A great hybrid working culture is about trust, not beer fridges
Adam Holloway of agency Emperor takes a look back at how we got to the present moment of ‘hybrid working,’ and why it takes more than a beer fridge to grow a strong company culture.
Agency culture is more than a beer on a Friday / Catalin Apostol via Unsplash
At Emperor, hybrid working isn’t something that we’ve organically grown into. We had to adapt to it, fast, when the pandemic hit.
Like many agencies, we’ve had some people doing it for years, but accelerated en masse adoption meant that we had to make some quick decisions and huge assumptions on the best way of doing things.
In many ways, things were easier at the beginning. We had a level playing field where everyone, colleagues and clients alike, found themselves in the same position: working from home. Notwithstanding IT issues, it was relatively straightforward and even had some refreshing side effects.
We got a window into each other’s lives, met family members and witnessed each other’s pain points (such as homeschooling). We discovered and celebrated each other’s real lives. This went a long way in breaking down professional façades, promoting a sense of understanding and empathy on a personal level.
Fast forward 18 months and suddenly everything changed again. Being at home was wearing thin, in many cases becoming unbearable, so as soon as we could many of us started to return to the office. That’s when we truly began to explore and experiment with wholesale hybrid working.
We naturally defaulted to some traditional office-based ways of working, which come hand-in-hand with certain bad habits. We also made some new ones: meeting overload and Zoom fatigue quickly became our reality. We had to set some boundaries. Juxtapose this with the personal journeys our partners were on, all experiencing a different range of responsibilities and individual needs, and you have a dynamic that really tested the mettle of company culture.
It takes more than a beer fridge
Suddenly, the rules had changed; as had people’s expectations and priorities. People felt empowered to make bold decisions based on a new set of personal objectives and values. In the broader employment market, this has been dubbed the ‘great resignation.’ The need for solid company culture has never been more important.
But what makes a great culture in a world of hybrid working? Is it the super-cool office that comes equipped with the obligatory table tennis table? Is it the colorful slide that deposits you into a luscious breakout area that resembles Teletubbyland? The top-of-the-range coffee machine that will put baristas to shame? The endless supply of fruit and snacks?
A well-stocked beer fridge? Top-tier perks such as free gym memberships, on-site massages, yoga teachers or unlimited holidays? Or the holy grail: a four-day week?
It turns out that most people just aren’t that fickle. Although benefits and perks do play a part in creating a strong culture, what matters most to people is much more emotive.
Look at any research on the subject and you get some clear themes emerging. Inspirational and supportive leadership is always high on the list. This often comes alongside the desire for a clear vision. A strong sense of community scores high, and is almost always supported by wider themes such as caring, fairness and transparency. Recognition and appreciation are important too.
But what shines through most as a true reflection of strong company culture is the desire to feel trusted and respected.
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Achieving the right balance
When it comes to culture, trust and respect come in many forms. At Emperor, it means trusting our partners to know what we expect from them. It means giving them the freedom to find out what works for them and what doesn’t. This is particularly pertinent in the creative industry, where we face some unique challenges.
Our best work doesn’t always happen from 9-5. It does rely on close collaboration; there are times when it’s essential for us to be in the same room. Creativity isn’t an exact science, so we don’t always get it right the first time – nor should we. And our clients have certain expectations of us, which can and do encroach on our personal time.
This means trusting people to tailor their working week to achieve the balance of work and life that we all strive for. It means treating them with dignity, and respecting the boundaries they put in place to protect their mental health and wellbeing. We trust them to be courteous and kind when communicating with their teams so that behavior can be reciprocated. We want everyone to achieve that balance.
We’re still learning what works for us at Emperor. What we do know is that it doesn’t pay to make too many assumptions about what works and what doesn’t. Trust your people and show them the respect they deserve. Allow them to be authentic and give them the space to discover how they do their best work.
For us, that trust has paid dividends. We’ve produced some of our best work over the past few years. I have no doubt that if we continue to adapt and evolve around hybrid working, it will only get better.
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