Recently, when I returned to the office after 18 months of working remotely, I noticed something: I smiled more in the first 30 minutes in the office than I had during most mornings in the preceding year and a half.

I wasn’t smiling because I was so inordinately happy to see my desk, my large screen, or my ergonomically intelligent office chair. I wasn’t even smiling because I wouldn’t have to make my own lunch for a change. I was smiling because of the people. I was smiling because I was, once again, welcomed back into a culture that I had cherished up until the world changed and we all receded into our bubbles.If we could bottle that sense of belonging and psychological safety, we could solve company culture issues overnight. But the reality is different. Reality, until now at least, has demanded that we build company culture over years’ time.

To date, this has happened through various strategies and activities, technologies and policies, gatherings and workshops, and through countless informal micro-interactions — the importance of which we may have only recently begun to truly acknowledge. However, as sections of workforces return to the office and we step boldly into the brave new world that is the hybrid workplace, we have started to realize that these traditional methods of cultivating company culture may no longer suffice.With work teams more distributed than ever, what’s happening in the office on any given day will likely only reflect a slice of company culture, rather than representing the organization’s full DNA. And while we rightly sing the praises of the technological innovations that have kept the gears of global businesses moving, the elephant in the room is that corporate cultures have lost something vital in this period of social distancing. That lack (or “that reason to smile”) represents the inherent, sometimes inexplicable value found in the happiest and healthiest of workplace cultures.To get it back, we may need to tap into our emotions.Side-stepping the Hybrid Culture ClashAs much as we have all learned from this generation-defining 18-plus months, the truth is that we’re in uncharted territory when it comes to hybrid work. Maybe most worryingly, we don’t quite agree on how hybrid work should actually, well, work.

Kahoot!’s 2021 Workplace Culture Report, which surveyed 1,600 human resources (HR) professionals and employees, found that that traditional perceptions of remote workers may be among the most acute challenges to workplace culture, with 83% of HR leaders saying that face-to-face communication is important to be successful at their company.That awareness, however, doesn’t look like it will make proponents of the flexible work model any less passionate. While we want to continue the trends of learning, development and curiosity that flourished during periods of lockdown, findings from our report showed how many are willing to sacrifice considerable benefits to secure that flexibility: 42% would regularly work overtime with no extra pay and 41% would give up promotion opportunities. There’s a generational gap, too: Millennials were up to four times more likely to say they’d make these sacrifices than baby boomers.

More Connectedness, Please
In workforces with a chronic lack of in-office interaction, we could see a drop in empathy between colleagues, as they miss opportunities to build the emotional, interpersonal relationships that have thrived around water coolers, coffee machines and over canteen tables for decades.All is far from lost, of course, and there is some good news for custodians of company culture: Employees overwhelmingly want more connection. Our report’s findings showed that 91% of employees want to feel more connected to their teammates.The type of experiences we provide for them, however, could well play a nuanced but vital role in building successful company cultures in the hybrid era. This need will push collaborative technology from its current status quo into new spaces, beyond connecting colleagues through messaging, group channels and virtual meeting rooms.Including Everyone
To do this, the onus will be on employers to embrace a flexible way of work, while also utilizing the types of technology that will include everyone, regardless of their location. That will necessitate a sort of collaborative tech 2.0 that manages to engage, train and develop employees regardless of their location, but that can also create those elusive emotional connections so essential to our professional interpersonal relationships.

Gamification can also help build connection among hybrid workers. We’ve found that gamifying everything from learning to onboarding to employee engagement initiatives puts smiles on globally dispersed learners and teams’ faces. Crucially, too, we’ve seen these benefits happen virtually, physically and through the hybrid mix.Engaging learning experiences, fueled by collaborative technology, bode well for the future of company culture. After all, if we’re going to make hybrid work a success, and in doing so side-step a potential corporate culture clash, we’ll need to do it with a whole new type of collaboration technology. More importantly, we’ll need to do it with a smile.