Like a lot of tech companies, the cloud-computing firm Citrix was able to make a rapid adjustment to COVID-19 lockdowns.

In early 2020, its 10,000 global employees were forced to work at home, and the company made investments to ensure they were properly equipped for video calls and remote collaboration.

“We gave every employee below our vice president level $1,000 and just said, ‘Here’s $1,000, go get yourself set up,’” said Traci Palmer, Citrix’s vice president of people and organization capability.

But creating and maintaining a large corporate culture in the pandemic era involves more than just high-speed router stipends and making sure workers are Zoom-ready. And that task has arguably become more challenging, now that COVID has demonstrably disrupted how employees get their job done — and where employers want them to do it. Workers generally prefer remote work now: According to a January 2022 Pew Research Center survey, 61% of Americans working from home say they do it because they prefer to, not because their office is closed.

Many of those employees are pushing back against efforts to compel employees to return to the office. For instance, Apple made headlines for its attempt to implement a three-day-a-week office schedule last spring. High-level resignations ensued, and the tech titan eventually backed off.

Remote-work office culture has its downsides too, however. That same Pew survey found that 60% of those who transitioned to remote work during COVID felt less connected to their co-workers. (Only 4% said they felt more connected.) So, employers are in a bind. Returning to the office can help with collaboration and connection. But return-to-office orders can also weaken morale and force some out the door.

AgreeYa Solutions, a global technology firm, says it has successfully implemented a return-to-work policy that employees support. Indeed, the company has added 400 employees during the pandemic, according to Ajay Kaul, a managing partner at AgreeYa Solutions. Its success, according to Kaul, is a function of patience, flexibility and regular communication with employees. And because of that, a hybrid culture has succeeded.

“Being able to collaborate and interact with people internally has really been embraced by most of our people, because it’s given them the opportunity to realize what they were missing when they were working from home.”

Any successful corporate culture in the current environment, experts and employers say, won’t just be a matter of a particular policy. It will be a function of a new level of engagement and understanding of employees, a willingness to make adjustments, and redoubled efforts to ensure that leaders demonstrate flexibility as well.

A Why-Focused Culture

David Lewis, CEO of OperationsInc, an HR consultancy, says that the Great Resignation — the pandemic-era wave of workers leaving their current employers to pursue better options — is as much a story about a failure to communicate as it is about salary and benefits.

“The Great Resignation exists in no small part because companies fail to talk to their employees to get their input on how COVID-19 has changed their lives and perspective as it relates to work,” he said. “Instead, they try to return to pre-COVID norms, not realizing or recognizing that there has been a seismic shift in what those norms are after COVID-19.”

A survey conducted in June 2022 by OperationsInc spotlights the disconnect. More than half of the employees surveyed (51%) said they wish to work remotely more often. But 76% of employees report that their employer wants them to come into the office more often. Resolving that gap requires more regular contact among teams, according to Lewis.

“At the simplest level, it’s just about giving your employees a voice,” he said. “The companies [that] have gotten this right have come up with ways to do surveys of employees or done things like town halls or focus groups. They are sitting down with their employees and saying, ‘Listen, what do you want? What is it going to take to make you happy?’”

The consequences of not asking those questions and instead simply compelling a return to the office means employers will have a tough question to answer themselves: Why are they doing it?

Employers should spend time asking that question first, said Jamie Notter, co-founder and culture strategist at Propel, a consulting firm that specializes in organizational culture. He’s skeptical of organizations that claim they want to return to “hallway conversations,” a common justification for return-to-office plans. He’s leery first because many corporate operations (say, customer service), never accommodated such serendipitous chit-chat in the first place, and those employees reap little benefit from coming into the office.

Secondly, he says, companies haven’t thought through what “hallway conversation” means, and why those conversations can’t happen remotely. “They say, ‘We need those hallway conversations,’ but they haven’t taken it to the next three or four steps,” he said. “How will that impact everybody? Why is it so valuable? Why are we not doing it virtually?”

Touch Points, Remote and In-Person

For its part, Citrix has developed a culture where employees are allowed to determine their own work arrangements, and has yet to implement a return-to-office plan. “Our mantra when it comes to remote or hybrid working is if somebody says they’d like to work hybrid or work fully remote, rather than leading with ‘no and why,’ it’s ‘yes and how,’” said Palmer.

But, Citrix has encouraged its management teams to build touch points with employees, both individually and as a group, to ensure that there are no issues with communication and engagement. “What we’re trying to do is encourage people, especially if they live close to an office, to come in for one-on-ones with your manager, to come in for a project kickoff,” Palmer said. “Come in certainly for customers, or periodic things like our global employee meetings.”

The company’s internal metrics suggest the flexible approach has been effective. More than 90% of employees say they feel supported in their choice of flexible work arrangements, and more than 85% feel their manager keeps them informed about what’s happening at the company.

But the good feeling that comes from simply giving employees flexibility doesn’t in itself create a cohesive work culture. Cristina Gibson, PhD, a professor of management at Pepperdine University’s Graziadio Business School, said hybrid workplaces run the risk of creating an “out-group dynamic,” where remote workers can often feel excluded.

Organizations should strive to create an atmosphere of “co-presence,” she said, where remote workers are engaged on hybrid calls, and managers are more alert to worker fatigue, more willing to shift technologies and committed to more regular communication overall.

“Co-presence is the sense of being psychologically together and connected, just as you would if you were face to face,” said Gibson. “It can be established among individuals who are separated by miles and time zones. It’s not inevitable that an us-versus-them dynamic would develop.”

Though AgreeYa Solutions did implement a return-to-office plan, increased attention to communication was, and remains, part of the process. In addition to implementing the plan slowly, in stages, from late 2021 through early 2022, the company established expectations regarding communication among managers.

“That’s at both the formal and informal level, which we’ve been focused hard on,” said Kaul. “We were touched in different ways during the pandemic. Seeing the organization support them during that process was appreciated.”

Today, managers are expected to communicate with their teams and individual team members once a week, in-person or virtual, with informal in-person meetings at local offices once a month.

Future Challenges

As the hybrid office continues to be fluid and companies work to determine what effective collaboration looks like, creating a cohesive culture will remain a challenge. The OperationsInc survey found that 71% of employees say their employer treats in-person and remote workers equally. But Lewis is skeptical about that figure, and believes there’s a high likelihood of that sense of equal treatment eroding over time.

“I don’t think those numbers are going to hold,” he said. “Those who come to the office are going to feel like they are more valued and have a greater future. It’s going to be a huge issue for employers moving forward. I can see employers being sued for discriminatory practices tied to the treatment of remote workers.”

While the situation is in flux, Notter says the current moment should be an opportunity for organizations to experiment to define how cultures are organized. Teams should be open to different approaches to how they operate and communicate, but managers should adhere to some general principles, and recognize that they’ll have to use a mix of communication styles.

“There’s a distinction between task-focused collaboration and relationship-focused collaboration,” he said. “One part of collaboration is building and nurturing relationships, which isn’t the same as task stuff. Managers will have to know, ‘When do I need to intentionally build relationships in person?’”

Gibson feels that in the future, managers and HR leaders will need to pay attention to developing customized approaches to employees as much as possible, not just understanding their circumstances but their work preferences. “That can make all the difference in their productivity, by recognizing that each individual situation is going to be unique is really important to retain workers.”

“If we don’t spend time grooming and promoting our organization’s culture,” she added, “then we risk not only losing employees but also losing that glue that holds everybody together.”

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