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HR Leaders Struggle to Adapt Organizational Culture to Support a Hybrid Workforce

Few hybrid workers report feeling connected to their organization’s culture

Published: Wednesday, August 10, 2022 - 12:02

Seventy-six percent of human resource leaders feel that hybrid work challenges employees’ connection to organizational culture, according to a recent survey by Gartner. A February 2022 Gartner poll of more than 200 HR leaders reveals the most challenging aspect of setting their hybrid strategy is adjusting the current organizational culture to support a hybrid workforce.

While 40 percent of HR leaders reported they have increased their culture budget since the beginning of the pandemic, a Gartner survey of more than 3,900 hybrid/remote knowledge workers in December 2021 revealed only one in four are connected to their organization’s culture.

“Hybrid and remote work hasn’t necessarily changed our culture; it’s changed the way we experience culture,” says Alexia Cambon, director in Gartner’s HR practice. “While employers used to be able to frame their cultural values and hang them on the walls for employees to see, this no longer works today when hybrid and remote knowledge workers spend 65 percent less time in offices than before the pandemic.”

The prepandemic workplace cultural experience was grounded in the physical environment employees worked in. It was defined primarily by three experiential attributes: working in an office space controlled by their employers; being surrounded by colleagues in physical proximity to each other; and experiencing culture at a macroscale via interactions with colleagues that employees worked with directly and indirectly.

Culture connectedness in crisis

Culture remains imperative for employees to succeed; 76 percent of employees say culture is very or extremely important for them to be effective at their job. Sixty-one percent of HR leaders say that to achieve organizational goals, culture is more important in a hybrid work model than in an onsite work model.

For a culture to truly succeed, employees must be aligned and connected to it. Culture alignment means employees understand and buy into the culture of their organization, while culture connectedness encompasses employees identifying with, caring about, and belonging within their organization’s culture. Together, these two measures—culture alignment and culture connectedness—are key.

“Historically, senior leaders have intentionally invested in driving culture alignment but have primarily relied on culture connectedness to occur through osmosis, relying on time in offices, in-person, and at a macroscale to make employees feel connected to culture,” says Cambon. “Employees at all levels, and across demographics, are suffering from a connectedness crisis, which suggests this problem isn’t just related to hybrid and remote work but also to organizations’ lack of intent in driving connectedness historically.”

Drive cultural connection by intention

Some organizations are trying to ensure employees connect to the culture by forcing a return to the office. Organizations that take this approach will face a significant attrition risk. In fact, organizations that force their employees back to a fully onsite arrangement could lose 33 percent of their workforce.

“Contrary to popular belief, flexibility isn’t in tension with culture,” says Cambon. “The more flexibility an employee has, the more likely they are to be connected to their culture. Of the more than 3,900 hybrid and remote knowledge workers we surveyed in December 2021, only 18 percent of those with the least flexibility felt a high degree of connectedness to their organizational culture, while 53 percent of those workers who had radical flexibility in where, when, and how they work reported high culture connectedness.”

To drive culture connectedness by intention, leaders must make three key shifts:
• Diffuse culture through work, not just the office. The office is no longer the most common, constant, cultural experience. Organizations should identify opportunities to enable employees to see and feel connected to the culture through the new cultural constant—the work itself.
• Connect through emotional, not just physical, proximity. As in-person interactions become rare, HR leaders should identify the moments in which employees are most likely to feel seen—rather than be seen—to connect them to culture. These moments of emotional proximity occur when an employee feels important, valued, and recognized.
• Optimize micro-based experiences, not macro-based experiences. The hybrid world shrinks ecosystems. As employees engage with fewer people, these relationships intensify and make up the bulk of the employee experience. Leaders must equip teams to create vibrant and healthy microcultures that encourage greater connectedness.

The organizations that succeed at connecting employees to their culture can increase employee performance by as much as 37 percent and retention by as much as 36 percent.

“In today’s volatile business environment, these gains translate into significant competitive advantage,” says Cambon.

Gartner clients can read more in the report: “Culture in a Hybrid World.”


About The Author

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Gartner is an information technology research and advisory company providing technology-related insight. Research provided by Gartner targets CIOs and senior IT leaders in government agencies, high-tech, and telecom enterprises, professional services firms, and technology investors. Clients include large corporations, government agencies, technology companies, and the investment community. Gartner has acquired numerous companies providing related services including consulting, market research, executive programs, and events.