Guest post by Megan Reitz, Professor of Leadership and Dialogue, Hult Ashridge Business School and contributor featured in Poly’s Hybrid Working Report.

If you could choose any four attributes of workplace culture that would enable you and your organization to thrive, as we continue on our unpredictable, tumultuous path through the pandemic, what would they be?

I’ve asked many leaders this question recently. There have been a range of responses but “agile,” “innovative,” “ethical” and “compassionate” are the capacities that many of them have on their “culture wish list.” These are capacities that can help organizations emerge from this crisis – and be ready to face the next one.

An agile, innovative, ethical and compassionate culture signals that particular types of conversations are possible and happening in the workplace. Specifically, it indicates that employees can and do speak up with ideas, with challenges and about mistakes without the threat of being ignored, punished or embarrassed.

Employees don’t speak up if it feels unsafe or if those in positions of power aren’t listening. At the time of writing, in our ongoing Hult Ashridge global survey of nearly 6,000 employees, around 13% know something that could negatively impact their organization – but haven’t spoken up about it formally. Over a third feel they will be ignored if they speak up with a problem and a third even believe they’d be ignored if they made a suggestion or offered an idea (see ‘Speaking Truth to Power at Work’ interim research report).

Poly Hybrid Working Report

Culture can be understood as persistent patterns – habits – in our interactions and conversations. These habits, infused by national and organizational norms, dictate who speaks up and who stays silent; who gets heard and who gets ignored; what subjects are spoken about, and which aren’t. Silenced voices have huge consequences and spell the difference between adaptive, innovative, flourishing teams and inflexible, unethical, unsafe ones.

They also spell the difference between those organizations that are on the front page of the newspaper for the right reasons – and those who are there for the wrong ones.

Whilst we don’t know what challenges lie ahead, we have learnt that there are some habits worth “hardwiring” into our team’s culture which help employees to speak up – in turn enabling teams to be agile, innovative, ethical and compassionate.

How would your team fare on these?

1. Trusting – like it or not, the days of the team all sitting together, working the same hours, are gone. If team members can’t trust each other to get on with things and work with positive intent, then an inordinate amount of energy will go into anxious micromanagement.

Do you feel trusted by your colleagues and do you trust them?

2. Inclusive – diverse teams do better. But you must be able to harness and appreciate difference. That means stepping out of your world and seeing things from other perspectives.

When was the last time you felt challenged by a different perspective?

3. Inquiring – you can’t generalize. ‘One-size’ management doesn’t fit all. Employees respond differently to virtual, flexible working. They have different circumstances, personalities and perspectives. So, managers must learn the skills to inquire, be curious, ask questions.

How much time do you spend inquiring rather than advocating with your colleagues?

4. Purpose driven – we are seeing a well-overdue widening of purpose from ‘profit for shareholders’ to stakeholder needs and responsibility in society. This focus on impact not only serves as a compass in times of change, it makes for a more meaningful workplace.

What impact do you and your team want to have in your organization and in society – and what impact are you having right now?

Your habits sow the seeds of your future. To reimagine that future means you must change conversations. Different voices need to be invited and heard. Now.

Find my full contribution in Poly’s new report, Hybrid Working: Creating the “next normal” in work practices, spaces and culture, here.