Motivating the Next Generation of Leaders to Maintain Culture in Hybrid Work Environments by Richard A. Berkowitz, JD, CPA
Many businesses are tightening their flexible work policies, trying to coax remote employees to return to their offices in person to collaborate with their peers and build their careers. One of the unique ironies of this past summer occurred when Zoom, the videoconferencing platform that kept workers connected throughout the pandemic, announced it would require employees who live within 50 miles of an office to commute to work at least two days each week. With this type of hybrid schedule becoming the new normal in the ongoing battle for the hearts and minds of young professionals looking to build lasting careers, how can business owners keep employees motivated to come into the office and take on leadership roles that protect their organizations’ culture?
A business’s culture initially develops around a clearly defined vision, goals and strategic imperatives established by management. However, over time, it develops organically based on its individual members’ shared values, beliefs and experiences. Ultimately, it defines “how we do things around here.” It is the glue that keeps employees engaged, connected and committed to an organization’s ongoing success. While much has been written about how well companies shifted to an all-virtual workforce in the early stages of the pandemic, the question now becomes whether businesses can sustain the same productivity levels and learning trajectory with remote or hybrid work arrangements without sacrificing organizational culture.
According to a study conducted by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the most cited drawbacks of all-virtual work schedules is a feeling of disconnection between team members, both remote workers and their colleagues, who spend at least some of their workweek inside the office. Not only did the study find fully remote work led to a decline in “weak ties” that foster innovation and help individuals advance their careers, but it also left workers’ “ego networks,” defined as their unique web of connections, stagnant.
Similar results were reported by Gallup’s 2023 State of the Global Workplace study, which found that a lack of supportive bonds between coworkers and their organizations led to a decrease in worker engagement, which ultimately had 3.8 times as much influence on employee stress as work location. Moreover, the study found flexible work schedules that reduce or eliminate office commutes did not actually alleviate workers’ stress. Rather, employee engagement, which dropped significantly during the pandemic, ultimately increased 23 percent as more and more businesses adopted hybrid work schedules in 2023.
Much of this research tells us that the office is where “stuff” happens. It’s where workers can see and collaborate with others face-to-face and engage in informal conversations that can have a profound impact on building strong relationships. In fact, those unplanned conversations in the lunchroom or walking past colleagues’ desks enable colleagues to truly get to know each other and build bonds of mutual respect and trust while also binding them to the organization.
Consider that you are a fully remote worker who Zooms into your team’s weekly planning meetings and regularly scheduled update calls that follow a specific agenda for a set amount of time. While you may gain general knowledge about your teammates and an understanding of your shared work and goals, you will miss out on those chance encounters that can provide deeper insight into who your colleagues are, how they manage, what you can learn from them, and how they can help you advance your career.
On the other hand, commuting into the office every day or working on a hybrid schedule fosters opportunities for workers to have face-to-face chance encounters with colleagues on a more personal level. The office gives them a place to socialize, grab lunch with colleagues or pop in to see their managers and get clarification on specific tasks, experience ad-hoc learning moments, guidance on a particular challenge and ongoing career mentorship. It also gives workers an opportunity to get a sense of all the roles within the organization, emulate admired behaviors and identify areas where their leadership may shine and drive business growth in the future.
Quick office check-ins also give managers greater confidence to allow team members to work autonomously and take ownership of their work product while also giving them the information they need to help those team members advance within the organization. Ultimately, being face-to-face with individuals at all levels makes team members feel more connected to each other and the organization, thereby improving their enthusiasm and job satisfaction over the long term.
So, how can business leaders motivate their workforce to return to the office two, three or more days of the work week?
- Understand Team Members’ Objectives: Listen to team members’ concerns and work with them to provide some level of flexibility that meets their unique needs. In this sense, make hybrid work arrangements a core value of the company’s culture that all team members may embrace and celebrate.
- Leaders Must Walk the Talk: Your company’s leadership/senior executives must show up to the office to demonstrate they are invested in team members and the organization. This helps to set an example and motivate team members looking for access to those who will be accretive to their careers and provide them with opportunities for growth and development.
- Enhance opportunities to develop relationships in the office: Look for opportunities when you can bring team members together in the office to socialize and collaborate, such as celebrating birthdays or work anniversaries, hosting working lunches or team-specific training sessions, or simply recognizing team members’ successes. You may even take staff members out of the office for lunch or happy hour, giving them the time and space to build relationships. These are the moments that are the glue that binds culture to individuals.
- People crave purpose: Promote activities that inspire your company’s purpose beyond profits, whether it is participating in company-wide fundraising events to support local nonprofits, bringing in guest speakers to offer leadership training, or paying for workers to attend industry events where they may also build their network of referral sources. Investing in team members’ opportunities to enhance the meaning in their lives is essential to them to embrace your culture.
- Fly the WHY flag: Frequently communicate to team members the core values and mission of your company, which support the “WHY” you promote their development, including access to better technology, mentorship and opportunities to learn, collaborate, build relationships, develop and help them demonstrate leadership capabilities for their advancement.
- Practice collaborative management: Avoid rigid mandates that require team members to be in the office a specific number of days each week. Not only may these policies step over the line from coaxing to coercion, but they also ignore the flexibility that today’s workers demand. Instead, demonstrate that you value and trust them to make the right decisions with your guidance. The current labor market gives young talent lots of job options. If your business environment is not conducive to helping to enhance workers’ career development, they will move on quickly.
The world has changed. This is a time for management innovation and development of new models for building teams focused on collaborative, innovative, value-based cultures where people are motivated to work together towards a common goal of success and purpose. Every organization is unique. You will have to invest the time and thoughtful approaches to making your company successful now and in the future.
About the Author: Richard A. Berkowitz, JD, CPA, is founding and executive chairman of Berkowitz Pollack Brant Advisors + CPAs and Provenance Wealth Advisors (PWA), where he provides business consulting, growth strategies and succession-planning consulting to entrepreneurs and companies. He can be reached at the firm’s Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., office at (954) 712-7000 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.