Many firms that jumped to an entirely remote model due to the COVID-19 pandemic are now considering what a hybrid practice will look like when life returns to a sense of normalcy. In a hybrid model, firm employees can work in the office, entirely remote, or between the two.

The biggest challenge of a hybrid practice is that it quickly reveals inconsistencies in firm culture, process, operations, and project management that can hinder a firm’s ability to succeed. Specifically, these challenges may include:

  • Developing and maintaining a flexible- and remote-work compatible culture
  • A lack of defined flexible versus remote work policies
  • Different leadership and management styles
  • A division of team between those always in the office and those who are not
  • Perceived work productivity based on time in seats versus tasks completed
  • Too much variety in the communication platforms and tools used

A strong firm culture is essential for long-term success. Architecture firms are known for letting their internal culture grow organically: A mix of past experiences informs what firm leaders hope to develop in their practice. This approach is problematic because successful implementation of culture needs to derive from a shared mission and shared values that every employee conveys every day through their behaviors. Good firm culture encourages respectful relationships where everyone knows and is excited about the common goals they are working to accomplish. In other words, culture is foundational to a firm’s success. Waiting for culture to evolve organically is a missed opportunity for the firm to accelerate its success rate.

Waiting for culture to evolve organically is a missed opportunity for the firm to accelerate its success rate.

In a hybrid practice, the thoughtful development of culture must be values-driven. You are ultimately catering to two different ways people work: those who go into the office regularly, and those who work from another location. A values-driven culture is one in which the values ultimately guide everything that the business does, from how it finds and hires new people, to how everyone interacts and works together daily, and to how a firm grows and gets new work. The values should permeate a firm, be formalized through a written statement, be demonstrated by leaders, and be exemplified by everyone’s behaviors within the business.

Why Culture Matters
Never underestimate the importance of firm culture. It is the one differentiator of your firm. Your competitors can replicate nearly everything else a traditional or expanded architecture practice can deliver: products and services, business development, and even strategic approaches. The combination of firm values and norms can be the determinants for whether individuals choose to stay, how they show up each day, and how engaged they are in their work.

The intentional development of culture is core to the long-term success of a firm. The joint MIT Sloan/Glassdoor Culture 500 research project, which compares the cultures of more than 500 of the U.S. largest companies, has consistently found year over year that corporate culture directly affects productivity, creativity, value, and growth.

Why Culture Is More Important for Distributed and Hybrid Teams
Culture is shaped by the experiences within a physical space. Understanding the differences between creating and maintaining a vibrant culture in a remote work environment versus a purely office-based environment cannot be underestimated.

Something special happens within the shared experience of an office-based environment. Innovation can arise from spur-of-the-moment interactions, such as a conversation about the latest bingeworthy show. In many ways, each interaction forms an aggregated foundation for how a firm’s culture manifests itself. In Edgar Schein’s Culture Model, these pieces are called a firm’s artifacts, or the first level of a firm’s characteristics that individuals can hear and feel collectively.

Within a hybrid practice, a firm cannot solely rely on these shared experiences within the physical office to define culture. Without these surface elements in Schein’s model, a firm must rely even more on values and a commitment from everyone. That means that everyday culture needs to be expressed and demonstrated through individual actions.

In my next article, I will dive into how to cultivate a values-based culture.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of The American Institute of Architects.