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In-office, remote and hybrid working: How to successfully navigate the changing workplace culture

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By: Carrie Penman, Chief Risk and Compliance Offer at NAVEX 

Carrie Penman, Chief Risk and Compliance Offer at NAVEX

Shifts that have been slowly building for decades seemingly occurred overnight when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Wesaw many businesses across the globe quickly shift to fully remote working and as such, businesses were aware of a potential impact on workplace culture. And, we will continue to see an ever-changing landscape in 2022 and beyond. So, as a business leader, compliance or HR professional or employee, how can you successfully navigate this new world of workplace culture?

Working from home has not impacted workplace culture

With so many people working from home, it seemed likely that the change in workplace dynamics would cause significant damage to the culture of many organisations. 

NAVEX’s 2021 Definitive Risk and Compliance Benchmark report surveyed over 1,000 respondents globally who influence or manage their organisation’s risk and compliance programs. The report found that, despite a year of seismic change in the workplace, the transition to work-from-home environments had no net impact on workplace culture.49% of workplace cultures saw no change and another one-quarter (26%) even saw improvement.

According to NAVEX’s global clients, the resiliency of organisational culture was mostly due to increased one-on-one communications that supervisors and managers had with their remote team members. Those five minutes of small talk on Zoom waiting for team members to join were more valuable than you may have thought. Quality of interactions were better due to this increased focus on the wellbeing of others before delving straight into discussing work.

Facing a second workplace shift: from virtual to hybrid

However, just as businesses and employees are into a routine of this new way of working, we’re facing further global change. From the majority of businesses working remotely, we’ll now see a second workplace culture shift – from virtual to hybrid – as businesses hope to return to offices. Most (57%) organisations surveyed in NAVEX’s report plan to return employees to their pre-COVID work environment however there is still a lot of uncertainty as COVID cases are rife in winter months.

As workplace culture faces another shift, the question becomes; how can companies ensure employees are continually satisfied, and indeed supported, when it comes to workplace culture? 

The top priority for employers by far (78%) in mobilising the back-to-work effort, is safety first, according to NAVEX’s 2021 Definitive Risk and Compliance Benchmark report. There are no differences based on industry; workforce size; revenue; geographic footprint or headquarters location. 

In 2020 we saw widespread protests for social justice, and it marked an epoch in the popular consciousness throughout 2021. These events had huge impact on workplace culture and will continue to serve as a catalyst for institution-altering change in 2022 and beyond. 

So, as we aim to return to work in person, there could be a significant increase in employee reporting – from harassment claims to racial discrimination – and companies need to be prepared.

Ensuring a culture where employees feel supported to speak up is a business imperative

For a successful workplace culture, and therefore a successful business, employees need to feel comfortable speaking up about what they see going amiss at the company. When employees speak up, it can help senior leads better understand other perspectives, as well as help management teams have an honest look into corporate culture and performance and ultimately make better business decisions. 

A supportive speak-up culture requires trust and training, especially of middle managers who might receive complaints about potential wrongdoing or bad behavior. This is an area where too many organizations mistakenly believe it is too expensive to invest yet this is often the single point of failure in the internal reporting process. Nearly every organization I have encountered encourages employees to speak to their managers first, but they do little to ensure these managers know what to do with – or are even able to recognize – issues raised.

It also requires careful and consistent investigation protocols to assure a fair, objective investigation into the matter as well as consistent disciplinary actions for those who violate the rules. As soon as employees detect “special rules for special people,” trust is lost. In addition, businesses need strong communication skills from leaders, to explain, to the extent possible,  what happened and how that issue might lead to discipline, new policy, or no action at all, depending on the outcomes of an investigation. Finally, it also requires proactive and ongoing efforts to reduce fear of retaliation.

It’s also important to track and manage reports. Management teams can set out clear objectives, then derive policies and procedures. From policies and procedures, you can derive data to collect and report. From data and reports, you can chart future improvements. To equip an incident management programme to best capture reporting it’s important to track all sources and leverage non-hotline-based reporting. It is also necessary to have the right technology platforms in place to ensure reporting is easy and streamlined for employees, compliance leaders and HR officers. 

A strong healthy culture is a must have, not a ‘nice to have’. And this obligation falls beyond compliance and HR leaders. Boards and full executive teams must own it. While compliance and HR are key facilitators in overseeing the culture, all leaders are responsible for driving it. That means elevating the importance of improving organisational culture in decision-making processes and holding all employees accountable for their actions.

Incident management reporting will continue to be key

The events of the past two years caused seismic shifts to the way businesses function across the world. There are multiple essential learnings and opportunities for businesses to take forward. Essentially, all leaders, and all compliance and HR programmes, should encourage employees to speak up about problems and issues they observe in the workplace in a timely way.

With continued uncertainty, a new way of working for many; from fully virtual to hybrid, and ongoing social disruption, executives and compliance and HR professionals need to have a complete picture of business risks. This can be achieved by documenting all reports in one centralised incident management system which will encourage reporting amongst staff and allows for businesses to act effectively. This is the only way to identify concerning trends and not mistake issues as a “one off.”

Don’t take a speak-up culture for granted

Perhaps most importantly, business leaders should not become complacent and assume that employees will report their concerns to an internal resource. The seismic shifts we are seeing also include a trend toward external, rather than internal, reporting whether it be on social media or to government agencies. Now, more than ever, earning and retaining the trust of our employees requires constant care and feeding of an organizational culture that supports speaking and strong and true protections from retaliation. 

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