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Flexible Working: Why Company Culture Matters

The main reasons for the Great Resignation are obsolete leadership, fearful middle managers, and a toxic culture that hinders employee engagement. Perhaps that's why some organizations are still struggling with the consideration and development of a flexible working model. 

They're incapable of evolving to a more enlightened approach to work where employees are treated with respect. They're stuck in a bygone era of the 20th-century industrial revolution where 'shareholder value' tops all other values, and where spreadsheets and financial data analysis drives all key decision making.

We should not be surprised that 76 percent of human resource (HR) leaders now feel that hybrid work challenges an employee's connection to organizational culture, according to a recent survey by Gartner.

A 2022 poll of HR leaders reveals the most challenging aspect of setting their hybrid strategy is adjusting the current organizational culture to support a hybrid workforce. In fact, achieving progress often requires company culture re-imagination; not merely small incremental adjustments.

Hybrid and Remote Working Challenges

While 40 percent of HR leaders reported they have increased their 'culture budget' since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, a Gartner survey of more than 3,900 hybrid or remote knowledge workers in December 2021 revealed only one in four is 'connected' to their organization's culture.

"Hybrid and remote work hasn’t necessarily changed our culture, it’s changed the way we experience culture," said Alexia Cambon, director at Gartner. "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 percent less time in offices than before the pandemic."

The typical pre-pandemic workplace cultural experience was grounded in the physical environment employees worked in -- which in many cases was a very unpleasant and noisy open-plan office location they had to commute to daily.

It was defined primarily 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.

That said, organizational culture remains imperative for employees to succeed -- 76 percent of employees surveyed say culture is very or extremely important for them to be effective at their job.

Meanwhile, 61 percent of HR leaders say that to achieve organizational goals, culture is more important in a hybrid work model than in an on-site work model. Why they choose to believe that is unclear.

According to the Gartner assessment, 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 organization, while culture connectedness encompasses employees identifying with, caring about and belonging within their organization’s culture.

Together, these two measures -- culture alignment and culture connectedness -- are key to assuring organizational culture impact. However, some Fortune 100 leaders don't appreciate the significance.

"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 organizations’ lack of intentionality in driving connectedness historically. That's the essence of the core problem.

Some organizations are trying to ensure employees connect to the culture by forcing a return to the office -- essentially the legacy status-quo approach. Gartner analysts believe organizations that take this approach will face a significant attrition risk.

In fact, organizations that force their employees back to a 'full on-site' arrangement could lose 33 percent of their workforce. Once again, there is no mystery to the Great Resignation phenomenon.

"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 surveyed, only 18 percent of those with the least flexibility felt a 'high degree' of connectedness to their organizational culture, while 53 percent of those workers who had flexibility in where, when, and how they work reported culture connectedness.

Gartner says that to drive culture connectedness by intention, leaders must make three key shifts.

Diffuse Culture Through Work, Not Just the Office

The office is no longer the most common, constant cultural experience. Organizations should identify opportunities to enable employees to see and feel connected to the culture through the new cultural constant: the rewarding work itself.

Connect Through Emotional, Not Just 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 recognized.

Optimize Micro-Based Experiences, Not Macro-Based Experiences

The hybrid world shrinks ecosystems. As employees engage with fewer people, these relationships intensify and make up the bulk of the employee experience. Savvy leaders must equip teams to create vibrant and healthy micro-cultures that encourage greater connectedness.

The organizations that succeed at connecting employees to their culture can increase employee performance by up to 37 percent and retention by up to 36 percent. "In today’s volatile business environment, these gains translate into a significant competitive advantage," concludes Cambon.

In contrast, I believe those leaders who refuse to evolve their legacy culture will face the consequences. Increasing employee churn will continue, and those people that choose to stay working in a toxic and un-connected culture will likely be the most fearful poor-performers. If that's the 'Future of Work' you envision at your current organization, then face the reality.

Forward-thinking employees must acknowledge that their cultural concerns will fall on deaf ears at these legacy employers. Save your breath, move on and find a better place to work that aligns with your higher expectations. Yes, you do deserve something better than working in a debilitating environment.

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