How to Better Build Relationships & Culture As A Hybrid Leader

Diane Gayeski
Diane Gayeski
Published on 
4.29.2022

To attract and retain top talent, culture and relationships matter – even more than salary or prestige. So does the ability to have more control over one’s schedule - such as being able to have flexibility in the times and spaces to work.  But balancing out a hybrid culture with the need to build a sense of purpose and belonging is a tough act! Today’s successful leaders need to be excellent storytellers, social directors, and experience designers.

The Balancing Act of Culture and Flexibility

The after-effects of COVID have taught us two things: employees want flexibility in where and when they work (and about half might jump ship if they don’t get it) and  they want to feel a sense of pride and purpose in the place to which they devote their time and talent. 

Here’s the problem: most of the situations that lead to building relationships and culture have traditionally been situated in face-to-face interactions and physical culture. Now managers need to find a way to bring teams together, despite location. Merely posting the company’s mission and vision on the website doesn’t instill the kind of emotional response that leads to inspiration and loyalty. It’s time to dig deeper.

What is Corporate Culture?

To be able to build culture, we need to understand what it is. The simple definition is “the way we do things around here”. According to a Harvard Business Review research spotlight, it’s the “tacit social order” - the unspoken norms, expectations, and behavior patterns that are gradually built in organizations over time. Generally, this happens without planning, although executives, or those with referent or connection power certainly influence it. Culture emerges as people observe others and see what reactions they get to their own words and behaviors.  

Hybrid Workplace Leaders: Storytellers, Social Directors, Experience Designers

A primary way that culture is passed on is through story-telling. For example, in the Park School of Communications at Ithaca College where I work, it’s an often-told story that as a first-year student, David Muir (who is now the anchor of ABC World News) auditioned for an on-air slot on our student TV news program,  and got the position over some seniors whose noses were obviously out of joint. An important pillar of our culture is that talent and drive wins out over rank. 

There’s also a culture of kindness and informality: 50 years later we still recount the fact that Rod Serling, who was a guest professor, would always pick up student hitch-hikers on their way up the steep hill from downtown to our campus and would forego dinners with college officials to do voice-overs for student advertising projects and films. 

Building a positive culture is more than just writing out a plan, it takes time. Leaders need to reflect on the values they hold important, define how they play out in behaviors, and then find ways to talk about it. 

In the hybrid workplace  it’s more difficult for employees to build social ties..Even for people who had worked together in person, the past two years have chipped away at relationships and silos have become even more impermeable.  

Leaders now have to be intentional in building the kinds of relationships that provide mentoring and support. They may want to do “re-onboarding” to create a strong sense of solidarity, and they should consider setting up informal meetings among employees across various areas to acquaint them both professionally and socially. 

I once led a project to re-design basic teller training for a large international bank. I knew from our communications consulting work with them that they were undergoing a brand transformation from their former image as “stable but cold” to being “warm and customer relationship oriented”.  

When I asked the VP of Learning how the new brand was going to be embodied in the teller training, he looked surprised and said he’d never heard about it.  I invited the Marketing VP and the Learning VP to lunch  - they had never met - and now they can be resources for one another. The virtual world has made it even more difficult to build these connections.  

Finally, leaders need to be experienced designers. The employee experience starts when someone first considers a job having read an ad or browsing a website, and it continues through the interview process, onboarding, first encounters at work,, and ends at retirement– or even beyond. 

Marketers now see themselves as CX (customer experience) designers and HR is embracing the counterpart EX (employee experience).  McKinsey research indicates that creating a positive EX requires a “profound reorientation away from a traditional top-down model to one based on the fundamentals of design thinking” and this starts at the very top of the organization. 

Hybrid workplaces, hybrid culture

Hybrid work has shifted the way we operate and interact with one another. So in addition to having a stunning lobby, free coffee, and casual Fridays, leaders now need to design virtual experiences that embody the company’s purpose, build culture, and create excitement.

Rethink your office’s culture. Instead of the lobby, what do employees working remotely see when they first start work in the morning? Instead of the break room, how can they find a time to step away and see who’s also needing a break and wants to chat?

Employee needs have changed, and so have the guidelines for leaders. To learn more about what employees are looking for from their hybrid leaders, read our report with Workable on hybrid leadership.