How to manage company culture when people no longer work in the same office?

In the midst of the rapidly revolving world of work, there’s one thing that has become clearer— people are the most valuable asset to any organization. HUONE had an opportunity to interview Kiki, a ‘culture hacker,’ about the common challenge that many leaders are facing today: managing company culture in a hybrid working environment. 

Stefanie “Kiki” Brandt-Tallqvist is a ‘culture hacker’ and a business designer at Eezy Flow. She is a strong believer in a better experience, at work and as customer. Kiki believes extraordinary experience starts with great leadership and great culture. In this article, we discuss how one could help organizations manage team spirit, and bring the culture back in a new working environment.

In this interview, the readers will learn

  • about Kiki and Eezy Flow
  • meaning of ‘good’ company culture
  • concrete steps a company can take to improve employee experience in a hybrid work setting post-pandemic 
  • tips for organizing a company event to better employee experience
  • Kiki’s idea of the Future of work 

What’s the background in becoming a ‘culture hacker’? 

I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs. I am the 5th generation owner of a 117-year-old family business. When I joined the business after university, my father, who was the entrepreneur running the company, was diagnosed with cancer. That’s when the whole company sort of stopped because he was the one everyone turned to. I felt lost when people started turning to me because we didn’t have a strategy or a clear vision. Back then, things happened and we went along. 

I learned that in a storm like that, you can always go back to the values.

Our company culture was not written on a wall, however, we had a strong culture. That’s when the one-year journey of defining our values started. I started talking to everyone and we’ve had countless workshops, and gone through an insane amount of work.  The values we defined then, live on until today. 

From there, I realized that leading by values is how it’s supposed to be. It’s challenging to put the vision down ‘we are going to go here,’ because the world we live in is so stormy, and volatile, and things are changing all the time. On the other hand, you can lead with purpose, you can lead with values. It’s much more powerful. 

I always had to find ways to make incremental changes that had a big impact on the culture code. Same as what hackers do with codes, I see that each person and each action in a team could be a part of a string of code, which means a little change could make a big difference.

What does EezyFlow do?

EezyFlow helps companies in the midst of growth and change. We provide help for every step in our customers’ business life-cycle, from start to finish. The four pillars of our service are research, business design, change management, and leadership development.

Flow does a lot of research such as employee engagement surveys, culture surveys, market studies, training and coaching, concept and strategy design, as well as change management and communication strategies. For instance, we do a lot of strategy workshops with our clients at HUONE Helsinki.

What’s your definition of company culture?

Company culture is how things are done around here. The strategy of a company is about ‘what’ and the culture is about ‘how.The company culture is also about what you value in others, which naturally leads to who you hire, fire, promote, give thanks to, etc.

  • Purpose, mission- ‘why’ we do
  • Strategy – ‘what’ we do 
  • Culture – ‘how’ things are done

How do you know when the company culture is ‘good’? 

You can say that it is a ‘good’ culture when it helps the company achieve its goal. Sometimes, even though a company has a culture that ‘feels’ good, it doesn’t help the company achieve its strategic goals. Therefore, good culture is a culture that’s aligned with the strategy.

The challenge is that most strategies are not really a strategy, because a lot of the time it’s ‘to keep everything as it is or there’s no clear definition. A good strategy always drives some change. This means that if WHAT changes, then HOW needs to follow. In other words, if the strategy drives a change, the culture needs to change too. You cannot expect the strategy to work on its own if you let culture unattended. 

Good culture 

  • Is aligned with the strategy
  • drives change

How do you manage company culture?

As a leader, you have to really be attuned to what kind of culture you want to promote. You have to be very conscious and aware of the culture, and the values. If you are not, it might accidentally shift. 

Culture is always there. If you don’t lead it, it’s going to lead itself. 

For example, if a leader were to be a very high-achiever, and an ambitious person, how do you make it part of a positive company culture instead of a very controlling and demanding culture? 

What’s your idea of the future of work? 

The future of work will be definitely hybrid. I think we are at a crossroads, where we need to start catering to much more individual needs. People’s values have changed tremendously due to the pandemic and we have a shortage of talent. For example, health, work-life balance, family, and digital connectivity have clearly become more important to employees than ever before. So, leaders have to become aware of what makes people tick today.

Start from a blank sheet of paper. 

What should one do with a hybrid work strategy? I often say to the HR leaders, that they should start from a blank sheet of paper. Imagine there’s nothing and you are to redesign the company; what would the benefits look like? What would you do with the meetings? They all have to be rethought. For instance, would people want lunch benefits when they’re working from home half the time? What’s the inclusive way of doing things? Most importantly, how do you meet? It has to be inclusive. 

What’s your opinion on returning to an office? 

I don’t understand the companies calling back their employees to the office without any clear purpose. If there hasn’t been a change in the layout or repurposing of the office, there is no reason. 

On-site is new off-site. One needs to think about what your office offers that you cannot get from home. You shouldn’t ask people to come back to the office to sit in a cubicle, rather make it part of the employee work experience. For instance, create collaboration rooms, workshop rooms, lounge areas, 1:1 rooms, and also space for customers. Office might no longer be 100% employees, but could be a way to show your brand, and incorporate the customers as well. 

5 steps to manage company culture and people in a hybrid working environment

1. CALL People

I know it might sound silly, but we sit behind the computers and send emails. However, when you send an email, there’s something you need, it becomes more about just ‘things,’  compared to having a call with ‘how are you?’ and then moving on to the business you had. You lose that touch with the team. Some companies utilize bots to send polls and monitor team well-being and engagement levels, however with this approach, if you don’t do anything about the result, people will stop responding. 

When an organization become silent, that’s when you should be really worried. 

You need to put more time into ‘leadership.’ Book some time in your calendar in a week, just to be there for others, and lead. The open door policy does not work in a hybrid world. So, you need to take the lead and call

2. ASK a simple question: “How are you?” And ‘CARE’ about what people say 

One can start with a simple question like ‘how are you,’ ‘Is there something I could do for you?’, ‘Is there something blocking the work that I could take off of you?’ I believe leadership is like curling, you sweep the floor and take away obstacles so that your team can do things easier. For example, at Eezy Flow, we always do a round of feelings beginning of the meeting.  

3. Always go through the purpose of the meeting in the beginning and in the end

There’s actually very little talk about it. When you attend meetings, people forget why they are attending that meeting. Quickly go through what it is that you are aiming to achieve. Then at the end, check back on it; ‘did we achieve it?’ and book some time to conclude clearly; ‘who’s going to do what, ‘when do we check in again?’ That’s active leadership. 

4. Work on communication skills: connect things to a bigger picture

Try to always connect what you say to a bigger picture. People get lost in a hybrid working situation, wondering ‘I have no idea what our strategy is, what’s the vision, why are we making this decision…etc.’ And as a leader, if you don’t know how to connect things to a bigger picture, you have to be vocal about it. For example, if you are a middle manager and you are not sure, ask; ‘why are we doing this, why now, what happens if we don’t?’ 

5. Make time for yourself to stop

Best managers and leaders are able to stop because they understand why; it could be just for half a day, and have a planning meeting or just to be with each other. The agenda could be a mixture of the two. 

I believe trust is a function of time; the more time you spend togther, the more trust you have; and more trust you have, the faster things go, which is good for businesses. Often, people say ‘I am busy putting out fires, and we don’t have money, nor the time to plan,’ but it is a counterproductive way of thinking because ‘stopping’ and planning will save you cost eventually, prevent the same challenges to rise in the future.

Tip for planning a company/team event?

When you have a company event, extroverts tend to make a lot of noise. So, you need a good facilitator to make sure that everyone is heard. Bringing in that external person makes a big difference.

Also, move out of the office. In your office, you have all the fires that you need to put out, and someone might walk by and ask you something. So, coming to a place like HUONE, is great because you get to concentrate on the day.

It makes magic to go away from the office

Also, once you decide to stop for a day, don’t think too much about saving, and put some effort into planning. And remember, the devils are in the details. Allocate time for the planning, setup, facilitation, workshop, etc. 

How do you make a company event more inclusive? 

By planning, asking, and communicating. Some meetings and events such as kick-offs, product launches, and summer/Christmas parties should in my opinion always be on-site, in-person events. While some meetings such as 1:1 meetings can be ‘optional’. And some can be always fully online, such as project regular check-up meetings.  

Hybrid meetings and events take more planning, and more guidelines, but they could be very effective. A small practice everyone can implement daily would be that when some people are attending a meeting on-site together in a room when others are attending remotely, everyone still joins the online meeting room and puts on the headphones.

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