photo: Duy Pham

What does hybrid work do to our organizational culture? How do we help nourish a sense of culture within a distributed team? Why do I feel so disconnected from my colleagues, or so isolated in my time at home?

These are questions I hear when speaking with organizations about hybrid work. As one of the Lavin Agency’s top 5 corporate culture speakers, I address these issues as facets of one fundamental challenge: How do we foster culture and collaboration in a hybrid workplace?

If we struggle with this as both teams and as individuals, it’s often because our idea of “culture” is kind of fuzzy. That’s exactly why so many social scientists are critical of the way people use the term “culture”: It means different things to different people, and is often used as shorthand for the intangible something that makes organizations more or less successful, or that makes us feel more or less engaged with our colleagues and teams.

At this particular moment in the history of the workplace—a moment when many organizations are rethinking the fundamentals of performance, inclusion and employee wellbeing—it’s helpful to distill this broad concern about culture down to three essential questions:

  1. Why: What is our purpose or mission as an organization or team?
  2. How: What are the written and unwritten practices, processes and protocols that determine how we get our work done, and how we celebrate our achievements?
  3. Who: How do we foster a sense of connection and trust within our team?

Hybrid teams grow and thrive once organizations break open the big concept of “culture” and dig into these specific questions. That’s also how we uncover the ways that this idea of “culture” sometimes papers over crucial questions about who gets included in the workplace, and who’s been sidelined by organizational practices or unwritten rules.


Why: Clarifying and communicating your purpose 

Purpose becomes all the more important when we’re working remotely—and also, more challenging to clarify and convey. When we spend less time at the office, we can’t rely on other people’s rhythms and energy to propel us forward.

Mission clarity can help make up for that missing drive, and also helps with some of the challenges we have in getting or providing managerial support. When everybody in an organization lives and breathes a common mission, they are better able to determine what to prioritize—without constantly emailing or messaging their boss.

Ensuring that kind of mission alignment isn’t a one-time job: It’s an ongoing process that needs to be part of your organization’s strategy for hybrid work. Use your employee engagement surveys as a way to make regular audits of whether your employees have clarity on the organization’s mission, and to find out how much individual employees’ experiences align with that mission. Make sure that there’s someone on your HR, employee experience or communications team who is responsible for continually developing content to enrich your employees’ understanding of their shared mission, in forms that can be delivered remotely as well as built into meetings and retreats.


How: Reinventing your practices, processes and protocols

Culture is as much about how we work as it as about why we work. Every workplace has its own way of running meetings, assigning projects, delivering documents or conducting performance reviews; its own way to celebrate team accomplishments, whether that’s sedate lunches or raucous late-night parties.

The overnight shift to remote work nuked most of our established practices for conveying organizational values through the how of work. Nearly everything became a video call or a group message, without much thought about which ways of collaborating actually reflected an organization’s values and ethos. That’s the opportunity we have now: the opportunity to deliberately translate our values and priorities into the how of our on-site and remote work.

Reflecting on your pre-Covid culture is a good way to jumpstart this process. Make an inventory of the practices that characterized your on-site work culture, and note what they conveyed about your values as an organization; remember to include any “bad” practices that people were glad to leave behind, or that undermined your common mission or values.

Then make a list of all the different ways you now work together as a hybrid team (video calls, email, group messaging, off-site retreats, office meetings, etc.) and brainstorm ways of translating or embodying your values in each of these sites of collaboration—whether it’s playing music at the beginning of your video meetings, keeping your team messaging channels rigorously brisk and on-topic, or using weekly emails to highlight stellar accomplishments and promote a little bit of friendly competition.


Who: Fostering connection, trust and belonging

When we talk about culture, we’re often talking about the emotional and social bonds that keep people in their jobs and working hard. That trust also affects what we can accomplish as a team: When employees see their colleagues as collaborators rather than competitors, they go the extra mile for one another, instead of worrying about who will get credit.

So much of what we know about fostering trust, connection and belonging comes from the way we’ve always done it offline—not just in organizations, but tracking back millennia to our days as nomadic hunters and gatherers. A couple of days at the workplace each week may not be enough to restore bonds that waned over several years of remote work; we also need to engineer online interactions that reinforce a sense of connection to the team, and especially, that make that team connection feel like a powerful source of identity. As a boss, I want my employees to feel like it is an amazing and meaningful thing to be part of my team—which isn’t something you can accomplish with swag and online cocktails.

Instead, it’s about developing formal and informal practices that celebrate and reflect our individual accomplishments and contributions; baking those acknowledgements into the day-to-day routines of our online interactions (like offering specific kudos in calls and emails, in ways that are visible to the whole team); and committing to the how practices that give us a way to collectively perform our common values.  What’s important is to find online practices that foster identity and belonging in a way that aligns with your particular team and organizational goals.


When: Soon, and for the rest of your life

There’s one last question about culture that simmers just beneath the surface of all the other questions, and that’s the when of it all. As in: How quickly can we figure all this out, and when can we get back to our “real” work?

Let me borrow my answer from Casablanca: Soon, and for the rest of your life.

You can’t put off these questions about your hybrid culture, because you are already building your hybrid culture. You are communicating your organization’s hybrid culture with every video call that doesn’t have a clear agenda, or that is so agenda-driven that there’s no room for a joke or a personal check-in; you are creating your organization’s culture with every team that is herded into a 4-day-a-week office schedule and every employee who comes in on a “flexible” schedule that means they can’t count on seeing a colleague when they get to the office; you are defining your culture with each new Slack channel you name or every Teams thread that wanders off-topic.

None of these choices is right or wrong—as long as it’s a choice, rather than an accident.

It’s work that’s too important to be addressed with an arm-waving, general gesture at the idea of culture. It’s work that requires us to think critically about each piece of our organization’s culture; to assess what’s helped us to bond and succeed, and what’s served to divide or dismiss too many people and contributions.

It’s work we need to start today, and continue for the rest of our working lives.

This post was originally featured in the Thrive at Work newsletter. Subscribe here to be the first to receive updates and insights on the new workplace.