Since mid-July, employers in England have been able to plan for “a safe return to the workplace": an announcement that will have been welcomed by some but received with trepidation by others. After an extremely troubling and unprecedented year, it is only to be expected that views on the subject will be wide ranging, influenced by a myriad of personal factors and circumstances. However, whatever a person’s position or preference, the prospect of widespread homeworking coming to an end raises a multitude of questions and concerns for everyone. This is something which we, as leaders, should be taking seriously and addressing urgently.
Fundamentally, individuals need reassurance that conversations about their future are happening and that they will have complete choice in whether they return to the office. I strongly believe that how positively the process is managed will be defined by company culture. Historically the domain of HR, it will need to evolve to become a top tier, bilateral concern. How company culture is shaped will be critical in ensuring that employees are treated with equality and respect as we move forward into a more flexible model of work.
It is important to acknowledge that company culture has been heavily impacted by the mandate to work from home. A recent EMEA-wide study by Citrix, of 4,250 office workers, found that during the pandemic, company culture improved for 24 percent, but got worse for 29 percent. Some companies have managed better than others to shift their company culture to a remote environment, but with hybrid working looking most likely in the longer term, all businesses must find ways to build culture that translates successfully between home and office, so that everyone is treated equally.
Company culture will require a ‘local’ approach
Company culture begins with a company’s core values. At Citrix, these are integrity, respect, curiosity, courage, and unity. Typically, in large organisations, these values and the resulting behaviours are developed and role modelled centrally, at a global level, and then rolled out to individual offices and territories. Prior to COVID-19, that model made sense, to enable the creation of a shared vision and sense of purpose across the entire organisation. It was also a way to unite worldwide teams and resolve cultural differences.
However, due to the geographic variations in how the virus, and vaccination programmes, are evolving, I believe we need to start thinking differently about how we promote a healthy company culture. It might be more important to think about company culture at a local level, so that it reflects local pandemic nuances, which are likely to continue for some time.
Company culture must support remote working and avoid a location bias
Our research found that 52% of European office workers would like a hybrid-work model where they can choose to work remotely, or from the office, each day. We now know that work can happen from anywhere: we no longer need an office to be productive, and it will be the responsibility of business leaders to give employees complete choice in whether they return to the office, or not.
Company culture will need to embrace this hybrid model of work so that remote and on-site workers can co-exist happily. As leaders, we need to create a culture that ensures people working remotely some or all the time, are treated the same as those who go back to the office. My concern is if we are physically connecting with someone in the office daily, our instinct may be to give them more responsibility, more opportunity, or more areas for growth, than someone who we haven’t seen in person for a while.
As leaders we need to be aware of the potential for location bias and make sure it doesn’t happen. Fundamentally, employees cannot feel that there is a requirement for them to go into the office for opportunities to be available to them.
Prejudices towards remote workers must be challenged
Many companies run regular training in unconscious bias, teaching us to question our inherent prejudices and judgment, and to embrace diversity. Post-pandemic, I believe hybrid and remote working will need to be included within this training, to challenge the presence of any unconscious bias toward individuals who choose to work from home permanently.
While I do not see this being an issue within a company such as Citrix, which has always championed and encouraged flexible working, in organisations where there is a strong office-based culture, it is possible that rifts might form between those working on site and those working from home. These attitudes will need to be challenged immediately, to allow for diversity to flourish.
Company culture will need to champion the physical and mental wellbeing of staff
One silver lining of COVID-19 has been the increased focus it has placed on employee wellbeing, and it is unsurprising that within our recent research, 89 percent said a company culture that promotes mental or physical wellbeing is important to them.
It is critical that as offices re-open, staff are supported in the choices they make about where they would like to work moving forward. While employers have no legal obligation to endorse continued remote working, offering freedom and flexibility in working routines will help to support a culture where mental health and wellbeing are given sufficient priority. If we fail to do this, we may end up in a far worse place, with individuals feeling isolated, constrained, or pressurised into returning to the office.
Ultimately, the global pandemic has forced us to rethink many of the ways in which we do business and once employees have their freedom returned to them, it is likely we will be in a much better place. However, until then, leaders must ensure employees have the same opportunities and support, wherever they choose to work.