The Drum | Culture, DE&I and accessibility: What impact has hybrid working had?

Lauren Parmar, head of culture & studio operations at The Mill, offers her insights on one current culture’s biggest questions: to hybrid or not to hybrid?
Press December 1, 2022

Since the initial pandemic shutdowns and subsequent re-openings, every single industry has seen changes in “traditional” workplace culture; there has been a seismic shift in the ways in which companies must fundamentally (re)consider in-person versus remote working. Covid working conditions have spurred conversations about lines between work and leisure, office and home, burnout and sustainability, mental health and accessibility, and many others. Engaging in those conversations and analyzing current practices is essential for organizations that wish to positively impact their respective industries.

One of the most hotly debated topics of our time is the argument for remote vs. office working. Over the past couple of years, many organizations have advocated for a return to the office and a traditional way of working. But employees want something different and according to research conducted by Gartner, 75% of knowledge workers say their expectations for working flexibly have increased. The topic of conversation has been largely focused around where we work, but progressive organizations have shifted their attention and started to think not just about where we work, but how we work.

Can a hybrid approach benefit DE&I?

Since the start of the pandemic, millions of office workers around the world have benefited from the transformative effects of remote working. People have seen better work/life balance, more time with their families, improved mental and physical health and less time (and money) spent commuting as some of the key benefits to a remote or hybrid working set up. In addition, remote working has created a more equitable working environment for everyone by leveling the playing field for people with caring responsibilities and supporting a variety of different lifestyles and personal needs, making the workplace more accessible than ever before. This is alongside evidence that members of the LGBT+ community and ethnic minority employees report that they experience fewer micro-aggressions when working remotely. Needless to say, flexible working arrangements are intrinsically linked to diversity, equity, inclusion & belonging.

 

The impact on company culture

But for all the advantages and steps forward we have taken to reaching an improved equilibrium between our work and home lives, we need to ask ourselves if remote and hybrid working is having an impact on team cohesion. As the workforce becomes dispersed, is company culture being diluted? With fewer people in the office on a daily basis, maintaining company culture and a sense of community within our teams has never been more important.

We must evaluate not just when we use the office, but how we can make our visits to the studio meaningful. Whether starting a pitch, kicking off a new project, meeting with clients, mentoring newer members of the team, attending a training workshop or coming together to eat lunch as a team, the onus is on us to create the spaces and opportunities for connections to take place.

The importance of social life within the workplace cannot be understated as a strong sense of affiliation is forged during moments of togetherness. It’s been reported that 95% of Americans feel happier having even just one friend at work and 92% say friendships at work impact their willingness to stay at the company. Teams with strong bonds produce better work and have more accountability. But how do you maintain a collaborative culture of inclusion and sense of community when your teams are distributed?

A clear articulation of culture brings values and behaviors to life. Leadership sets the tone for the organization and progressive companies will know that cultivating a strong sense of psychological safety is essential to inspire confidence, trust and ultimately, success.

Simon Sinek conveys this sentiment more articulately than I ever could: “Truly human leadership protects an organization from internal rivalries that can shatter a culture. When we must protect ourselves from each other, the whole organization suffers. But when trust and cooperation thrive internally, we pull together and the organization grows stronger as a result.”

Not having your employees on side has the potential to do irreparable damage, not just to employee morale, but also the future success of the company. Instead, giving employees a platform to share their ideas and opinions is a great way to engage teams and create a sense of belonging. Articulation should feel like an act of co-creation and company values should feel like an expression of the team. When everyone in the organization can communicate the company mission and culture clearly, your values are more likely to live and breathe, regardless of where your teams are working, or how often they visit the studio.

As we look to the future, embracing technology will be essential to evolution and growth. Creating a multitude of experiences for teams and our clients, across both physical and digital environments will help to create a culture that is both fair and conducive to us doing our best work. Pre-pandemic, the gravitational pull of the office was driven not just by the desire for collaboration, but also from the practical necessity of needing to be in the same location as certain hardware.

As the world adapted at pace to global lockdown measures, companies were forced to innovate and leverage technology to ensure seamless continuity of service and delivery of work. These developments have led to a democratization of technology that has influenced the way we work forever. With advancements in Web3 technology and the growth of new online communities, we should be thinking about developing a compelling ecosystem of experiences to engage and inspire teams in new and exciting ways. A distributed workforce brings a wealth of opportunity for new talent, previously inaccessible due to geographical separation. As the metaverse gains momentum, we have an opportunity to design immersive experiences and worlds that have accessibility and inclusion in mind. It is our responsibility to create future workplaces that enable company culture to thrive across both physical and digital landscapes. A future we all want to be a part of.

 

The challenges of sustaining a hybrid working model

But the future of hybrid does not come without its challenges. With huge economic challenges ahead, recent reports predict that commercial property will experience a 40% decline in value over the next seven years (on top of a 45% fall in 2020). Not to mention the potential impact that vacant offices could have on the greatest challenge of our time; the climate emergency.

While hybrid working reduces emissions through less time spent commuting, the reality is that a half-empty office needs just as much heating and air conditioning to ensure comfortable conditions for employees. This coupled with the fact that employees working from home will also be using energy, has the potential to mitigate any benefits that commuter reduction could have on the environment. But challenge gives way to opportunity and there are ways that companies can look to reduce their emissions, such as by switching to renewable energy which is how we power The Mill’s London studio.

In addition, there are opportunities to better utilize the real estate we have available to us in innovative ways. While Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday continue to be the most popular days to work in the studio, can we offer out our spaces to not-for-profit organizations, students or those from underrepresented or low-socioeconomic backgrounds to use as a hub for creativity, collaboration and connection, on the days when the office is less busy?

We are living in a unique moment in history and the pandemic has shifted the way we work forever. Going forwards, we will see two types of organizations, those who innovate and embrace change, and those who fall behind as a consequence of staying still. We might not have all the answers right now, but keeping an open mind, embracing experimentation and having the humility to admit when we make mistakes and adjust course, will be key drivers of success. We are fortunate enough to have the necessary tools at our fingertips to create cultures that thrive in both the physical and virtual worlds. It’s how we choose to use them that will count.

Lauren Parmar, Head of Culture & Studio Operations

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