Culturally Intelligent Hybrid Working

Published on September 8th, 2021

2020 was the year of doing what we can to work virtually. 2021 was the year we got comfortable with flexible working – whether virtually or in an office or a mixture of both. 2022 may well be the year that we find out who has made hybrid working a success. And many people are coming to realize that in 2020 and 2021, we stopped thinking about culturally intelligent ways of working with colleagues, clients and partners around the world.

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Hybrid working options 

According to the CIPD, more and more workers are insisting on having options around virtual working, and, as we come out of the pandemic restrictions, it seems that the talent pool has shrunk again. The UK has just recorded the largest number of job vacancies – according to the NY Times, in June 2021, there were 993,000 advertised vacancies. And that means that the employee holds the upper hand in negotiations, despite many companies and public sector organizations suggesting that all employees will have to work from offices again – even Google has signaled that it would prefer workers to be in the office, rather than at home. 

Without looking deep into boardrooms, we can’t be sure of the reasons, but it is safe to assume that one of the biggest concerns is how to maintain a company culture virtually. So much of what we presume we know about culture comes from the visible symbols – the branded desktops, values statements, even the mugs in the kitchens serve to reinforce corporate culture. In a co-located team, managers take on the role of cultural missionaries, preaching the corporate message to their teams. 

Trust culture 

Culture of course is much deeper than that. In the panic of 2020, we overlooked the importance of establishing a behavioral and attitudinal culture and understanding the cultural values of our employees.   

Removing the freedom to work from home is a very public and unsubtle acknowledgement that the organization does not trust you to do your work when your manager is not watching you. We, of course, know intellectually that hybrid working leads to greater productivity and higher retention – this Harvard Business Review article isn’t hearsay, it’s based on evidence and research! However, we conveniently overlook that fact and try to pull people back to what we know best.   

Trust is a key element to encourage belonging and inclusion and an absence of trust increases turnover and reduces the goodwill of employees, who, when motivated are prepared to put in extra time and effort in difficult times to achieve organizational objectives.   

Wellbeing culture 

There is no doubt that hybrid working is not for everyone – for many people, work is the social center of their lives. In 2019, 30% of employees reported meeting their partner at work and many of us count our colleagues as some of our closest friends. Wellbeing can be increased by the social aspect of being in an office with other people – and of course, some roles cannot be done at home (firefighter is high on my list!). 

However, an organizational-wide policy does not consider the cultural requirements of individuals. A culturally intelligent organization considers the ways it can support individuals and get the most out of them. That means recognizing that our cultural styles will influence how we work best. An employee who is relationship-oriented is much more likely to want to work regularly in an office with others; a task-oriented colleague may well be much more productive without the distractions of other people around them.   

Organizations that are traditionally dependent on concentrated power structures may struggle to get the most out of hybrid working, as leaders are uncomfortable delegating independence to their teams – for a shared power organization, the move to virtual working may have been much simpler, but it may be harder to maintain consistency and visibility across the company.   

Culturally intelligent organizations 

However, every organization is made up of individuals who represent the broad spectrum of cultural defaults – from explicit communicators to implicit, from risk takers to risk avoiders. Culturally intelligent organizations will take the time to consider the implications of wide-reaching decisions on the organizational and individual cultural foundations.   

When we know that our cultural preferences are accounted for, we feel that we belong and are included; that in turn increases wellbeing and productivity. And ultimately that gives value to the shareholders. 

How can we then take a culturally intelligent approach to hybrid working?

  • Accept 

Accept that we are different and have different priorities and ways of working. For most people the destination is the same, but how they get there may be very different. That means that we have to take individual circumstances into account and understand what works for some may not work for others.   

There will be situations where a compromise is not possible, but acceptance of difference means that employees feel consulted and involved in the decision-making process – their voices are heard, and they can see why a decision is made. 

  • Be curious 

Take time to understand the evidence – does the location of your staff make a difference to their productivity and if so, how? How can you ensure they are working at their potential? You will only find out by looking at the data and asking the people themselves. Is it more cost-effective to give an employee a new piece of equipment than paying for them to occupy expensive desk space?   

What motivates your employees? Many people have learned to use the time they spent on the commute on themselves – whether improving their fitness or spending time with family or on leisure activities. This has a benefit to you – happy employees work better.  But for others, home conditions are not conducive to work. 

The more you can learn about what makes your employees tick, the more successful your policies and procedures can be. 

  • Clarify and check 

Check the impact of decisions and don’t expect a decision to be final until you’ve seen the impact. Recognize that clarification and tweaking is not indecision – human beings are notoriously unpredictable, so adjustment is always needed. And don’t forget that because culture is invisible, many people will not realize the impact of a change in working style until they’ve tried it for a while. 

WRITTEN BY MATTHEW MACLACHLAN

Matthew MacLachlan is a well published, leading expert in the field of cultural intelligence, global leadership and organisational development.


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