As offices reopen their doors, the question remains: ‘What did Covid-19 really change?’ CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

What’s an effective hybrid work culture?

IT’S fascinating how quickly the human brain reverts to previous ways of thinking and doing, even after significant world events disrupt all our routines and habits.

Yes, I’m talking about Covid-19.

It’s not just us humans either. MIT research famously proved that rats find it just as hard to avoid regressing into old habits, even after new ones are incentivized.

I’ll bet you could probably remember having conversations with friends and colleagues during the deepest, darkest moments of the pandemic when we swore to ourselves that we’d dramatically take advantage of our freedoms when restrictions were over. I remember promising myself that after the pandemic I would work from the beach each day, beer in hand (something that has never happened).

Now, in January of 2023, although 85 percent of Southeast Asian businesses still encourage hybrid working, many are experiencing an elastic rebound in many aspects of their professional lives. Offices are reopening their doors, employees are returning to their desks and the question remains: “What did Covid-19 really change?”

As a business founder, distinguishing between which company practices to retain, and which to relinquish has been a massive challenge, particularly when numerous socioeconomic shifts are unsteadying the ground beneath us. Global recessions, fuel crises, tech selloffs and crypto winters all make future planning challenging and accurate predictions impossible.

To add to this, Gen-Z employees have differing interests, motivations and skills that organizations will struggle to retain unless they rethink how their organization attracts and engages them. Our regional business has a large portion of employees in their early 20s, which as a mid-30s founder I have to be sensitive to. Hybrid working policies have become the easy fix for these challenges, but are at risk of avoiding the heart of the issue, and missing a valuable opportunity to create something unique.

I would argue that a true hybrid work culture is more than just when and where an employee works. It’s a commitment to dynamically evaluate how they are empowered to achieve an outcome, and how you make them feel about the place they work in.

For our business, this means using tools and processes to measure engagement and satisfaction. Regularly asking our team if they have the requisite information, skills and support to achieve clearly defined goals for our clients and our business. Most crucially it means presenting your vision and values to the team to attract the right people for your business, and repel the wrong ones.

Covid-19 led to an almost overnight switch toward home working, and many of these changes were and are welcomed as positive, progressive steps, with 79 percent of Filipinos reporting an improvement in work quality in 2022. Employees are more empowered to work from home or another location where they feel more productive. Companies could do away with expensive office costs with a seat for every employee, in favor of smaller, collaborative spaces. Furthermore, the positive environmental impact of reducing daily commutes and running large office spaces is huge.

On the other hand, moving over to 100 percent remote work (as many companies have done) will have significant costs from a cultural point of view. There are massive advantages to having the team working in the same physical space; it’s great for collaboration, mentoring junior members and, most importantly, cultivating a company culture that sets you apart from your competition.

Culture is that invisible force that’s impossibly hard to describe or measure but manifests in acutely measurable ways, usually in the form of company performance or staff turnover. It defines whether employees are filled with a sense of dread when they’re asked for a meeting with the chief executive, or whether they feel they could speak up in a group meeting. It’s the difference between employees excited about starting work on a Monday morning, or feeling so uninspired that they decide to call in sick.

It’s pretty difficult to create culture over Zoom, and no virtual quiz night will have the same impact as a 15-minute coffee with a co-worker when they’ve had a rough week.

True hybrid work means rejecting absolutist ideals of how an office should run, or following templated business doctrines. It means personalizing your business, whether it’s their working style, career development goals, benefits or ways of motivating and inspiring. Ultimately this means listening first — to your employees and your customers — and thinking beyond when and where your teamwork.

When employers start looking more closely at how they make their employees feel, and how they could empower them to achieve their personal and business goals, the results will benefit both parties dramatically. And that’s worth more than working with a beer on the beach.

Oliver Budgen is the founder and chief executive of Bud Communications, a strategic communications consultancy firm specializing in brands using technology.

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