In a series of posts, SUMS has been exploring ways of working that, while established in response to the pandemic, may serve us well when Covid-19 has long faded from the rear-view mirror.  Today’s post from SUMS Associate Consultant Debbie England poses thoughts and questions for leadership teams to consider when designing and supporting an effective workplace culture in a post covid world. Inevitably at this stage, there are as many questions as answers and critically, to get the culture right long term, it is important to continually review and learn.

As we start to come out the other side of the Covid 19 pandemic many organisations are turning their attention to future ways of working.

According to the Office for National Statistics, nearly 47% of those in employment worked from home during the pandemic. A recent YouGov survey found that 57% of those who have worked from home want to continue working from home.  The majority of those wish to work on a hybrid basis splitting their time between home and returning to their offices.

Quite rightly HR teams are now creating practical guidance to support hybrid working. However, it is equally important to consider how hybrid working might impact workplace culture. Long term changes in ways of working need to support the development of a culture that meets the needs of the organisation and its employees – not least because there is growing evidence that employees have used the period of the pandemic to reflect on what is important to them and there is a real risk of the ‘great resignation’, as described in a recent BBC article.   McKinsey & Company also indicates a growing disconnect between the expectations of senior leadership and employees going forward, with senior leaders wanting employees largely back in the office most of the time to enable collaboration and employees wanting to largely work at home.

So, what is workplace culture? A simple definition from Balogun and Johnson is “the way we do things around here”. Denison’s definition is “the underlying values, beliefs and principles that serve as the foundation for an organization’s management system as well as the set of management practices and behaviours that both exemplify and reinforce those basic principles”.

Whilst the desired workplace culture in any organisation will be shaped by specific strategy and priorities, I think it is reasonable to assume that most organisations would be striving for a post-pandemic working culture that is safe, inclusive, open and transparent, supports collaboration, innovation and learning, and ultimately delivers high performance and great service.

So, in addition to practical guidance on hybrid working, what other areas of people leadership and management need some attention to ensure an effective workplace culture is developed and maintained?

Here are my top ten tips on areas that are likely to need attention for hybrid working to be successful.

  1. Review people metrics. There is an old cliché that what gets measured gets done. Consider whether any of your people metrics encouraging behaviours don’t support the desired safe and inclusive hybrid workplace culture.  For example – do your metrics encourage people to work when they are unwell?


  1. Appoint, develop and support leaders who can support hybrid working. A recent report from the Economic and Social Research Council, ‘Work after Lockdown’, found that during Covid, successful line managers were empathetic to individual employee circumstances and focused on staff wellbeing. Leadership selection and development will be critical to the development of effective workplace cultures going forward.


  1. Ensure all people policies and practices inclusively embrace hybrid working. Leaders must be aware of possible ‘proximity bias’ in their people decision making. Proximity bias is the idea that employees with close physical proximity to their team and company leaders will be perceived as better workers and ultimately find more success in the workplace than their largely remote counterparts. Practically this may in part be addressed by all employees coming into the office for some periods of time, but if the balance between home and office is significantly determined by personal preference there is a real risk that this bias will impact managers’ decisions.


  1. Leaders need to role model the change to hybrid working. There is much written about the critical role of leaders’ behaviours in supporting workplace culture. If leaders are always in the office and not working from home at all, employees are likely to feel that they too should be in the office more, and those who most benefit from more home or remote working may feel increasingly isolated. Whilst case studies precede the pandemic, there are several examples of large employers introducing remote working policies only to withdraw them completely as it became evident that two workplace cultures were developing – one largely office-based, and one largely home-based with negative impacts on both the organisation and its employees. If one of the reasons for supporting hybrid working is to better use office space and to reduce cost, it is also critical that leaders adopt the same ways of using office space as their team members.


  1. Continue to focus on regular technology-based communication for all team members. Covid has to some extent been seen as a great opportunity and leveller for communications between team leaders and colleagues. It is important that those working significantly from home continue to feel connected. Organisations should avoid hybrid team meetings, i.e. those in the office meeting in person with those remotely joining using technology to join. While this may sometimes be necessary, this kind of hybrid team meeting is unlikely to feel inclusive to all participants. If you do need to do this, set clear ground rules that help ensure equity. It is critical to retain a sense of the whole team irrespective of working location.


  1. Pay attention to team development. Consider how to create that sense of the whole team perhaps through social events, team days and team recognition. This is a key opportunity to bring people together in the office.


  1. Review induction of new employees. Much has already been learnt about how to effectively induct wholly remote new employees during the pandemic. As we move to hybrid working, induction should be reviewed again to maximise the value of in-person and remote elements of induction learning and relationship building which is so crucial to the feeling of belonging and ability to collaborate.


  1. Avoid being too prescriptive about new ways of working. Create a framework that meets the organisation’s needs, enabling teams and team leaders to experiment and learn and work out what works for their teams while offering flexibility to employees.


  1. Review all aspects of reward (intrinsic and extrinsic reward) to ensure the reward package supports hybrid working.


  1. Consider what increased emphasis on hybrid working means for employees whose roles cannot be undertaken from home. What is the post-Covid proposition for them? Think through how you ensure the employment offer feels fair and inclusive to those who can only work onsite.

This ‘top ten tips’ is clearly not exhaustive – not least because there is clearly going to be much to learn about the impact of hybrid working on workplace culture which currently will not be clear. Perhaps most important of all in terms of things to think about is the need to regularly review how hybrid working is impacting workplace culture: seek feedback, learn from the findings, and constantly adjust. All the research on hybrid working suggests that it will take years not months for effective post-Covid working cultures to develop and embed.

SUMS is working with a range of member universities from across the sector to design clear principles for future ways of working along with flexible frameworks that encourage a workplace culture built on trust, empowerment, fairness, innovation and belonging.

To find out more, please contact Debbie England or Group Managing Director, Joel Arber.

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