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How to build culture for blended workplaces

Mobility’s clearly a winning trend. But mobility without membership is doomed to fail in the long run.
By: | July 15, 2020 • 8 min read
(Photo by Marcelo Endelli/Getty Images)

Vibrant company cultures are needed for tomorrow’s post-COVID-19 blended workforces and workplaces to thrive—and HR needs to start building them today.

Imagine different ways of working at two ends of a spectrum. On one extreme, there’s the 9-5 office-work model long familiar to boomers and Gen Xers. Think Don Draper catching the 7:02 from Scarsdale and arriving at Sterling Cooper at 8:57. The same routine day after day, year after year.

Tim Brackney

Now, consider the other extreme. It doesn’t take much imagination. Take a look at the news feed on your mobile phone with a once-in-a-century pandemic changing how we work: Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announces employees can now work from home forever; Facebook says half its roles may become virtual; others follow suit.

Related: Twitter launches virtual camp for employees and their children

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Well, I guess it’s settled. The days of Mad Men are officially over. Today’s professional workforce craves, indeed demands, both mobility and membership—forces that, until recently, repelled each other. Nearly overnight, companies have adapted—because they had to. What’s now being created is a modern way of working: independence and employment“indie-ployment,” if you will.

This combination of the independent contractor or freelancer’s power of control coupled with the community and security of full-time employment will prove to be one of the greatest disruptions to the employer/employee paradigm in modern history.

Also, add in generational shifts with the advent of cloud-based software systems and collaboration tools, and not only do you have the desire to work more virtually, you’ve got the means. Virtual was already becoming the new local whether employers wanted it to happen or not. And then … COVID-19 hit. These trends didn’t end, they only accelerated.

What’s the reaction so far? Unsurprisingly, employees have generally responded well. A global poll of 2,200 workers conducted recently during the pandemic by GoTo and LogMeIn found that 64% of respondents say they’re now more productive. More revealing, 62% of U.S. respondents said they’d take a pay cut for WFH only.

Ditching expensive cities and living instead, say, in North Carolina’s Outer Banks or Boulder, Colo., without sacrificing the promise of a great career does sound appealing. Labor arbitrage powered by virtual delivery has many executives today thinking more broadly and expansively about workforce planning than even six months ago.

In fact, what’s not to like? Employees want it, companies are embracing the grand work-from-home experiment mandated by the pandemic … so full speed ahead! Well, hold on a sec. Mobility’s clearly a winning trend. But mobility without membership—freedom without community—rings hollow and is doomed to fail in the long run.

So how do employers and employees get their cake and eat it too, the proverbial win/win? Autonomy and allegiance. Achieving true unit cohesion with a combination of on-site employees and a happy workforce in a diaspora—the answer lies in culture.

Lean into Culture

As companies begin figuring out how to strike the right balance between office and home, and a workforce comprised of traditional employees, consultants and freelancers, the biggest challenge won’t be technological.

No. The biggest challenge will be one that has long defined success or failure in business: culture. Culture is the underpinning of community, and the ability—or inability—to translate the corporate soul to an increasingly itinerant workforce will define which companies win and which lose in the long run.

As the father of modern management, Peter Drucker, once famously said: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Fair enough. But it also begs a question for 2020 and beyond: What’s the formula for building an authentic culture in a world where workforces and workplaces were already rapidly transforming before COVID-19—and now they’re on steroids?

The companies that get this alchemy right will be winners in the years ahead. While it’s still too early to know what that formula will look like, I believe three factors will be critical in determining which companies’ chemical elements make it to the Periodic Table of business success—and which ones join the list of failed experiments.

Be Intentional About In-Person Meetings

Many things have come into clear focus during these months of sheltering in place. Perhaps one of the biggest is how much people miss the opportunity to interact directly with each other. In fact, these interactions were largely taken for granted before their absence was widely felt. And as we move towards the post-pandemic “Caution Economy,” our face-to-face interactions will be more circumspect, but incredibly important, nonetheless.

See also: Getting back to the workplace

What exactly does that mean? It means carefully weighing the mix of digital, analog and in-person meetings.

In-person meetings, once a standard option, will likely be less prevalent, and therefore more precious and meaningful. Making sure those interactions have clear purpose and are built around strengthening relationships, particularly for newer employees, will be crucial.

Appointments and invitations that are used interchangeably currently—both referring to blocking time on cloud-based calendars—will now actually define intent, purpose and level of interaction. Membership will be built around the careful curation of relationships across multiple virtual platforms with a smattering of just the right level of in-person interaction.

On a practical scale, this means companies should re-examine how their employees best work and be flexible in allowing multiple arrangements and modes. Instead of the cynical trope of “work expands to fill the time allotted,” encourage the positive practice of deeper and meaningful interactions time bound by purpose.

Novel Social Contract—Who’s Got My Back?

The pandemic has led to wider repercussions as well. Mandated shutdowns and stay-at-home orders have triggered some of the worst unemployment figures since the Great Depression. For knowledge workers in particular, it’s further strained an already weakened employer-employee dynamic. In some cases, layoffs have meant going the freelancer route. But what about benefits—especially healthcare—in the midst of a pandemic?

Some states, including California and New Jersey, have either implemented or introduced legislation giving gig workers the same protections as full-time employees. Think 1099 work with W2 protections. More states will likely follow. My own company’s business model hires consultants who get W2 benefits but have considerable control over their work portfolio and client assignments—most working directly with clients on important initiatives.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

This major employment disruption has been a wake-up call to millions of people who will be grateful to start work again—under any circumstances—but will also be far more mindful of who’s truly looking out for them. If they let go of me so quickly, what’s to stop them from doing it again? Is there really any security in traditional employment, or am I better off starting “Me, Inc.”?

Just as the Chinese word for crisis “Weiji” (危机) popularly means both danger and opportunity, we’ve been through the danger as far as employment is concerned. Now’s the time to think about the opportunity. Understanding the desires and tolerances of a blended, more fluid workforce will allow companies to react in real time to a changing landscape and take advantage of labor market opportunity.

For a few companies, this may mean status quo—they’re already sufficiently flexible. For many others, it will mean rethinking workforce plans from top to bottom, from W2 to 1099. In fact, companies that don’t reexamine how best to tap into their employees’ desires for autonomy and community may find their people sprinting to competitors who do.

Which leads me to the final factor.

New Holy Grail—Building a Vibrant Culture in Blended Workforces and Workspaces

Not all companies will—or can—operate purely via videoconferencing. And not all companies can be pure 9-to-5 holdouts, either. Nor will all employees be full-time or freelancers only. But what will this blended world look like for successful companies in the coming years?

The right answer depends on how engaging a culture they can build wherever they fall on the spectrum.

Currently, the widely held belief is that stronger organizational cultures are better built on-prem and in-person because of social proximity, including underestimated benefits like conversations at the water cooler. It’s a safe bet.

Right now, the safe bet is that, while virtual is better at finding borderless labor and collaborating teams, it’s still missing the human touch. What if I rarely interact with clients or colleagues in person, what’s my visceral connection to the firm? How do I feel any esprit de corps? How much loyalty will I feel—if ever?

After this pandemic, though, who believes in safe bets anymore?

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What’s happening now is defying safe bets and creating a new paradigm. The water cooler is actually getting larger—virtually. We now have deep connections with people who don’t reside in our locality but have similar interests and expertise.

These relationships have to be formed and nurtured like any other relationship, and they have the unique common quality of not simply being rooted in where we physically reside—but rather where our interests coincide.

By expanding the water cooler and intentionally forming larger communities than those bounded by geography, companies will be able to create stronger allegiances forged by diversity of perspective and enhanced by a distributed workforce. That is culture. And much to the surprise of many in the business world, it turns out you can actually have your cake and eat it too.

Finally, if you think a successful post-pandemic workforce strategy simply means more videoconferencing and revising your operating strategy, may I suggest changing your morning routine? Culture does eat strategy for breakfast. And why not? It’s always been the most important meal of the day.

Tim Brackney is president and COO of RGP, a global consulting firm that enables rapid business outcomes by bringing together the right people to create transformative change. Brackney leads RGP’s Global Operations. This includes full P&L and operational responsibility for three key theaters of operation: North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific. 

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