The concept of working remotely was something many executives turned up their noses at a few years ago. But a global pandemic, subsequent lockdowns, and closed borders forced the white-collar workforce to make rapid changes.
Companies found themselves adopting technology quicker than ever with digital communication tools becoming paramount. Zoom, Slack... you name it, feeling connected while physically isolated was the new goal, and the new way of working.
Fast-forward two years, and it's become apparent that employees quite like their new working arrangements; flexible work options are now not only desired but demanded. Companies have to accept that the bums-on-seats culture is dead. The stats are irrefutable. Owl Lab's State of Remote Work 2021 report shows that post-pandemic, 70 per cent of workers want a hybrid or remote working style. An Ergotron study found 88 per cent of employees agree that the flexibility to work from home or the office has increased their job satisfaction.
Remote work has given back valuable time to people's days. Time they are using to exercise, delve into hobbies, or connect with family and friends. The study identified a direct correlation between mental health improvement and remote work, most likely due to this newfound time. That is not something that can be ignored.
Across the globe, companies are realizing the value of a hybrid workplace. But as with any first attempt, getting it right takes time. Culture is one of the greatest challenges facing companies in their efforts to create a successful hybrid work environment. Getting culture right can elevate a company, creating greater employee satisfaction, retention, overall feelings of connection and better collaboration. Getting it wrong can have the opposite effect.
Bobbie Travis, Legal Operations Manager, Compliance, Ethics & Risk at Splunk, notes that good company culture "increases employee motivation and retention". Megan Lutes, General Counsel of Glowforge, says, "Team belonging is an important factor in performance, morale, and retention. It's worth the investment in time and money to understand how to do it well in our new hybrid realities."
Picture a business with a mix of fully remote, hybrid, and in the office full-time employees. In other words, the ultimate workplace culture challenge. Ensuring adequate technologies that allow remote employees to communicate is one hurdle; creating both virtual and physical events is another. Throw into the mix attempting to foster relationships that are just as meaningful with remote employees as physical ones.
There are techniques in place to foster the best hybrid culture possible, for instance core online hours. This is where a business establishes hours where everyone is expected to be online to encourage collaboration and communication. Glowforge embraces this concept. "We have a set overlap where individuals can make sure they can set meetings and connect regardless of time zones," says Lutes. She adds that they also prioritize team off-sites to ensure in-person connection and she hosts her local team weekly at her home.
Travis says Splunk fosters culture through initiatives that empower its individuals. "Splunk offers employees 40 paid volunteer hours so that employees can partner with others to support an initiative that aids in making a positive impact on the environment and underrepresented communities." Volunteering opportunities allow people to get to know each other outside of the workplace and bring people together for the greater good.
Harnessing the full potential of technology is also critical to doing remote culture well. Lutes recommends utilizing tech channels such as Slack to promote organic conversations and having online 'happy hours' just to chat. Travis believes that if counsel use technology to share their interests, passion, and life, their working relationships will benefit. "The more you share, the easier it will be for you to bring your whole authentic self to the workplace. People will appreciate collaborating with colleagues who are true to themselves and the values they uphold," she says.
Hybrid work cultures aren't all rosy of course. They run the risk of proximity bias. Forbes describes proximity bias thus: "The phenomenon in which those who are physically closer to company leaders enjoy outsized influence and advancement opportunities relative to those who are hybrid or fully remote."
As much as one may think, "I wouldn't favor an in-person employee over a remote," it happens. "When remote employees dial into meetings that in-person people are attending, they face myriad challenges," says Lutes. "For example, they can't always hear relevant conversation points amongst the in-person attendees. They can't always see visuals presented depending on the technology used, and often they are talked over and do not get asked their opinion."
The thing about proximity bias is it happens in our subconscious. By spending time with someone, you inadvertently get to know them better and in a work setting develop feelings of friendship. "Remote workers miss the socializing and networking before and after the meeting and are often not considered as highly when selecting time zones and scheduling," says Lutes.
"An enduring and internal battle of inferiority," is how Travis describes the struggle of remote workers in hybrid companies. She highlights isolation and not feeling included as key challenges faced by remote workers and notes there can be "an increase in mental health issues because one may feel forced to work harder to prove their worth and value on a team".
The solution to proximity bias is investing time, resources, and excellent planning into your company's culture. Lutes encourages legal leaders to understand tech's capabilities and harness it to their advantage. Regular Zoom one-on-one catchups, group sharing sessions, and the occasional in-person get-together should be priorities with remote workers.
Travis believes good leadership is key to the creation of a thriving hybrid culture. "One may ask how organizations can decrease proximity bias. It starts from the top down. Executives and senior managers must be an example and ensure their messaging on expectations and values includes all team members."
If you can build rapport, trust and kinship with your employees, online and in person, the likelihood of proximity bias occurring lessens. "It's important to think through how you created a genuine relationship and rich culture in person and work intentionally at ways to recreate that in a hybrid world," says Lutes.