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What Makes for a Healthy Hybrid Workplace?

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For many associations, hybrid work has negatively affected workplace culture. But with remote work here to stay, clear communication, resetting expectations, and maximizing in-person interactions will all play a role in strengthening internal culture.

Now that associations have reached the point of no return in embracing a hybrid work model, communication and transparency are the keys to a successful workplace culture, said John Clese, a remote workforce strategist for Achurch Consulting.

“Four walls do not make a culture,” said Clese, which is notable because 70 percent of associations have gone hybrid, and another 27 percent are fully remote, according to his company’s “2022 State of the Workplace Pulse Survey.” Many of the traits associated with effective cultures—accountability, engagement, and transparency—“have nothing to do with walls” and can be achieved through digital connections.

Offering the option to work from home can improve culture since remote work is a popular office perk, said Maddie Grant, CAE, founder of PROPEL, a company that assists associations in elevating workplace culture. “It’s a big shift toward meeting the needs of individual employees, which correlates strongly with employee engagement,” she said.

Employees are discovering big efficiencies that come from managing their own schedules and reducing commuting time. However, there are risks that come from less frequent in-person interactions, which means it’s important for association leaders to communicate clearly regarding expectations and workflow and to facilitate connectedness.

Revise Expectations, Improve Communications

To ensure staff buy-in to the hybrid model, managers’ expectations must be clear for remote work, said Grant. She suggests getting specific—for example, are cameras expected to be on during virtual meetings and when should emails be sent?

“If some people are night owls, should they wait to send their emails during regular business hours so as not to put pressure on people?” she said. “With so many communication options—Teams, Slack, text, phone—what kind of communication happens where?” While these questions may sound like small concerns, Grant said some of these decisions actually have big culture implications.

“Middle managers are now the ultimate culture carriers for a hybrid organization.” — John Clese, Achurch Consulting

Clese cautions that the “communications funnel” becomes more limited when employees are working remotely, and there’s less opportunity for spontaneous interactions and follow-up conversations. But associations that implement strategies to ensure communications flow down to all staff members and empower middle managers to serve as a prime source of communication will create a more successful environment. “Middle managers, in many respects, are now the ultimate culture carriers for a hybrid organization,” he said.

During remote work, employees are more reliant on their immediate managers for communications, so association leaders should ensure middle managers are upskilled to supervise in a hybrid workforce. “Managers need to be able to manage digital relationships and manage great hybrid meetings,” Clese said. Managers can foster more personal interactions by asking employees to turn on their cameras, encouraging small talk before meetings begin, and being more empathetic with direct reports.

Associations should also ramp up their “asynchronous” communications, so that key information is documented and available digitally.

“Think about how informative great [board meeting] minutes are for understanding what happened during these important meetings—the assignments issued and decisions made—and try creating them for all of your meetings,” Clese said. These meeting documents can also be invaluable for onboarding new employees and provide context for understanding their department’s work and their role in the organization.

Maximize In-Office Interactions

To prevent feelings of disconnect during remote work, promote a sense of belonging in the virtual environment.

“Be much more intentional about what you do when you are together in person,” Grant said. “Don’t bring people into the office and have them participate in regular staff meetings and Zoom calls.”

Instead, prioritize activities that foster relationship-building; connection; and the deeper—often more meaningful—work on strategy, innovation, or culture itself.

Clese agrees that employees should congregate for team-led, purposeful activities, such as collaborative meetings or cross-departmental work projects. He also cautioned associations against requiring all employees to come in for a set number of days per week. Rather, leaders should be flexible in allowing directors, managers, and team leaders to set departmental expectations for onsite work.

Rethink Office Space

One final way to improve workplace culture is to examine the physical office space, and determine if changes are warranted to accommodate the new culture. Grant suggested eliminating or reducing the use of “cube farms” and redesigning space for larger groups to convene.

Associations should offer “collaborative areas, spaces for small meetings, and great conference rooms that are equipped with up-to-date technology to conduct hybrid meetings,” agrees Clese. Employees will want to come into the office if workspaces are optimized for hybrid and collaborative work.

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Christine Umbrell is a freelance writer based in Herndon, Virginia.

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