair employees from different departments to take part in a coffee (or wine!) tasting activity. Ship samples to employees’ homes and include some reference tasting notes and a worksheet that asks employees to describe the smell, taste, look, and body of the beverage together. Organizing these events during working hours is best, so employees don’t feel the need to engage in work-related bonding in their free time. Just be sure to keep timezones in mind while planning.  

Related content: How to Hold Brainstorming and Coworking Sessions Using Room Scheduling Software

3. Emphasize everyday feedback and praise 

A great way to support a positive workplace culture is to celebrate wins and share feedback on the regular. 

Connection is important for a thriving company culture but we know it can be more challenging to generate from afar. 

By supporting a culture where exchanging feedback and praise is the norm, you do two positive things: 

  1. Give employees an opportunity to learn about their performance, and 
  2. Create a moment for two people to genuinely connect. 

Research supports this. Gallup found that employees who say they receive feedback a few times a month from peers are more likely to feel connected to their colleagues. And other research shows that a lack of positive feedback contributes to feeling demotivated at work. 

To make sure employees are sharing and receiving feedback, praise, and recognition on the regular, consider making a dedicated Slack channel. Use it to exchange virtual high-fives, shouts-outs, and to celebrate employee wins of all kinds. 

As always, company initiatives do best when role-modeled by managers, so encourage leaders to get involved, too. 

Companies can also support healthy company cultures in the hybrid world by not just providing feedback to the workforce, but asking for it, too. Gathering employee feedback can be simply done using employee engagement and pulse surveys to find out what’s working for employees and where they would like to see changes. This provides HR teams with actionable data to create a better employee experience and helps the workforce feel heard. 

Related content: How Gathering Feedback Will Improve Your Office Culture and Employee Experience

A strong workplace culture doesn’t need to be the exclusive territory of a physical workspace. In fact, it’s no longer practical to view your workplace culture as something that only exists in a physical office setting.

Focus on making sure your employees are getting the support they need as people, doubling down on the importance of open communication and work-life balance, and increasing the connections among team members as a core component of your cultural initiatives. Actively prioritizing these areas will help you build a thriving workplace culture whether people are working from near or far. 

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