Organisational culture in the world of hybrid work

Organisations need long-serving employees to show up because their knowledge and experience are invaluable in terms of passing on the culture to newbies. Photograph: iStock

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If culture can get lost or diluted by remote working, was it strong enough in the first place?

Organisational culture is easier to sense than to measure. It develops over time and is typically a slow-moving evolution that ultimately results in a series of collective norms that define how those within an organisation are expected to behave. Put more simply, it boils down to “how things get done around here” and it came in for a lot of attention during the Covid-19 pandemic, mainly because companies feared it would get lost or at least watered down by remote working.

It will probably take a decade or more to fully assess the impact of the pandemic on the workplace. In the meantime, as the research gets done and the numbers crunched, organisational culture is still a touchy subject.

In one corner are those sticking to their view that hybrid working continues to undermine organisational culture. In the other are those who ask how strong the culture was in the first place if it couldn’t withstand a crisis.

They argue that Covid didn’t kill culture, it changed it, and it’s not hybrid working that’s undermining it now. It is failure by those at the top to adapt their organisations to the seismic changes that have swept the world of work since March 2020.

Culture is assimilated when people are working together but reinforced by formal and casual interactions with colleagues, whether they happen in-person or remotely. That said, there is a strong argument for younger workers and new hires to be exposed in person to what makes their organisation tick because so much gets “lost in translation” with remote communication.

Long-serving employees may feel that face-to-face time is unnecessary because they already know the drill but in many cases their organisations need them to show up because their knowledge and experience are invaluable in terms of passing on the culture to newbies and stimulating the buzz a positive culture thrives on.

While the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) is best known for training doctors, it’s also a commercial entity employing 1,400 people. It operates a hybrid working policy but its director of human resources, Barry Holmes, says it has been made clear to employees that they are expected to be on site, preferably for three days a week.

“From the outset, we stressed the importance of in-person presence to our work, but we let the teams make their own hybrid plan and gave them the tools and the training to manage it,” he says. “Since the beginning of September, there has been a noticeable increase in footfall with more people present more of the time. Maybe it’s a blip as September always feels like the start of a new year for us and maybe it’s only temporary, but maybe it’s also a trend.”

Holmes adds that having a vibrant culture is fundamental to an organisation charged with educating the next generation of doctors, attracting high-calibre academics to teach its students and inspiring its researchers to make significant medical and clinical breakthroughs.

“I think the culture needs to be robust enough to be able to withstand new people coming in, but flexible enough to be able to accept new ideas and new ways of doing things,” he says. “The RCSI has the strongest culture of any organisation I’ve worked for and that includes the multinational sector. At one level, defining our corporate culture is relatively easy because our whole reason for being is to educate, nurture and discover for the benefits of human health. We care for patients and educate the health professionals of the future. People can relate to this on an emotional level.”

But the RCSI has to pay its way and has the same sort of management structure as any business. There are 11 people on the senior management team with traditional function heads and a few title tweaks to reflect its university status – its most senior executive is called vice-chancellor and registrar.

Apart from its headquarters on St Stephen’s Green, the RCSI operates from a number of other locations in Dublin and also internationally from its own campus in Bahrain and jointly with UCD at the Penang Medical Centre in Malaysia.

It makes about 200 new hires a year across academia, research and professional services and all new recruits are inducted together. “There is a sense of community here,” Holmes says. “We have a fairly flat structure; people are on first-name terms and trusted to get on with their jobs. There’s a simplicity and honesty to this approach.”

One of the monthly events held by the college to foster its collegiate vibe is its “grand rounds” where an academic and a non-academic department double up to make a presentation to their colleagues in a social setting.

“Generally, it’s the more junior staff who do the presenting,” Holmes says. “It’s an opportunity for them to showcase their work and also to keep people in touch with the really outstanding work that’s being done here and that we can be proud of. It also helps create relationships that wouldn’t happen naturally otherwise. It’s a very simple concept, but it works really well.

“I follow Steven Bartlett’s Diary of a CEO and he made a comment about organisational culture that really struck a chord with me,” Holmes adds. “He said that if your culture is strong, new people become like the culture, but if your culture is weak, then the culture becomes like the new people.”


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