The future of work is hybrid: Five ways business leaders can engage teams

Its work, but not as we knew it. Over the last year, the pandemic forced a fundamental shift to remote and hybrid working. With that shift, teams have lost a large slice of the human connection gained from impromptu chats and face-to-face meetings in the office, now replaced by a seemingly never-ending stream of Zoom or Teams calls.

The pandemic has put many cultures under the microscope as employees have had a chance to see how business leadership responds and if a company’s values truly manifest in its actions.

We expect many of the new traits and behaviours we’ve adopted will be here to stay, with a blend of working from the office and working from home. The hybrid workforce model will test an organisation’s culture like nothing else before – but it also presents opportunities.

It’s both a time of reflection and an inflexion point for corporate culture. Business leaders can now (re)shape, cement and leverage their company cultures to create the greatest impact for their organisations.

So how can business leaders ensure they have an engaged and motivated workforce from a distance?

1. Create a sense of belonging

As we look towards the future, the challenge for business leaders is how they can create a sense of belonging and an emotional connection among a workforce that is partially working remotely and partially working in the office.

Purpose-led businesses are proven to perform better. Purpose drives growth. There must be a common vision and ambition driven out of the central brand purpose; employees need to not only know what they are doing – but also why they are doing it, and how to translate values into actions.

Leaders can talk about culture and further clarify their organisation’s values and what makes them distinctive, by clearly spelling out why they matter. Clarity has never been so important. Take your teams on a journey of how the brand came to be and what the company stands for, to better contextualise and affirm what role they play today – it will help everyone to reset, as well as segueing into why your values are your values so teams can engage better.

Having that sense of purpose connects employees with leaders and fosters a sense of belonging. This will help to make workplace culture decisions that will enable the company to learn, adapt, and accelerate post-crisis. It’s the brand lens that everything needs to be viewed through.

2. Maintain rituals that define your organisational culture

You don’t really manage a culture per se. Instead, you focus on the behaviours that shape it – encouraging and celebrating the behaviours and rituals (the way we do things) that demonstrate the values and norms you want to strengthen.

Studies have shown that just completing the acts of a normal working day can have a positive impact on employee mental health and productivity. With research pointing to the fact that we are working increasingly longer hours when working from home, this has never been more important to encourage.

Even cross-company get-togethers and activities can be reimagined virtually with a little creativity. For example, personal finance company Quicken hosted a virtual tropical company retreat complete with a box of goodies for each person. Leaders at global digital intelligence company ABBYY marked Oktoberfest by sending treats and gifts to Munich employees. At Talend, a data integration and data integrity company, employees had access to a range of weekly activities ranging from bread-making classes to fitness tutorials.

In the absence of ‘buffer moments’ during the working day within the workplace, colleagues are missing out on the advantages of relationship building with teams they might not work directly with or who are new joiners. Global manufacturer of polymers, Covestro, recently introduced a new company-wide ritual called ‘Covestro Speed Dating’, randomly matching employees online to meet with others across the network for a chat.

In an uncertain world, or where remote or hybrid working are the norm, daily routines and rituals create a sense of structure and really drive belonging, and so therefore are critical to maintain.

3. Communicate, communicate, communicate

Good communication has always been fundamental for business leaders – no matter the size of the organisation they lead. Great leaders are those who are clear about the reality and that are present, visible and authentic in their communication with employees.

At Landor & Fitch we interviewed 10 unicorns (former start-ups that have cracked the $1bn valuation mark), to understand how fast-moving organisations use culture as a driver of performance. Unicorns, by virtue of their fast-paced growth, constantly operate in “crisis mode”. We found that Unicorn leaders are very present communicators, which in turn ensures that everyone stays vested in the success of the business.

Transparent communication is also not a core corporate value publicly declared, but in a time of crisis it is central to how employees experience and evaluate corporate culture. Business leaders should commit to communicating with regular cadence and with honesty and transparency. That includes providing answers to some of the tough questions; for example, on job security, and how the business is doing financially.

Sentiment analysis of 1.4m employee-written Glassdoor reviews from April to August 2020 identified topics that were most discussed, and if they were mentioned positively or negatively. Quality of communication by business leaders was a standout. In particular, honest communications and transparency.

Listen too. Communication needs to be a two-way-street – not a one-way broadcast. Business leaders must make sure that they provide opportunities and mechanisms to actively listen to and take the organisational pulse, and then proactively and openly address concerns.

4. Use technology to encourage creativity and innovation to flourish

The pandemic thrust most businesses into the digital age, whether they were ready or not. Cloud-based and digital tools for communication, learning and knowledge sharing are now the norm. The employee experience is now essentially a digital experience for a large number of people.

Teams, fragmented in terms of physical proximity, have the unprecedented opportunity to collaborate, share information and innovate across organisational or geographic divides where the only real challenge is robust internet connectivity and time-zone coordination.

Business leaders can also drive forward new and exciting ways of working across digital platforms to engage teams, enhance creativity (and efficiency) on global projects under tight deadlines. At Landor & Fitch, we created the ‘25th Hour’ – where a project brief starts in Tokyo or Sydney and then, following the sun, gets handed over across studios until it ends up in San Francisco or LA. This approach leverages the diversity of talent, ideas and input of the global network, and also delivers outcomes faster.

Another advantage of the digital employee experience is the ability to scale – so it could be a townhall or broadcast to 100s of 1000s of employees, or a brand-led virtual conference for the entire network via an app. Technology is enabling businesses to continue to function and communicate effectively but also to innovate, and a key area for business leaders to concentrate time and investment in.

5. Consider different leadership traits – empathy is key

Now, more than ever, teams need business leaders who can be open and empathetic. Who not only deliver results, but also create a working environment where people feel valued and supported.

Leader personality can be instrumental in shaping employee perception and engagement – and in many cases, become a single source of truth for employees. There is so much information coming from different angles, employees look to leaders to make sense of what’s happening, put situations in the context of their particular company and make it relevant.

Empathy, compassion and listening skills are essential for business leaders to strengthen as they better support and engage employees. Looking back to the Unicorn study, we found CEOs of these companies to be the example for how their culture is lived; taking on the role of influential internal brand ambassadors who really inspire change. Being comfortable with showing a human and authentic side to your leadership helps to engage, but also underpins trust.

In conclusion

Culture is having its moment. And it matters. Organisational culture is one of the most important differentiators a company possesses, and it is guided by brand purpose, values and driven by the day-to-day behaviours of employees. It’s imperative for business leaders to plan for the hybrid working model of the future to meaningfully engage in all the right ways, and truly set up for business growth.


This article was first published in HR Director and is reproduced with permission.