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Creating a hybrid culture

The best and simplest definition of organisation culture is that it is “how we do things around here.” 

Ten years ago, culture was communicated through people watching other people to find out how they behaved, what they valued and how they approached problems. But how do we establish a “how we do things round here” when there is no physical “here”?

I work with a lot of different hybrid organisations and they all have slightly different approaches to this question. The least useful is simply believing that the culture they built before they went hybrid will just carry over.

That just doesn’t work. It becomes less and less effective every time a new person joins who has absolutely no idea what it used to be like. 

The culture is slowly eroded because no one is thinking intentionally about it.

One really useful way to conceptualise what is going on within a culture is through the theory of high and low context communication, which was developed by the anthropologist Edward Hall in 1976.

Hall identified that communication and interactions operate with different levels of context, by which he meant the shared understanding and implicit meanings that we build between us.

Two close friends will have high levels of context in their communications. They have a lot of background information about each other’s history, personality and values. There will be a lot that can go unsaid or can be understood from a small gesture. A raised eyebrow can convey a huge amount.

In contrast, an interaction with a stranger is low context. They know nothing about you so there are no shortcuts to understanding. Everything needs to be stated explicitly, or it can risk being misunderstood. We can’t ask someone in a shop where to find “my favourite vegetable” because they would have no idea what we mean.

At a group level, context is held in a shared sense of “how we do things”. It is determined by a shared understanding of rituals, symbols and rules. The more of these we have, the higher the level of context. Some cultures are very high context, while others are less so.

In a high context culture, the overarching system is valued. Members of the group feel secure because they understand the ‘rules’ of communication. This means that each interaction is able to build deeper relationships and drive cooperation.

In contrast, lower context communications tend to be explicit and transactional. There is little shared meaning, so there is less trust. In cultures and relationships with low context, the link between people and communities are much looser and there is more potential for conflict.

Building a thriving culture is about building as much context as possible for employees.

A high context working culture would mean that there was a strong sense of how the work should be completed, and how people should treat each other. Each individual would understand what certain cues meant, or actions that should be taken in response to a certain prompt.

Do you need to check what you’re doing with every other team, or just some? How will a senior manager react if you approach them directly? How will people apportion blame if your project doesn’t go as planned? Is it ok to express your opinion in a meeting if you’re more junior? Is being overworked a badge of achievement, or something you can talk to your manager about?

A higher context culture provides a safe space for employees, who should have a solid idea of what is expected of them and what they can expect from others.

But creating that context takes time, effort and commitment at all levels.

In many cases we are actually shifting to lower context workplaces. And this is because we haven’t properly understood or tackled context in the hybrid world.

The first step is to recognise that culture can no longer be intangible and ‘absorbed’ as people join the company. It’s not something we can observe and learn by seeing what other people do. (Well, possibly we could, but it would take a reeeeallly long time.)

To build a high context culture in a hybrid world, we actually need to begin by communicating in a very low context way.

We need to be very clear and explicit about rules and expectations, about the rituals that matter to us and about the behaviours that need to be shared. We need to set these out for people, especially for new staff. 

We need to create the context.

This can feel counter-intuitive. It can also feel uncomfortable, as some leaders shy away from being so explicit about what they want people to do.

But no organsiation can deliver its goals without a productive culture in place. So doing this work is crucial.

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