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The future of work is more than hybrid: How to build a community-centric culture

By Kelly Duval on Jun 20, 2022 2:15:00 PM , updated on Jun 20, 2022

Hybrid work has been a hot topic since the pandemic. Companies learned that work can get done even if employees aren’t all at the office eight hours a day, five days a week.

But hybrid work is about more than just managing people in different locations at the same time. Leaders in today’s era of work need to adopt a new mindset, create empowering organizational cultures, and better support employees’ wellbeing. 

To further explore the future of hybrid work, we spoke with Rachel Happe, founder of Engaged Organizations and The Community Roundtable. As a digital workplace strategist, Rachel’s work and research focuses on how to craft and facilitate cultures that increase engagement. Rachel discusses the challenges of hybrid work, how leaders’ mindsets need to change, and shares examples of how to foster a community-centric culture. 

There’s not one right way to do hybrid work 

One major challenge with hybrid work is that there’s no one-size-fits all model for all organizations. Every person has different needs, issues, and boundaries with work. Someone who lives alone might want to go to the office every day to see people, but someone caring for an elderly relative might have a hard time getting to the office. 

Managers will fail to get peoples’ best work if they mandate when and how their team should work. If working a certain way adds stress, complications, or anxiety to someone’s work, why would a manager insist on it? 

Each team has to decide for themselves how to work together, which requires having conversations and agreeing together what the best approach will be for their team. However, managers typically haven’t been hired for their emotional intelligence and often struggle facilitating these conversations, which can feel squishy and not definitive. 

Shift your mindset about what it means to manage and lead 

Leaders need to adopt a whole new mindset about what they’re bringing to management. Here are some ways to shift your mindset to effectively lead knowledge workers in our hybrid environment.  

Manage the environment—not the people

A manager’s job is becoming less about HR processes, task management, or project management because much of that is effectively managed with business systems. That means individuals have more latitude to manage themselves as long as they complete their work. The manager’s job is becoming more about helping create the conditions that support and encourage peoples’ best work. 

“As a manager, you need to let go of control, and trust your team to manage themselves. It’s more about managing the environment than managing people,” says Rachel. 

There’s an implicit assumption that as the manager, you should know how to do everything your team knows how to do—and what success looks like. That is an immense amount of pressure if that’s what you think your job is and you are setting up a judgemental, controlling relationship with team members. That is paternalistic—not supportive and collaborative. Micromanaging keeps employees from doing their best work. 

For example, if something isn’t going well with a project, a manager taking the traditional, top-down approach might say “I’ll ask someone else to tackle this project” or “I’ll do something to fix this.” This feels demoralizing to an employee—who probably already knows the project isn’t going well, but doesn’t want to say anything precisely because they are worried that it will be given to someone else and mark them as a failure. 

Working remotely, this exchange can feel even worse because body language is harder to assess and they won’t be able to casually reset with their manager later. That means remote work requires more nuance and sophistication in how these types of issues are resolved.

Rachel shares an example of how she would handle this situation when managing remotely: “I would instead ask “How do you feel the project is going?” In the vast majority of cases, if an individual has a good relationship with their manager, they will self-report and communicate that a piece of the project is not going well. Rachel would then follow-up with something like, “You know, so and so does that really well, what if I ask them to walk you through how they’d approach this?” It might be the exact same outcome as with the old-school management approach, but it feels supportive instead of critical because you haven't taken the individual’s control away.” 

This can be tricky, as the mindset of being supportive and encouraging instead of trying to ensure something is right is not what most managers are taught. But this mindset switch can be a weight off your shoulders because it’s not your job to know the right answer but to help other people find the right answer for themselves.

“Everyone knows at some level they don't have control over people, but we pretend we do, which is anxiety-provoking. When you give this up, it’s a huge relief. It’s not your job as a manager to know what to do all the time—it’s your job to bring people together and get as far as you can,” says Rachel.  

Be less declarative and more curious

How we use language impacts how people feel, which impacts how they act. Leaders can affect the trajectory of their relationships with employees by paying attention to the words they use.

Using the language of engagement involves using phrases like “From my perspective” or “In my opinion” when expressing an opinion. CEO disease makes it hard for people in senior positions to get open and honest feedback from people. But by using these phrases to express your opinion, you provide an opening for others to share different perspectives and experiences. 

Changing our language in this way isn’t easy. In business, we’re taught to be declarative and certain, but when we’re unnecessarily declarative, we don’t leave room for other people’s insights. 

The language of engagement also involves being curious and asking a lot of questions. For example, let’s say you’re working on a learning & development project, and you need to get a group of senior people to champion your efforts within the organization. Despite your efforts, they’re not doing what you’re telling them to do. Instead of giving orders, you need to flip the script and start asking them questions. 

“The only way you’re going to get the advocacy you want is by getting together and saying “What do you think we should be doing?” If people create something, they will commit to it. And it takes stress off of you. You don't have to make them do anything, all you have to do is prompt them to articulate what needs to be done,” says Rachel. 

These changes in the way we communicate aren’t always big, but they can make a world of difference in creating a community-centric and trusting culture. 

Allow time for reflection 

To learn effectively, employees need to feel safe enough to make mistakes and enough time to reflect.  

“We don’t have reflection time in our budgets. Our culture is oriented around the need to be effective with every second of our day. But to optimize knowledge work, that is impossible. Your brain needs to rest and process what it has absorbed. The only way your brain refreshes is by stepping away,” says Rachel.

Rachel stresses the importance of both individual reflection and group reflection. Giving people time to reflect before having to articulate their thoughts, preferences, and opinions in a group allows for more inclusive conversations. 

“If you have a conversation before people have reflected, you’re only going to hear from whoever is the most dominant,” says Rachel. 

Rachel expands on how to facilitate individual and group reflection in Becoming Hybrid: A Team Collaboration Handbook.

How to foster a community-centric culture in the hybrid work environment 

A community-centric approach to leadership transforms organizations. Next, we’ll dive into what actions you can take to foster a community-centric culture in your organization. 

Give employees their power back 

A community is simply a network of people, large or small. If it’s a good community, there will be plenty of trust, and people will feel safe. Psychological safety is a key element—people want to feel seen and heard, and that they belong. 

“A community-centric approach to leadership is about giving people their power back so that they can contribute the most. This empowers employees to be leaders themselves,” says Rachel.  

Many employees feel dead inside at work—they’re not trying to be better, but just showing up and checking off boxes. When organizations give employees their power back, in return, they  get effectiveness, transparency, and equity. Plus, organizations can innovate a lot faster when employees have agency and are taking responsibility for addressing issues. 

“If everyone is looking out for the needs of the organization and feels like they are empowered to do something, then you have more ears on the ground being responsive,” says Rachel. 

Train managers for emotional intelligence 

“The hardest thing about going remote is that you have to be proactive and very good at conflict resolution. Managers have been short-shifted on training and professional development for years. Most managers are people who did their job really well and got promoted. They need a lot more training especially for soft skills because there’s not one right way to navigate conflicts—every situation is different,” explains Rachel. 

Conflict resolution is a hard skill to master, but it comes down to adopting a facilitator’s mindset and having supportive conversations. Rachel, for example, would have one-to-one meetings with her team members without any agenda. She would check in with people and chat about what’s on their mind—whether or not it’s work-related. These candid, open-ended conversations allowed her team members to feel more comfortable coming to her when any issues came up. .

Rachel also has meetings with her team where people can discuss anything they want about a project. “I’m not sure exactly what will come out of those meetings. I’m trying to foster that understanding between people, and offering them a space to engage. If people don’t have an opening to engage, it’s hard for them to do so—even if they want to,” says Rachel. 

Make the implicit explicit 

Fostering organizational culture has traditionally been done implicitly rather than explicitly. For years, leaders wanted employees to stop chatting by the water cooler and get their work done. Now with the rise of hybrid work, leaders realize how much those water cooler conversations added to a cohesive culture, and desperately want people to chat and connect with one another. 

“Business executives never realized those implicit things are what hold a culture together and build trust,” says Rachel. 

Community building and employee engagement used to be about food in the break room and ping pong tables. While these things are okay and can help people blow off steam, they’re not at the core of what’s needed to build trust and relationships at work. 

“When you move online, you don't just run into people anymore at the office, so you need to explicitly build systems to help that process happen,” says Rachel. Without these systems in place, people will be satisfied chatting on Teams without sharing anything with the rest of the organization. In that scenario it is way too easy for two teams to be doing the exact same thing without knowing it. You need to build a highway between teams,” Rachel summarizes.

How can you build this highway? 

Set up structures for working together

Feeling overwhelmed with more meetings and messages was seen as a top challenge with hybrid work, according to a 2021 Howspace hybrid work report. The more senior you get, the more meetings you tend to have—not all of which are useful. 

Marketoonist cartoon

Image source: Marketoonist 

If you don’t structure ways of working together as a team, it’s easy for people to get distracted by all the noise in the work environment such as endless messages, alerts, and notifications. 

Rachel shares how she set up structures to work together with her 100% remote team when running The Community Roundtable. The team varied between 5-10 people and they collaborated all day without ever sending emails and with very few meetings. 

“We were extraordinarily productive and we never worked more than 40 hours a week. We could actually work because we weren’t just sitting in meetings talking about work,” Rachel summarizes. 

How did this work? Rachel set up several distinct channels for different purposes, including: 

  • Functional channels for research, marketing, and sales.
  • Project channels: One for the day-to-day team involved, and another for communicating general updates with the rest of the organization.
  • A water cooler channel for general rituals, routines, and connection. For example, the team would greet each other in the mornings and sign-off in the evenings. 
  • Fun channels like a pet group, foodie group, and health & wellness group. People who don’t want to participate in these don’t have to. 
  • Three frogs channel: As a weekly check-in, the team shared the three frogs (i.e. difficult tasks) they had to swallow. These weren’t necessarily the biggest projects, but those things that were going to be the most difficult for them to complete. 
  • Flip that sh*t: Individuals shared when they were struggling with a negative perspective, and other team members would chime in to help reframe it into a positive perspective. Rachel explains, “This was really helpful for people to create flexibility of mind, and to look at things from a different angle.”

For every team, the spaces or channels needed to work well together will look different. The purpose of these structures is to help the team reduce the amount of noise around them and focus on the task at hand.

Over 1,000 organizations are already using the Howspace platform to foster strong cultures, collaborate at scale, and align everyone for the greatest impact. Start your free trial to start collaborating together and make work flexible yet impactful for everyone. 

And if you want more tips and strategies on how to make hybrid work successful, check out our Hybrid work model playbook, which includes our own original research on the topic. 

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