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Building a future-fit culture in a hybrid workplace

In an increasingly digital world, businesses that sync their hybrid working model with their culture will have a competitive advantage in the war for tech talent.


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I recently interviewed an outstanding software engineer. She ticked all the boxes in terms of her skillset and experience, but there was one deal breaker, and it wasn’t salary. She wanted to be fully remote. That was how she’d always worked; and she’s not the only one. OfferZen’s State of the Software Developer Nation report indicates that 92% of South African developers now have the option to either be fully remote or to work in a hybrid manner.

In the war for tech talent, it’s almost unheard of to turn good candidates away. That’s particularly true in the banking industry, where, according to the World Economic Forum, nearly three quarters of financial services organisations globally say that a lack of skills is the biggest barrier to implementing new tech.

But while the option of fully remote work makes sense for some companies, it poses challenges where a company’s culture is reliant on the kinds of strong personal relationships and high levels of engagement that can only be forged through physical proximity.

Such companies must weigh up the merits of allowing staff to work fully remotely against the benefits of having teams together in a single physical space or a combination of both (hybrid). Many, including big tech firms like Apple and Google, have opted for a model where employees are in the office a few days a week. 

Hybrid challenges

Investec recently hosted a +OneX CIO Exchange roundtable discussion with nine local Chief Information Officers to explore how they and their business are dealing with hybrid working challenges. Attendees included representatives from AvBob, Heineken, JD Group and Röhlig-Grindrod, amongst others. The CIO Exchange is an initiative from new-age systems and solutions integrator, +OneX, with the goal of creating a regular forum where South African CIOs can connect, network and exchange ideas.

For some CIOs, company culture doesn’t lend itself to remote work due to the nature of their businesses, lack of digitalisation in processes or generational biases towards online work. For others, the larger challenge is how to introduce new employees to the business and make them feel included in a hybrid environment.

Many CIOs are grappling with how to accommodate full remote working requests from digital and technology staff. There are no obvious “best practice” answers: we are all experimenting, learning and evolving our approach to obtain self-organising teams. It’s helpful to look at the question from the perspective of the various stakeholders who will be impacted by the decision. These include the individual, the team, the organisation and the client.

It's only by taking all these stakeholders into account that we can arrive at legitimate answers to the kinds of questions that all organisations are having to grapple with in the wake of the pandemic: How to ensure people feel included? How to maintain relationships? How to remain connected? Some CIOs were even scratching their heads wondering how to bring fun back into the workspace.

Shabhana Thaver
Shabhana Thaver, CIO, Investec Specialist Bank SA

Many CIOs are grappling with how to accommodate full remote working requests from digital and technology staff. There are no obvious “best practice” answers: we are all experimenting, learning and evolving our approach to obtain self-organising teams.

At Investec, 20% of our staff work in the digital and technology space. A mantra in our tech teams is that we don’t just support the business, we are the business. And it’s a business built on relationships, apprenticeship, intensity, and ambition. So although individuals may find it more efficient to work from home, they cannot ignore the effect that their work habits may have on their teams and colleagues, and indeed on the organisational culture itself.

We’ve chosen a hybrid model where staff come into the office at least three days a week to enable connection and relationship-building through working and learning together. We are letting our teams navigate what it means to be hybrid, with the aim of being self-regulating, whilst maintaining our high performing culture, flexibility and autonomy.

Leading from the front

Investec’s CEO Richard Wainwright, one of the roundtable attendees, highlighted that managing a successful transition to hybrid working all comes down to leadership, adding that leadership at Investec is essentially the management of the culture.

Wainwright acknowledged that there is no rule book for expressing and embedding culture in a hybrid work environment. But he advocates an approach that is grounded in the organisation’s core values. From these, he says, we can derive principles that can be applied consistently and deliberately when defining the behaviours that are consistent with the culture.

An example of one of these behaviours is that leaders must be careful to ensure that inclusion and belonging are not overlooked in digital interactions. Employees might not be physically present all the time, but they still need to feel heard and acknowledged.

Switching on cameras in meetings, ensuring the meeting technology is seamless and asking for input from virtual team members are all simple ways to create digital connection. And yes, people do notice when you’re secretly working away at a second screen while they’re trying to engage with you on Teams or Zoom!

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With only 121,000 software developers in South Africa and almost 40% of them working for international companies, there's a critical shortage of tech talent in the country. How did we get here? And what are we doing to address the crisis?


A sense of purpose

One of the points on which all the CIOs agreed is that employees want to feel that their efforts are contributing to something more than just a paycheck. At some companies, this greater purpose might be expressed in lofty goals about improving the world. But often it’s simply about building better products or solutions for clients or being part of the collective success of a team.

This need for meaning is only heightened in the context of an unsettling external environment. As South Africans we’ve lived through a lot of trauma over the past few years: the pandemic, civil unrest, natural disaster, uncertain global politics and, of course, ongoing loadshedding. And though many of us have come to value the flexibility that remote or hybrid working models allow, we are also craving a sense of belonging and shared hopefulness that comes from being part of a collective.

And as much as people look to their colleagues to find meaning in shared endeavour, they also look to the behaviours of leaders to gauge how sincere the organisation is about its professed values. While corporate purpose statements might be useful in fostering a sense of meaning at work, their effectiveness is entirely dependent on how they translate into authentic action, both externally and internally.

If trust is a core value, then it’s imperative that staff feel trusted. And any company that professes to improve the wellbeing of society must invest time and effort into understanding and responding to the variables that contribute to the wellbeing of its own people. The message communicated by such authentic leadership is that everyone in the company should consider the impact of their actions and work habits on the wider team and the organisation as a whole.

As we seek to reimagine models of engagement and connection for a hybrid working world, it’s clear that EQ, and the ability to lead with empathy – the ‘soft skills’ of leadership – rather than technical or task-based competences, will be the defining character trait of tomorrow’s successful leaders. Developing these skills will help leaders, their people and their businesses manage the evolution to successful hybrid working models.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Working out the most effective way to implement hybrid working is going to require sharpened focus. It is an opportunity to re-invigorate culture to drive the growth of the organisation, teams and individuals in innovative ways. Getting this right will be a key competitive differentiator. 

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