What tech companies can do to rebuild company culture

December 7, 2023

What tech companies can do to rebuild company culture

December 7, 2023

People standing around desk looking at computer screen

Tech companies are worried about their corporate culture post-pandemic, and many employers view returning to the office as the solution. However, this ignores that most employees prefer a hybrid work option and the numerous benefits people and organizations have seen in remote work.

Mary Larson

Mary Larson, ICD.d, is a Partner with MNP’s Consulting Services group in Montreal. Mary helps clients clarify and build alignment around their strategies, build leadership capacity and embed cultures that foster outstanding execution.

Remote work has levelled the playing field for employees with disabilities and overturned decades-old hiring practices. In many cases, returning to the office means sacrificing the benefits of remote work for mid-level or junior roles.

Building a healthy and stable culture requires making employees collaborative participants in back-to-work planning and capturing their hearts and minds to convince them to return to the office willingly and only as needed. Leaders should be mindful not to return to old habits and instead look to the trust that spontaneously arose in the early days of the pandemic for a path forward.

Employers are concerned about the survival of their corporate culture post-pandemic, and many see bringing teams back to the office as a fundamental part of the solution. Yet few employees seem willing to return to the old ways, with most demanding a hybrid work option.

For several months it seemed like Canada’s ongoing labour shortage was tipping the advantage toward the employees. However, it would be a mistake for employers to think the economic headwinds and recent layoffs in the tech sector strengthen their hand in forcing employees back to the office.

Building a transparent and fair hybrid work policy remains vital — not only to corporate culture but also to future competitiveness.

Don’t be so quick to dismiss what worked

COVID forced a massive and unprecedented workplace culture shift without the luxury of time to plan the nature or pace of the transition. Employers had to trust that their team would continue to be productive working from home. And those teams needed to find new and creative ways to shoehorn work into their family life.

It may be hard to remember now, but that forced adaptation went pretty well for many organizations.

Granted — some people struggle with remote work for various reasons: small children, roommates, lack of a proper workspace, etc. Those people are happy to be back in the office, and rightfully so.

Conversely, many of their colleagues relished the opportunity to work from home. They replaced their commutes with adequate sleep, adopted daily walking habits, spent more time with family, and found better work-life balance. And they continued to get work done!

Trust blossomed in the pandemic’s first year, especially in the first six months. Yet, many employers are quick to point out the pandemic fatigue and surge of resignations through the second year as evidence of why remote work doesn’t work.

Employees have taken much of the blame for quitting. But many employees only quit because employers began to take their productivity for granted, leaving their people feeling unrecognized and underappreciated. It’s worth stepping back to acknowledge what worked in those early days and what caused the situation to deteriorate.

Concerns about culture in the new normal

There will be no putting the genie back in the bottle. Most workers have fiercely resisted a return to the past — even tech workers who used to live for the free meals and squash courts.

Many employers are concerned that their organization’s culture is at risk in this post-pandemic environment. They worry (understandably) that their culture will continue to evaporate without physical contact.

Few would contest that in-person contact is valuable — irreplicable in some instances — but the pandemic overturned many long-standing assumptions about the nature of work and collaboration. There is undeniable proof that remote work was and can continue to be productive.

For some employees, such as those with a disability, remote work has levelled the playing field and created a net economic benefit for the organization and the individual.

Remote options have also overturned decades-old hiring practices. Organizations can now hire for fit and skill rather than narrowly focusing on only candidates available in the local market. Interacting online with team members across time zones opened up new possibilities and relationships. Far from eroding culture, remote teamwork can introduce a depth that wasn’t possible previously.

Perhaps the biggest concern about culture isn’t remote versus in-office, but who is permitted this newfound flexibility. Most people experiencing pressure to return to the office are in mid-level or junior roles. The more senior team members become, the less the same rules seem to apply.

Employers may have wasted an opportunity to foster a healthier relationship between workers and bosses. And therein lies the question: how can employers rebuild a successful work culture?

Building a healthy and stable culture

Cultural norms were shifting long before the pandemic. This is not just an issue of engagement. Culture is a sum of the systems, processes, communication styles, and physical environments that shape how work gets done. Returning to the old (and long unfashionable) command and control style of management is not the best way to lure people back to the office — it will likely do the opposite.

This generation of knowledge workers needs to understand the why behind decisions.

People who prefer remote work believe they’re doing very well without going to the trouble of dressing up, the expense of buying food, and the inconvenience of losing two hours to a daily commute. The challenge isn’t to get them back to the office — it’s to capture their hearts and minds to convince them to do so willingly and only as needed.

Making employees collaborative participants in back-to-work planning is the best way to secure their buy-in. And in many cases, they will contribute valuable ideas about how to improve workflow and outcomes.

A significant inflection point

Nothing destroys trust more quickly than disrespect. Companies now face the prospect of laying off employees who remained loyal through COVID and the related upheaval. Those whose future growth relies on this talent may find that the layoffs were short-sighted. The economic downturn will come and go, but people may not be quick to forgive, and the damage to employer brands could be hard to recover from.

Instead of falling back on the old playbook, which has led to so much frustration and distrust, leaders should look to the trust that spontaneously arose in the early days of the pandemic for a path forward.

One MNP client has shown what a path forward can look like: He’d successfully merged a competitor into his business before COVID — but two years into the pandemic, he felt his company’s culture was slipping. He asked people to return to the office several times a week.

Notably, he consulted his employees before implementing the changes, remaining sensitive to and understanding what matters (and what doesn’t). He ensures there’s always something meaningful to do on those in-person days in the office — gathering for coffee, scheduling facetime with his team, getting everyone’s input on the budget, etc. He makes sure time spent in a redesigned workspace is worthwhile and that it’s something to enjoy rather than avoid.

Re-assessing what matters

Returning to the office didn’t recover this client’s culture. The culture improved because he and his management team were willing to be transparent and forthright about the challenges and why they believed returning to the office was necessary. He’s kept his team engaged and involved through every step and — here’s the important part — continued to show appreciation for his people’s efforts and results, wherever they happen to be working from.

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