High-profile CEOs, from Apple’s Tim Cook to Disney’s Bob Iger, are mandating return-to-office policies as a means to preserve their company’s organizational culture. Cook, for example, cited in a company memo that “in-person collaboration … is so essential to our culture,” the Guardian reports.
It turns out they are not alone. A top concern among 25% of executives is that a lack of in-person work can harm team culture, according to a quarterly pulse survey of more than 10,000 workers and executives by Future Forum. As organizations continue to grapple with the level of flexibility they extend to their workforces post-pandemic, it is creating yet another novel challenge for HR leaders, who are tasked with creating and maintaining an organization’s culture when only a portion of the workforce is in the office at any given time.
Navigating culture in the hybrid environment is a still-developing issue that HR must pay attention to in 2024, says Rubab Jafry O’Connor, professor of management at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.
“We have been working with this hybrid work-from-home, work-from-the-office [environment] that is uncharted territory. How are we going to focus on creating and recreating an organizational culture?” O’Connor asks. “That’s going to be one big trend that we’ve got to figure out.”
Effective steps to build a culture with a hybrid workforce
HRE recently spoke with leaders from financial giant Synchrony, software titan ServiceNow and insurance company Nationwide—all on the 2023 Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list—about their strategies to preserve and build organizational culture in a hybrid work environment. Also weighing in on this issue is engineering consulting company AECOM, which will present a session on virtual engagement opportunities at HRE’s upcoming Elevate People, Ignite Change (EPIC) Conference, April 24-26, in Las Vegas.
Synchrony: A culture of caring through connections
Coming out of the pandemic, Synchrony continued to focus on its organizational culture of caring, which involves offering opportunities for critical personal connections, DJ Casto, executive vice president and CHRO, tells HRE.
“We radically rethought how we work, how we support our people and how we connect and engage, with a focus on being nimble and agile,” says Casto.
For starters, Synchrony is looking to strengthen that culture of caring by giving employees a voice. After an employee survey revealed that 85% of the workforce wanted some form of remote work, the financial giant rolled out a hybrid policy that allows its more than 18,000 global employees to work remotely full- or part-time and to work the hours that best fit their personal schedules. The strategy also encourages teams to meet in person to connect when they need to, Casto says.
“We support our employees’ choice to have a more flexible work schedule, which includes when and where they work,” Casto adds.
Synchrony also redesigned its physical spaces to foster more purposeful collaboration in a hybrid work environment. That effort included offering flexible workspaces, new tech tools to accommodate hybrid meetings, and multipurpose rooms for learning, skills training and networking. The setup of multipurpose rooms can be changed to accommodate the needs of the day, Casto says.
These efforts have helped Synchrony double the number of people coming into its Stamford, Conn., headquarters since last fall and also increase its applicant pool by 35% last year compared to pre-pandemic levels, as well as vault the company into the top 20 of Fortune’s list of Best Companies to Work For in 2023, he notes.
“Cultural change starts at the top,” Casto says. “One of the main reasons our flexible work schedule is working is because of the staunch support of our CEO, Brian Doubles, and his executive leadership team, who role model behavior around flexibility and work remotely a few days a week.”
ServiceNow: Building inclusion with technology
ServiceNow’s culture is people-centered and powered by technology, says Karen Pavlin, chief equity and inclusion officer.
“We center on our People Pact, which is our commitment to helping employees do their best work, live their best life and fulfill our purpose together. We believe that fostering an inclusive culture is the future of work and the future of business,” Pavlin says.
About 95% of ServiceNow’s more than 22,000 employees have flexible or remote work arrangements, Pavlin tells HRE.
To bolster its people-centric culture in that environment, ServiceNow redesigned its offices, Pavlin says. This allows the workforce to work individually in a tent-like workstation or in collaborative spaces where employees share long tables. The tech giant also bolstered its Zoom capabilities in conference rooms to be inclusive of both in-office and remote teams.
And when hosting in-person events, leadership focuses on creating a hybrid experience to include remote employees, Pavlin says. It also avoids a “one-size-fits-all” approach to building a hybrid culture.
“We want the ServiceNow culture to benefit everyone without it feeling forced. We examine things group by group, office by office, country by country,” Pavlin tells HRE. “It takes time, effort and commitment to do it right.”
For example, the tech company is opening regional chapters of its Employee Belonging Groups (EBGs) to reflect the unique organizational cultural nuances of the region, she adds.
ServiceNow is also exploring best practices for asynchronous work so employees feel connected but are not burdened with meetings too late or early in their day, Pavlin explains.
“It’s both the inclusive culture and collaborative technology that keep the innovation pipeline active,” she says. “Give employees a reason to believe and buy into the culture, regardless of where they are working.”
This doubling down on its people-centric culture is paying off for ServiceNow. Attrition among top talent is currently less than half of what it was in 2022, while the organization’s 2023 Employee Voice Survey captured a record participation rate of 94% and an engagement rate of 81%, says Pavlin.
Nationwide: A companywide transition to hybrid
The insurance and financial services titan invests in an organizational culture that values high performance and caring, Nationwide spokesperson Ryan Ankrom says. Nationwide provides a safe, fair and trusting environment where employees not only have equal access to opportunities but also can bring their authentic selves to work each day, he says.
Approximately 40% of its 25,000 employees are hybrid workers, and half are fully remote, Ankrom notes.
“To help ensure we remained connected, collaborative and transparent throughout the evolution of our work model, we prioritized connections,” Ankrom says.
To that aim, Nationwide has ensured a range of programs are accessible to both virtual and in-person audiences, including learning and development programs, enterprise and local events, executive touchpoints with associates, associate resource group networking, mentoring programs and wellbeing initiatives.
This work to fortify Nationwide’s organizational culture in a hybrid environment is reflected in the recognition it has received in Fortune’s list of Best Places to Work For, an honor it has received two years in a row where it has been in the top quartile.
“We [also] hear positive associate feedback when we receive third-party recognition like this, and [that is] a good indicator that our culture remains strong,” says Ankrom.
AECOM: Driving engagement with wellbeing focus
Design and engineering company AECOM’s organizational culture prioritizes the engagement and wellbeing of its 52,000 employees across the globe, says Bernie Knobbe, senior vice president of global benefits and wellbeing.
During the past few years, employees have seen a reduction in face-to-face interactions, as the workforce now includes a blend of remote, hybrid and in-office workers. However, AECOM is finding new ways to help its global colleagues connect in more personal and meaningful ways to help bolster the organization’s organizational culture, Knobbe adds.
For instance, it’s added new social features, such as activity trackers, to its seven-year-old Global Wellbeing program, a website that allows employees to share personal stories about their wellbeing journeys, support one another and gain real-time access to mental health resources.
In the past year, AECOM also launched a virtual, self-guided Mental Health 101 program in partnership with AECOM University to help employees build resiliency and culture within a hybrid workforce, Knobbe says. The program assists employees in understanding core principles like mental health warning signs or where to turn for help.
Since the pandemic started in 2020, AECOM has pivoted to a digital-first mindset, which, Knobbe says, has helped center wellbeing in the company’s organizational culture.
“As we continue to adapt to changing circumstances, such as employees starting new jobs remotely or balancing hybrid environments, relying on digital experiences to help [employees] integrate and connect with their new teams will continue to be at the forefront of our wellbeing strategy,” Knobbe says.