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Is a Return to the Office Right for Company Culture?

March 28, 2022 Employee Experience
Kaya Ismail
By Kaya Ismail

A strong company culture is one of the key tenets of successful organizations. Research shows that businesses with a strong culture tend to have more motivated and engaged employees. They also benefit from greater employee retention and improved performance.

There are many ways to build company culture, and the shift to remote and hybrid workplaces changed the playing field and added more options and complexity. Some companies argue that maintaining, preserving and building a unified culture is the main reason a return to the office is necessary.

However, organizations attempting to create a company culture with restrictive policies may find themselves alienating the same employees they are meant to serve. Forcing employees into the office is one example of how organizations over-engineer culture building efforts. 

Creating Company Culture the Right Way

A 2021 PwC survey showed that 69 percent of executives believe a strong culture can help their companies navigate challenging moments and be more adaptable. It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that HR leaders keep their ears and eyes open for the latest tips and tricks to help them boost company culture.

But according to Slav Kulik, CEO of software development firm Plan A Technologies, there needs to be a healthy balance between trying to create a culture and letting it happen organically. "You can’t force a culture on people," he said. "But you also can’t sit back and do nothing and then be disappointed when nothing happens.”

His advice to leaders is to focus on creating the framework for a culture. "Then, let your team members actually build it," Kulik said. 

One drawback from a top-down, overly engineered culture is that companies become overly selective about the types of employees they hire. Nabila Salem, president at London-based tech recruiting specialist Revolent, said this can do more harm than good because it puts constraints on candidate searches. She said candidates will show their true selves if they don't fear that they might not get the job because of it. In her view, this goes hand-in-hand with the growing focus on stronger diversity and inclusion efforts. 

That said, companies shouldn’t seek to force a culture on their employees, but they can help steer it in the right direction by being clear about the vision and goals they want to achieve.

Related Article: Workplace Culture Eats Tech for Breakfast

Moving Past the Remote vs. In-Person Debate

Since culture refers to the attitudes and behaviors found within an organization, the work structure, whether remote or otherwise, shouldn't be a determining factor in whether a culture is successful or not. However, whenever and wherever people work, the values instilled by leadership form the basis of company culture. 

"Whether an organization decides to get back to the office, continue with remote options or establish a hybrid setting, facilitating culture is about marrying leadership’s aspirations to the company’s overriding objectives," said Donald Thompson, CEO of Raleigh, N.C.-based The Diversity Movement. "Trust is key, regardless of where employees work.” 

To help nurture a strong company culture that isn't forced, leaders need to communicate authentically and emanate trust. While many intangibles can occur when teams connect in person, that doesn’t mean a company culture can’t be grown in a remote setting as well. Advancements in technology and the drive to come together in the face of adversity have strengthened many organizations during the pandemic, when many were working primarily remotely.

“I truly believe that although getting your employees in front of each other at some point is important to maintaining and strengthening bonds, the foundations of these can be built through a remote arrangement, too,” said Salem. 

Related Article: Is a Return to the Office Right for Your Company?

Why Culture Leads to Happier Employees

While companies shouldn’t try to over-engineer culture, they still need to make sure they put a priority on a positive employee experience.

“I do not think it’s possible for employees to remain happy in a company with a bad culture," said Kulik. "If you worked in a place where you felt isolated, ignored, disrespected, what would you do? You would go to another job."

Company culture can lead to happier employees, but happy employees can also drive company culture. Again, leadership has to strike a balance. It’s not about engineering a specific set of practices and policies. Rather, it’s about setting an example and being transparent.

“If leaders have established their authenticity and they are transparent about their goals, the workforce can rally to these programs for the betterment of teams, individuals and even the broader society,” Thompson said. 

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