Making your workplace a cultural incubator

As office-based workers hail the arrival of the hybrid workplace, it’s important for leaders to deliver the flexibility employees need without losing sight of the vital role of the office, says Robert Ordever

With many employees now physically distant for some of the week, the office needs to become the facilitator of collaboration, innovation, and connection – all of which are fundamental to workplace culture and business success. But how do you ensure your office serves its purpose as a ‘cultural incubator’ by effectively bringing people together?

Hybrid working and the new role of the office

Hybrid working has well and truly arrived with employees demanding a mix of home and office working. They expect and want the best of both worlds with 73% preferring the option to keep working remotely, while 67% also want more in-person interactions with their colleagues. This shift between remote working and face-to-face office-based work means employers must clearly define the purpose of the office in a hybrid world, and ensure it’s fit for its intended purpose. And although it’s no longer the home of all employee experiences, the office still has a vital role to play in facilitating social interaction, storytelling and memory making – all of which nurture a strong workplace culture.

In-person office experiences are key

Organisational culture will always be at its strongest when employees feel connected to the organisation, their accomplishments and each other. However keeping people connected, including facilitating socialising, collaboration and innovation, is a huge challenge for leaders now that employees are working at a distance for some of the week. Connections can indeed take place remotely, but they are unlikely to be as strong as the connections formed by in-person interactions.

O.C. Tanner’s 2022 Global Culture Report finds a number of benefits of in-person office experiences. By using the office to increase employees’ social connectivity, engagement increases by 42 per cent. In fact, 61 per cent of employees say the workplace is where they form most new friendships and that their social group at work inspires them to perform at their best. Plus, by using the office to foster a sense of workplace culture, employee engagement increases by an incredible 52 per cent.

So the office has an important role to play. This doesn’t mean that we need to return to five days in the office. A few days of office-based working every week can have enough of an impact on workplace culture and business results, with O.C. Tanner’s research finding that most U.K. workers believe 2-3 days each week in the office is enough to connect with organisational culture.

Making the office a cultural incubator

The role of the office needs to become that of a ‘cultural incubator’ – the heart of interactions and connections which are fundamental to a thriving workplace culture. At the same time, employees should set remote working time set aside for focused thinking, meeting deadlines and administration. But how should leaders go about ensuring employees use the office for its intended purpose?

Create office space that supports interaction

Offices should enable a variety of interactions. Employees report that their ideal workspace has open areas for team work and collaborations. The spaces should also encourage movement and spontaneous interaction, facilitating the chance encounters with colleagues that 70% of Culture Report respondents say they value. These types of encounters have a positive impact on the individual and foster collaboration and innovation that benefit the organisation as a whole.

Recommend reserving remote time for getting work done

Leaders should suggest to employees that they use the office for collaborating and troubleshooting while reserving remote working for concentration, creativity and meeting deadlines. This is in line with the findings of the Culture Report, which highlight that most U.K. workers find it easier, or just as easy, to think creatively at home compared to the office (81 per cent). Similarly, meeting deadlines is viewed as easily done, or just as easily done at home compared to the office (as stated by 78 per cent of U.K. workers). However, where home working is seen as having a particular disadvantage over the office is for making new connections with colleagues and building relationships with clients – stated as being easier to achieve from home by just 11 per cent and 15 per cent of U.K. workers respectively. Ultimately, to get the most out of the hybrid workplace, employees should dedicate their time in each environment to the tasks most effectively done there.

Facilitate networking and social interactions

The Culture Report reveals that leaders simply can’t assume employees will find ways to build social connections on their own. Instead, organisations need to create opportunities for hybrid workers to feel connected both at home and in the office. This should include helping employees to use their time in the office to expand their connections, such as by introducing them to influential people while giving them visibility and access to other leaders and teams. In-person networking activities and social events also allow employees to expand their contacts and develop personal relationships. The Global Culture Report found that since the outbreak of Covid-19, UK organisations have only been 28% effective at increasing social connections between employees, and so leaders must be smarter at bringing people together.

Provide hands-on job training and ‘special projects’

A career development programme is mentioned by 60% of UK workers as being a successful element of a hybrid working experience. So it’s important to maximise employees’ time in the office by providing hands-on job training and mentorship so they can grow in their roles. This should also include the opportunity to work on special projects, which allows the employee to gain exposure to new areas of the company and network with a broader group of co-workers. After all, employees want variety in what they do, whom they work with, and how they work.  

The opportunity to work on a special project has a positive impact on how an employee feels about their job, professional development opportunities, engagement and their company culture. And when employees experience variety in their jobs, there is a 56 per cent increase in overall job satisfaction.

Use recognition

Staff recognition is a powerful tool in the hybrid workplace, helping to connect employees to purpose, accomplishment and one another. By making people feel valued and aligning them with common goals, it makes it clear how their roles fit into the bigger picture.

The office needs to become an appreciation hub, providing the perfect environment for public displays of recognition – from leader to employee, employee to leader and peer-to-peer. And by creating genuine and personal recognition moments rather than ones that are ‘transactional’, employee experiences become truly memorable rather than routine. It’s also important to involve leaders and peers in recognition celebrations, and recognise all three recognition occasions  – career anniversaries, everyday efforts and above-and-beyond work.

When recognition becomes second nature and is therefore embedded into everyday company culture, engagement increases by 173% and employees are three times’ more likely to report an extraordinary employee experience.

The office must deliver its purpose

At a time when workers are spending greater time physically apart than ever before, the office has never been more important. It has a distinct role to play as a cultural incubator – bringing people together to enable collaboration, innovation and social connections. The benefits that face-to-face interactions deliver cannot be easily replicated remotely, with the exciting ideas, storytelling, friendships and memorable moments that happen in-person, fundamental to a thriving corporate culture. Crucially, leaders need to ensure the office effectively delivers its purpose, thereby making it a place of personal development, camaraderie and remarkable experiences.

Case study

Designing for personal encounters

The Melbourne office of the design firm, Arup, encourages collaboration and connection by promoting movement. The company has few closed personal offices and opens up space with sightlines across the building that allow employees to see each other. In addition, cork flooring muffles ambient noise so people can converse more easily.

The space has created ‘all important moments of serendipitous encounters,’ says Arup’s Global People and Culture Leader, Jenni Emery. ‘We need these encounters with each other, and the quality of the space is crucial to how we listen and how we learn. We had to be really intentional and considered.’

Design Leader Joseph Correnza believes limiting personal space to allow for more shared space, having teams meet in the open to generate buzz, and rearranging seating often so employees can meet new people are easy, low-cost ways to create collaboration and connection in the workplace.

Robert Ordever, the MD of workplace culture expert, O.C. Tanner Europe, has specialised in the field of HR for over 20 years. His background working at Harrods and Fulham FC has given him a real passion for creating a workplace culture that truly gets the best out of its teams.

Robert Ordever, the MD of workplace culture expert, O.C. Tanner Europe, has specialised in the field of HR for over 20 years. His background working at Harrods and Fulham FC has given him a real passion for creating a workplace culture that truly gets the best out of its teams.

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