The Power of Company Culture in the Return to Office

By Danielle Geissler, Ph.D.

When the pandemic forced us all to move into virtual work environments, there was one topic that immediately worried leaders and employees alike: How do we keep our company culture going strong? How can we ensure that we don’t lose the culture that keeps us all connected? While a valid question, for many it never truly was resolved. The demands of focusing on emergency response plans, moving the entire company to a virtual model, and dealing with supply chain issues—among many others—caused a focus on firefighting and surviving.

RTO Meeting

That’s not to say that company cultures didn’t survive. Those that most clearly articulated and reinforced their values—even in virtual environments or emergency situations—were, more often than not, able to keep their company culture strong.

From a Culture of Firefighting to a Culture for Growth

Now we are at a turning point in the pandemic, which forces us to look at organizational culture more closely once again. Just a few weeks ago, optimism was high that we’d soon return back to a semi-regular office life. When that exuberance was shattered by the Delta variant, we realized that we’d have to learn how to move forward, even while figuring out how to live with COVID. We have to move away from constant firefighting and start investing into the future once again. That includes rethinking mid-term growth strategies, and aligning organizational systems, people, technology, and behaviors to those expectations.

But how does that manifest as culture? Culture is represented by the things everyone in the organization says or does in daily individual work or interactions with others. If a culture is strong, that affects how people “show up” at work, and what they do and say aligns with the mission, vision, and values of the organization—even when nobody is looking. It means leaders reinforce, on a regular basis, what “good” looks like and lead by example.

Why does all this matter now? Consider this: The past 1.5 years have had an impact on almost all aspects of how we work and do business today. If now is the point to look forward to the next 3-5 years and devise a competitive growth strategy, then company culture matters, and not just today. As the organization starts implementing new growth strategies, it matters for what the organization should look like in the future.

Defining the Hybrid Work Culture - Think Big 

Right now, we’re focused on what a hybrid work culture should look and feel like, we need to think bigger than that. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What—until now—have we considered the fundamental makeup of our culture to be?
  • As we move to a hybrid work culture, do we need to adjust how our culture manifests in daily work to meet this new set of expectations? What behaviors need to change for specific groups of people to meet the new demands?
  • What are the constants that we want to maintain regardless of those new demands?
  • Thinking even further into the future: What does our culture need to look like—at every level—for us to demonstrate positive growth and competitiveness in the next 3-5 years?
  • How can we ensure that cultural expectations are focused on the critical and most widely needed behaviors?
  • How will we communicate and reinforce our cultural expectations?

Answering these six questions will help in defining a culture and associated behaviors that are likely different from where you are today. In essence, you are embarking on a transformation that requires careful, longer-term planning, as well as alignment of all systems, processes, technologies, and behaviors in a way that sets you up for future growth.

Transform With the Future in Mind

Organizations may be too narrowly focused on the move from virtual to hybrid, not taking into consideration the need to switch to a longer-term view. This narrow transformation view likely means it won’t take long until your culture will have to make a significant shift again—each requiring more effort and resources. Further, a great many people are burned out, making any transition harder in the first place.

While some in your organization may think that your culture has been sustained throughout the pandemic, surveying employees may reveal fragmentation depending on the role and location of your workforce. Many employees may not even be able to explain how their culture shows up in their work these days. In these cases, it may be better to completely redefine your cultural expectations for the future, rather than trying to update old definitions.

Ultimately, culture is still the fundamental ingredient for well-executed growth plans and sustainable business. Make sure your organization understands that value and plans ahead for how to leverage it going forward. Make employee engagement and wellbeing thrive while enabling better results simultaneously, all through the power of culture.

Other articles you may find interesting:

Spread Positive Gossip to Ensure Engagement in a Hybrid Workplace

Leadership Behaviors that Drive High-Performance in a Hybrid Workplace

Should you hire a culture consultant?

Topics: Return To Office (RTO)