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Why Hybrid Company Culture Needs to Focus on Belonging

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Talk to any high school parent or teacher and you’ll hear about the extensive efforts teenagers make to fit in. Even in a time of extreme growth and change, everyone wants to belong. As we mature, we still sometimes want the same jacket or car that our role models have because it makes us feel good. We never stop growing and changing our perception of self, but instead of the need to belong happening in the school halls and cafeteria, now it happens at work. Work has become decentralized but the need for all workers, remote or hybrid or in-person, to belong is central to a healthy company culture.

What does it mean to belong? Researchers suggest people need to have positive interactions with others, but these exchanges must also be meaningful as they’re indicative of a long-term and stable relationship. That means that creating a sense of workspace belonging is not just an average water cooler chat. Belonging isn’t random — it’s a conscious and ongoing effort. The effort is worth it, though. A sense of high belonging has been linked to a 56 percent increase in job performance, a 50 percent drop in turnover, and a 75 percent reduction in sick days. These changes could equate to an annual savings of more than $52 million for a 10,000-person company.

Not everyone is back in the office now or plans to be full time, but it’s important to include those who opt-out of the office when planning for culture. Worries about what people will miss if they don’t come to the office include opportunities for promotion or that it will reflect poorly on performance. Enabling managers to lead in a hybrid approach is necessary and will likely incorporate new ways of doing simple events like lunch meetings.

To make those working remotely feel a sense of belonging, “companies should lead with a sensitivity towards remote workers. Managers could give everyone a similar experience by offering to expense their lunch at home and having everyone in the physical conference room using Zoom Smart Gallery,” said Alana Collins, Head of Real Estate and Workplace at Zoom. With Smart Gallery, each person’s face has its own frame and puts everyone on an even playing field. This enhances inclusivity over the traditional camera view at the end of a conference table where a “them vs. me” feeling can be experienced by remote workers. No one planned for this hybrid work style, but companies are figuring it out as they go.

Parting is such sweet sorrow

Many workers left their offices and planned to be back within a reasonable time. Almost two years later, companies and their employees work differently and don’t want to return to what was. Companies that depended on being in the office to create culture are treading water as they try to pivot their culture to one that fits the new work style. “We’ve learned during the pandemic that people can get most of their work done from home,” said Larry Gadea, Founder and CEO of Envoy, a workspace platform. “But we’ve also learned what we took for granted when we all worked together in the office: that we are better together and collaborating in close proximity with our teams.” 

Belonging is important to employee mental health and well-being, becoming an increasingly prioritized component of company culture. When people feel like they aren’t included, anxiety is the leading emotion felt, followed by depression and sadness. According to CDC reports, adults with symptoms of anxiety or depression increased from 36 percent to 42 percent from August 2020 to February 2021. Research also shows people will often say “see you soon” when departing, even if it’s unknown when soon is because the thought of not seeing them again is too unsettling to say. 

Tools can help keep companies connected and productive, and colleagues together. One company that has become synonymous with remote work is Zoom, which has hosted over 3.3 trillion minutes of meetings in the last year alone.. However, the organizations producing these tools also have to consider their own corporate culture as they look forward and have a focus on the value of the office. Collins said, “It’s going to be a new world and a new culture but we are making sure we lead with employee needs. At the office, we’re going to invest in the enablement and belonging of our workers.” As companies bring people back together, Zoom created a digital guide to help businesses plan for their Next Phase of Work, outlining how their video-first unified communications platform can keep teams connected.

“It’s going to be a new world and a new culture but we are making sure we lead with employee needs. At the office, we’re going to invest in the enablement and belonging of our workers.”

Alana Collins, Head of Real Estate and Workplace at Zoom

Earning the commute

Work can be done in many places and the return to the office is happening at a slower pace than many companies would like. According to the Partnership for New York City, Manhattan is expecting one out of six workers to come back full time by the end of January 2022. Companies like Apple are pushing back when their return to office policy starts. Questions about how to entice people back into the office are discussed regularly. This creates a unique challenge, as fostering a cohesive culture of belonging is even harder when everyone is in different places. “We want to earn the commute,” said Collins. “We know the answer is hybrid but who’s doing it right yet? There’s not a toolkit that says this is how you measure success and how you achieve culture. This is a learning process.”

If it’s not a commute to an office, it may be a commute to another type of destination where teams can share experiences and build stronger relationships. If offices decide to reduce their square footage, the money saved on real estate can instead be invested into lodging and travel for teams to get together. This too is part of company culture and can be a supplement to the office instead of a replacement.

No two companies are the same and that holds true for their culture, too. Depending on the type of people and their needs for belonging, certain companies may not be the right fit for certain individuals. One way to stay on track is to set expectations and make sure people are having their needs met via frequent surveys or check-ins. “We can paint a perfect picture of culture, but it’s going to happen organically and we’ll have to learn from that,” added Collins.

Hybrid meetings that normalize casual conversations before jumping into the agenda are a way to quickly touch base with colleagues around topics other than work. Talking about feelings in a hybrid setting can bring people together even if they aren’t in the same physical space. Creating new patterns for culture isn’t always easy but it can be the difference between an attractive and successful culture or one that is reminiscent of the uncomfortable high school days of trying and failing, to belong.

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