Blog – Culture doesn’t always live in the building

By Corinne Canter

Many times, I’ve heard clients say that their mission to embark on meaningful cultural change is serendipitously timed with a workspace overhaul, “we are remodelling our office with new break out areas, internal stairs and chill zones“, and while these are great additions and prompt a spark of energy from being in ‘new digs’ – they will not do any of the ‘heavy lifting’ when it comes to changing or evolving an organisation’s culture. That’s because quite simply, Culture doesn’t live in the building but in the everyday interaction and choices made by people.

When it comes to culture … everyone’s fingerprints are on it! We learn about an organisation’s culture by being told about it; what is valued, what is rewarded and what is prioritised. We also learn by watching what goes on day to day; how decisions are made, what gets a leaders attention, what doesn’t and how mistakes are dealt with. And in doing so we learn which of the organisation’s values are actually lived and which seem to be lip service.

Prior to the hybrid pivot that was the pandemic, work was largely location based. Though some organisations had moved to flexible workplace policies and practises, and, for many global organisations remote working was a norm, so it is fair to say in general terms it was being done in a small piece meal way – through part time work, a day at home here and there by negotiation. Traditionally, though our days were anchored in seeing people in a physical setting, and this naturally created the impression that you needed to be physically together to build great teams or great culture.

Covid showed us that it was possible to be effective working remotely or in person and most companies have now settled on a hybrid way of working. Therefore, the ideology is not so much ‘workplace’ but rather ‘workspace’. However, in all cases, the fundamentals of what shapes culture still remains the same.

Culture is a behavioural and relational phenomenon – you can’t see or touch it, but you can feel it, whether in person or via screen.

The clarity with which people are communicated to; the degree to which people are encouraged to connect and spend time with their colleagues, sharing information and ideas, collaborating and solving problems all reflect the culture. How organisations recognise and reward effort, how empowered people are to make decisions; these are some of the cornerstones that go a long way shaping the culture.

Leaders are key, they are the carriers of culture; they represent what the organisation is meant to value and prioritise – this is what people pay attention to.

So how does culture affect an organisation’s people when they’re working from home?

Because culture is behavioural, people ought to be able to experience the culture of their organisation consistently in all the interactions they have with their leaders and colleagues, regardless of whether they are working from home or physically collocated.

Just as in a physical environment, culture can affect people positively or adversely working from home if they are managed on time and hours vs outcomes.

Because people are working from home, the lines between work and homelife have been inextricably blurred – this mash up can have some positive benefits for some, but there can be a downside if there are no boundaries to when work should stop. This leads to people always being ‘on’ and can lead to potential burn out. While this is also true in the physical environment – the difference with people working more from home is, it is less visible – there was a study conducted between 2020-2021 of over 5,000 people which reported that 49% of these respondents across corporate and government sectors around the work felt at least “somewhat burnt out”, (1).

Organisations need to have some clear vision, guidelines and principles that describe their expectations. These expectations need to be fair, reasonable and manageable and communicated explicitly to their workforce.

Another way culture can impact people working remotely is the degree to which people are encouraged to connect and spend time together. Because the medium and ways of working from home is screen based, it can therefore be ‘function’ and ‘task’ orientated.

Unlike the sporadic catch-up collision with a colleague in the hallway, or a walk to the coffee shop together, it is very easy to just monitor-talk to others only when the need arises. This functional aspect of remote working can be a positive thing if you need quiet time to concentrate however, the downside is that there is less incidental learning from one another by hearing how a colleague deals with a tricky situation over the phone and asking them about it. There is less spontaneity or joking or sparking of ideas that happen when people can’t come together physically.

So, while some people prefer working from home 100% of the time, it is fair to say that most of our clients have landed on hybrid working – part of the time working from home and part of the time in the office. Again, this leads to the ideology of workspaces rather than workplaces.

The degree to which culture impacts people when they work from home largely depends on

– Clarity of expectation and guidelines

– Clarity about what good looks like in terms of outcomes vs hours of work

– Communication and connection

– Consistency of communication and connection and the degree to which leaders consciously check in given the low to no virtual collisions

Does hybrid working change the role leaders play in setting culture?

In short, it doesn’t change the essence of their role, but it does impact how they play their role.

One positive of hybrid working is that leaders are more accessible – all virtual staff townhalls give employees access to leaders more regularly for short bites without the cost of commuting or travel time.

Leaders do need to be more conscious of being connected, checking in with their people to ensure that they have what they need to do their work whether that is physical equipment, clarity of priorities and goals or emotional support.

One of the trends we have seen impact leaders is that the workplace has become more human – we see people, their décor, their pets, their children on the screen as they are working in their natural habitat. It is an aspect which most leaders and employees seem to enjoy.

The move towards remote working means leaders need to demonstrate empathy and consideration about employees’ issues since the work/life boundaries are more fluid.

One study undertaken by Circle In (a provider of digital employee benefits platforms), involving data from more than 500 leaders showed that 97 percent of respondents reported having supported a team member navigate challenging life issues, over 50 percent said providing this support is a major part of their job and 80 percent had not received any training in doing this, (2).

While we should not expect managers to become counsellors, they do need to show advanced listening skills to provide a caring ear for team members when they need one. After all, life is a mash up – the more leaders can accept and work with this, the more effective they will be at motivating their people.

What does a good organisational culture look like in uncertain times?

The world has always been uncertain, and change has never needed our permission to happen. Organisations always need to be looking to change and adapt as part of its fitness regime, if you do that, you build resilience, and your culture supports the organisation’s ability to adapt to the change.

The hallmark of a good organisational culture is constantly bringing the outside in and adapting to change. When external changes or disruption causes uncertainty, a good organisational culture will be clear.

In addition to leadership, being effective in all seasons regardless of whether you are in BAU or Crisis comes down to two things: CLARITY, and COMMUNICATION

– Send clear messages about what is important, why and how people should invest their time, energy and effort – what everyone needs to stop, start and continue, and how their effort will make a difference.

 Increase levels of connection and communication – at the organisational level communications will be about direction and priorities and the health of the organisation –  “how are we going” should be supported by local leader communication with their teams and one-to-one’s to help relieve anxiety and uncertainty, which in turn helps to support people to see how their effort makes a difference.

– Communication should be inclusive. People coming together to support each other and ensuring no team member is left behind. Organisations should tap into the diversity of its workforce in terms of skills, talents and qualities that may have not been known but may be a great resource and asset.

All of this is about demonstrating trustworthiness – people are the foundation and cornerstone of an organisation – the collective effort of achieving shared objectives is the power of culture and that hinges on clarity, care, trust, credibility and therefore transparency – these are the underpinning qualities you would see in a healthy, effective, ‘good’ culture.

About the Author:

Corinne Canter is the Head of Consulting at Human Synergistics Australia. She has over 25 years of working with leaders to create high performing, toxic free teams, and positive workplace cultures. Get in touch with me to see how we can help you and your business unlock growth.

(1) Boland, De Smet, Palter, Sanghvi, 2021, Reimagining the office and work life after Covid 19, (

(2) 2022,


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