Workplace culture is crucial for an organisation, and perhaps even more so in a hybrid work model, argues Alexia Cambon.

A Gartner survey found that 76 percent of hybrid and remote knowledge workers believe culture is very or extremely important for them to be effective at their job, while 61 percent of HR leaders said that to achieve organisational goals, culture is more important in a hybrid work model than an onsite one.

However, Gartner data also shows that employee connectedness to culture is in crisis. Currently, only one in four employees are connected to their organizational culture. Before the pandemic, business leaders relied on in-person office experiences to connect employees to culture, but with the introduction of hybrid and remote work on a mass scale, this strategy is no longer effective. Many leaders blame remote work for the connectedness crisis, but the sheer scale of the problem suggests this crisis existed well before the pandemic.

As organisations continue to manage large-scale shifts in the way they work, culture will need to be at the top of the HR agenda. So, what can organisations do to solve this challenge and connect employees to culture in a hybrid work model?


Diffuse culture through work, not just the office

Operating under the assumption that in-person office experiences are key to connecting employees to culture, many organisations are contemplating forcing a return to the office and traditional working patterns. However, this regression in flexibility is counterproductive and actually damages culture connectedness.

Business leaders need to understand that flexibility is not in tension with culture: Gartner data shows that the more flexibility an employee is given, the more likely they are connected to organizational culture, with 53 percent of workers who have radical flexibility in where, when and how they work reporting a strong connection to organisational culture. Yet only 18 percent of those with the least amount of flexibility were highly connected to their company culture.

Rather than rely on physical office spaces to “diffuse” culture, organizations must look to the new consistent, common cultural experience: work. Regardless of location, work remains the same, so it must become an important part of how leaders express their company culture.

To diffuse culture through work, leaders need to ensure that every time an employee engages with a piece of work, they feel the company culture reflected in it. This is more likely to occur when employees understand what value they bring to the company, both personally and professionally, and when organizations find ways to regularly measure work processes against their cultural values.


Connect through emotional proximity, not just physical proximity

Organizations used to rely on physical proximity to connect employees to culture: the importance of visual cues and body language are foundational in strengthening human ties. But Gartner data shows that emotional proximity (feeling seen) is actually more important than physical proximity (being seen).

Physical proximity does still have a part to play, as emotional proximity is more likely to occur when employees are physically in the same location, but in a hybrid world, this isn’t always the reality. So organisations must find a way to create emotional proximity without solely relying on the physical. HR leaders must identify which interactions are more likely to make employees feel seen, rather than be seen, and those moments occur when people feel important, valued and recognised.

Many organizations are optimizing their recognition programs as a result, hoping that a boost in praise and rewards will make employees feel seen. While these efforts remain important, another most sustainable approach is to ensure that employees feel the value of their work through their clients or the end-users of their products. Progressive organizations are working intentionally to ensure their workforce understands the impact that the mission of the organization – and the work of individual employees – has on people, not just bottom lines.


Optimise micro-based experiences

The hybrid work model shrinks employee ecosystems: employees engage with fewer people and their ties with individuals they do not work directly with weaken as a result. On the other hand, relationships within these smaller ecosystems are strengthening: employees are building stronger and more intense bonds with peers in smaller groups, whom they see more frequently and whom make up the bulk of their experience

These smaller ecosystems can be a breeding ground for both toxicity and connectedness. In a world where an interactions with your manager is one of five interactions in a day, rather than twenty (as might have been the case pre-pandemic), the experience of this interaction becomes more important without other experiences to dilute it. As Gartner research shows, employees’ connection to workplace culture is more likely to be influenced by strong ties. As such, it is essential that organizations empower these smaller groups to create vibrant and healthy micro-cultures that steer away from toxic behaviours.

Progressive organizations are doing this by opting to simplify their broader macro-culture in order for it to serve as a guide, rather than a prescription, for how smaller micro-cultures should develop. In turn, business leaders should help teams decide how to use the macro-culture to adapt it to their individualized work contexts. Team cohesion in deciding on behavioural norms – especially when it comes to flexibility – is essential in this new hybrid world.

For culture to truly succeed, organizations must prioritize efforts to connect employees to it. Organisations that succeed at connecting employees to their culture can increase employee performance by up to 37 percent, and in today’s volatile business environment, this is a significant competitive advantage.

Connectedness to culture means that employees identify with the culture, care about it, and belong within it. In a hybrid world, where there is a greater space for individual flexibility and expression of identity, organisations actually have more opportunity to do this than ever before.


Alexia Cambon is the Research Director at Gartner HR.