In a Hybrid World, Execs — and Employees — Define Culture on Their Own Terms

Rupert Campbell is only a few months on the job as Adidas’ North American president. But he already has big ideas about how to incubate a strong culture at the organization.

“I want everybody to feel invested in this brand,” Campbell said. This includes the top North American executive himself, who takes time every month to meet every new hire at the company and answer questions. He also spent a day last year working at an Adidas retail store to better understand the experience of his associates on the ground.

“It’s important that our employees see that we’re being involved in every part of the business as a leadership team,” he said, adding he expects to have other senior leaders come work a day in a retail store in Q4. “We have to show people that it starts from the top, whatever we do.”

Campbell is speaking to FN via Zoom from an office in Canada during a two-day leadership team meeting. These gatherings, which occur in a new North American Adidas office or distribution center every month, are another example of how Campbell is cultivating a strong sense of belonging within the organization. 

To Campbell, culture is more than just time spent in an office or at home. It’s about each employee feeling as though they are part of the “fabric” of the business, whether that’s through quarterly coffee chats with leadership or by singing with their colleagues in the company’s campus choir (which is expected to launch soon.)

Rupert Campbell Adidas
Adidas’ president of North America Rupert Campbell spent a day working in an Adidas retail store.
CREDIT: Adidas

The office, Campbell explained, should be an extension of these values. As such, Adidas is trying to create reasons for people to want to come in for the three days a week they are required to do so. That includes free meals, exercise classes, and social events off-campus, such as Adidas’ family day outing at a stadium in Portland that had a turnout of over 7,000 employees, friends and family this summer.

As Campbell put it, “People expect more now.”

Adidas’ focus on culture points to a shift taking place across multiple industries and employees. After two years in flux, employers have been tasked with creating culture in an ever-shifting — and sometimes remote — environment.

Business leaders seem to agree that culture means more than the occasional handshake or office happy hour. In a remote and hybrid world, the need for communication, validation and enjoyment has become all the more important. As priorities shift outside the office, business leaders are redefining culture and determining the best way to keep it alive without relying on an office to anchor it.

Increasing flexibility

This summer, Tapestry hosted a “Digital-Palooza” event that brought together about 300 people that work across the company’s digital business. The energy of the in-person forum, which was meant to help build relationships and discuss digital innovation, was “palpable,” according to Tapestry’s global human resources officer Sarah Dunn. Tapestry, the New York City-based parent company of Coach, Kate Spade and Stuart Weitzman, operates a hybrid work model for its New York employees.

“Employees do enjoy being together,” Dunn said. “But they also value flexibility.”

Tapestry Digital-palooza
Tapestry’s Digitalpalooza
CREDIT: Tapestry

Across the board, employers are finding that a focus on flexibility is a crucial element in the culture equation. 

Almost 70% of HR leaders at mid- to large-sized companies say they have some sort of on-site requirement for employees with jobs that can be done remotely, according to a recent survey from Gartner, a business consulting firm. Just 5% require employees to work on-site five days a week and 31% of employers have no requirement. However, some employers such as Apple and Peloton have signaled a shift towards more office time, beginning in September.

“People have a fresh perspective on the importance of their life outside of work,” explained David Burke, senior director of talent acquisition and employer brand at Workhuman, which advises business and HR leaders about culture, connectivity and belonging. “Nobody really wants to go back to that five days [in the office].”

Keeping the desire for balance in mind, many employers have opted for a hybrid work option, which requires two to three days in the office and allows for the rest to be worked remotely. Lululemon and Amazon are some of the larger companies that have rolled out some sort of hybrid return to office plans within the last year. Nike, which is also hybrid, last year introduced an annual program in which it closes its global offices for a week to encourage employee well-being.

“It’s critically important that companies are providing some level of flexibility,” explained Darla Pires DeGrace, CEO of DeGrace Group Consulting, who has worked with footwear industry leaders on workplace strategies related to DEI, talent acquisition and retention.

Revamped hiring policies have also allowed companies to attract more diverse candidates, geographically and situationally.

“Whether you’re caring for children, family or elderly parents, it definitely helps to have that flexibility,” DeGrace said. “So you’re not punching a clock, you’re actually getting the work done.”

But alongside the need for flexibility, many employers are still emphasizing in-person collaboration.

For example, Neiman Marcus Group also adopted a flexible working policy, which will soon include corporate hubs across the U.S. to support in-person meet-ups. Since implementing certain remote working policies, turnover at NMG was down 20% from 2019. The company, which filled 1,200 roles in 2021, also said the time it takes to fill a position has gone down 32% compared to 2019.

Other companies have nixed the office entirely. Bolt, which offers a one-click checkout product to retailers like Forever 21 and Lucky Brand, became a “remote-first” organization in March of 2020. (The company also rolled out a four-day workweek this year after a successful pilot in the fall.) And while Bolt still operates some office spaces for those who desire them, there is no formal return-to-office plan set in place. According to Bolt’s Head of employee experience Angie Bagley, the elements needed for a successful culture — such as access to leadership and open communication — can be achieved virtually.

“In some ways, you can do it more frequently and more openly [when virtual] than when you’re in offices that are scattered across the country,” Bagley said, explaining how Bolt has introduced regular Q&A sessions with the CEO during the company’s monthly virtual town halls, which has allowed more transparency.

Bolt’s workplace policies have translated into satisfaction among employees. In December of 2021, 84% of employees said they felt like they were being more productive at work. The same percentage, as recorded in a survey across about 77% of the company’s 450 U.S. and Canadian employees, said they felt that their work-life balance had improved.

The employee imperative

Zappos banana split
Zappos recently held an event where employees could make their own banana splits.
CREDIT: Zappos

Zappos has always been known for its zany culture and sprawling headquarters in Las Vegas.

“It was loud,” Zappos employee engagement manager Maritza Lewis said when asked to describe the e-commerce company’s culture pre-pandemic. “We had parades, we had potlucks, we had crazy events on our campus.”

Zappos, which employs around 1,400 people, had to evolve its culture to meet the needs of remote and hybrid work.

Now warehouse employees still work in-person everyday, though corporate employees can choose how often, if at all, they want to come into the office. While the office is definitely quieter, Zappos has kept up its strong culture by listening to its employees.

In a virtual setting, Zappos has overseen a March Madness Bingo event, trivia challenges and a gardening program for employees to participate in while at home, a testament to the type of culture that “ebbs and flows” with the current environment, as Lewis pointed out.

In-person events, like all-hands meetings and a recent banana split making event, are back as well. A few months ago, Zappos rented out a local waterpark for employees and their family members as part of the company’s annual picnic. These events came from feedback from employees, the main factor in Zappos’ decision to make moves when it comes to culture.

“The culture is always there if our employees want it to be there, and it’s not one employee’s job,” Lewis said. “To maintain our culture, it’s everyone’s responsibility, keeping the core values in mind.”

Zappos summer picnic
Zappos held its summer picnic at a water park.
CREDIT: Joel Cada

Employees are human first

For many business leaders, culture also means maintaining a positive environment for employees, especially while hybrid.

“Now more than ever, a culture of recognition and people being thanked is so powerful,” Burke said, explaining how Workhuman data has found that people are half as likely to look for a new job when they feel recognized and thanked for their work.

Frequent check-ins and reviews can also help keep employees engaged and on-track with their goals. This type of engagement encourages a “feedback loop” and constant improvement, Burke said. The workplace expert also said that companies should celebrate life events outside of work such as engagements, weddings, births and pet adoptions.

“We’re people first,” Burke said. “Seeing people for who they are and seeing the whole human in relation to how we engage each other is super important.”

Caleres CEO Diane Sullivan, who recently announced she would transition to the executive chairman role next year, spoke to the power of this sort of recognition at the FN CEO Summit in early August. She explained how she was surprised to learn that her employees overwhelmingly gravitate towards two strong elements when it comes to the workplace, according to surveys: Results, and having a “caring” environment.

“At the end of the day this culture shift is fundamentally all about growth,” Sullivan said. “Growth in more consumers and growth and engagement within the company.”

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