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  • Writer's pictureSarah Bolas

Mind the Cultural Gap

Updated: Jan 17, 2023

Hybrid working has many touted advantages; work life balance, wellbeing, and productivity to name just a few. Organisations have wrestled with ‘office day’ weekly ratios, mandate or not dilemmas, and are grappling with what all of this means for attracting and retaining talent. Hybrid working is now positioned as a central tenant of many future Employee Value Propositions or EVP’s (as 1.4million Google pages would attest to) and hits the news headlines in an unflattering light if it is not. However, the reality of the workplace is that there are a number of roles where ‘hybrid’ just doesn’t work.

It is often only said as an aside or afterthought that ‘of course hybrid working doesn’t suit everybody’. Or that ‘not every role can be hybrid’. But there the conversation seems to stop. There is a shrug, a pause and then a focus on what guidance managers need to manage a hybrid workforce, or if they are allowed to insist in-person attendance at a particular meeting or not. However, that missing conversation is a critical one: What is the impact of hybrid working on the roles that cannot be part of this working pattern? What does it mean for their employee value proposition?

Why does it matter?

The neuroscience tells us that we have an internal set of balancing scales that jot up what is ‘fair’ and what is not. We’ve all experienced a version of ‘well I’ve called them three times, now it’s their turn to call me’. We keep count, even if we don’t realise, we are doing it. Perceived ‘fair’ exchanges are intrinsically rewarding, they make us feel good. Perceived unfair exchanges generate a strong threat response* - one that can be experienced as visceral and highly charged. See any sport with a poor refereeing decision as evidence of this, fans display anger, disbelief, grief and detachment with a spectrum of behaviours and actions that are influenced accordingly. Whilst many organisations have historically had a ‘them and us’ as part of their cultural blueprint, e.g., front office vs back office, leadership vs front line; hybrid vs not hybrid as a new ‘them and us’ seems to be largely ignored despite the cultural organisational peril it provokes. The other aspect the neuroscience shows us is that people who perceive others as experiencing unfair advantage don’t feel empathy for their pain or discomfort, and in extreme, can feel rewarded or pleasure when the ‘unfair others’ are punished or experience adversity. It creates an immediate psychological divide. This glossing over of the conversation entirely not only minimises the impact that is experienced by those staff (often in roles that are the oil that keeps the organisational engine running smoothly) but unfortunately compounds it.

What exactly is ‘not fair’?

For leaders that are already grappling with this, one frustration is that ‘fairness’ is subjective; it is calculated instantly and instinctively and when it presents itself in this post-pandemic world, it just feels like even more complexity at a time that ‘hybrid’ can already feel like a challenge that is too hard to solve. On the surface nothing has changed for these other roles, so it feels like they need less attention. Unfortunately, those internal balancing scales mean this is not the case; a number of employees are receiving a host of benefits now not available to others. Like a favoured sibling getting the bigger slice of cake, simmering resentment will only bubble quietly for so long. The economic downturn may keep people in place for a while, but for organisations that are serious about their inclusion agenda and employee engagement scores and therefore the retention of frontline talent, getting ahead of the curve to consider a more rounded EVP will put them out front in the tough months ahead. The starting point is an understanding of what some of the unfairness triggers are to allow the ‘balance’ conversation to have a place at the table. This may have many scrambling backwards at the idea of walking into the breech, but just putting the conversation on the table can go a long way. This is not about entitlement, this is about fully understanding the employee experience for a group that is in danger of being left behind as the world of work shifts around them. Some of the main unfairness triggers are:

The lack of a ‘pay-rise’: One of the big attractors of being a hybrid worker is the reduction of commuting both in cost and time and therefore potentially reduced childcare outlay. There are also those individuals who moved further out of city-centres to access cheaper property as the commute required fewer days of commitment. For these employees, they have experienced a real pounds-in-the-pocket difference, a pay-rise by default and although it hasn’t come from the employer’s bottom line, they have been an enabler of it. The perceived unfairness is then often compounded because it is often the front-line roles that tend to fall into the lower salary bands that are not suitable for hybrid. Factoring in the cost-of-living crisis and you can see an aggregated ‘fairness’ impact on this particular group of staff.

What to consider instead: Ideally, the wider perks and benefits package and what could potentially be scaled up to be the most advantageous to non-hybrid roles to put pounds back into their pockets. Some organisations have managed to shift to greater subsidies on travel and on-site food to try and balance the scales and season ticket loans and cycle to work schemes can help with travel costs. For those organisations where finances cannot be a direct part of the solution, you can consider other ways of closing the cost gap; one organisation rearranged employee shift patterns to accommodate cheaper rail fares with the added bonus of supporting those with childcare drop-off for example. Even small efforts can make a big difference in fairness perception.

The lack of flexibility: The ability to squeeze in a load of laundry, see a nativity play or just eat at home with access to your own fridge, is a convenience factor that should not be dismissed lightly. For non-hybrid workers, personal commitments often require annual leave or formal requests.

What to consider instead: consider other ways to build in flexibility. For deliveries, consider installing an Amazon locker on site. Where there are teams to support cover, creating rotas where flexibility is built in even once or twice per month can add tremendous value. We have seen this manifesting as compressed shifts for all, staggered admin time at home, a bank of ‘flex days’ per year where you can make up hours at other times to accommodate personal appointments. Often teams have great ideas themselves when you pose this question to them: ‘All the work must be covered, but we would like to give you more personal flexibility – what could that look like?’

The reduced office experience: With less people in less of the time, particularly on Mondays and Fridays where on average offices have reduced occupation, the office can be a sub-optimal experience for those that do have to be there. Ghost floors and reduced services and access are the norm as facilities teams conserve resources to the areas and days they are most utilised. This experience can be easily interpreted as being considered as personally less important than the employees in on busy days where all the events and resources are directed. The way we are wired means even though the logic stacks up, it can be hard not to take it personally. References as to being the poor relation or second-class citizens are not uncommon.

What to consider instead: Do consider creating ‘hub’ spaces for those days that are quieter to bring people together, even if just for breaks and lunch. Create scaled, targeted events, offers and provisions that demonstrate tangibly that these employees are as valued as their counterparts. Consider the visibility of leadership on these quieter days. Not every leader needs to be in but ensuring there is a visible and accessible leadership presence sends a strong message. Again, a little can go a long way.

So why does all this matter?

The evolution of hybrid working is far from over and one of the shifts we are likely to see over the coming years is a move to identifying and considering sub-groups or micro-cultures and their needs. For the inclusion agenda to be a realised goal rather than a tick box exercise, we need to understand the critical role that culture plays in making people feel included, that they matter, and that they belong in order that they can bring the best of themselves to their role.

These microcultures will be important to identify, in particular, making sure that one group of staff are not disproportionately at a disadvantage around particular rhythms and rituals of ‘how things get done’ than others. It doesn’t sound much, but an example might be that some employees who spend limited time at desktops may not have access to the intranet, the latest organisational news or the Slack/Teams chat like others do. All micro-touchpoints that add up to a greater whole of feeling like you belong, that you know what’s going on. It is not a deliberate exclusion of anyone, but an unintentional side-effect of certain roles. By identifying the needs of this micro-culture, other digital touchpoints could be made available physically in the building, an app added to smartphones and key communications potentially missed can by summarised and relayed in team meetings. There is no one size fits all solution, but with considerate inquiry, an up-level of employee experiences can be attained through targeted, cost conservative interventions that begin to bridge the obvious gaps.

A holistic approach will not mean ‘the same for all’, but fairness isn’t about that. What it should mean is whatever the role, at whatever the level, you feel considered, connected and valued. For those that don’t want to have those conversations – do mind the gap.

*Tabibnia & Lierberman 2007

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