By Sheela Subramanian

As Vice President of Future Forum, the Slack-led research consortium that’s generating data and insights about the future of work, I spend a lot of time chatting with business leaders about their hopes for — and anxieties about — hybrid and flexible work. 

Executives appreciate that giving their teams more flexibility and choice about when and where they work has led to gains in employee productivity, recruitment, and work-life balance. But some are questioning if their company cultures will survive the shift to digital-first collaboration. 

New data might put your mind at ease: according to the latest Future Forum Pulse, our quarterly survey of over 10,000 knowledge workers, remote and hybrid employees are more likely to feel connected to their direct manager and their company’s values compared to fully in-person workers. Remote and hybrid workers were also 52% more likely to say their company culture has improved over the past two years — and they cite flexible work policies as the primary reason their culture is changing for the better. Why? It comes down to trust. Providing flexibility is a form of showing your employees you trust them to get their work done, and trust is the foundation of a healthy organizational culture. 

So instead of worrying about how flexible and hybrid work could erode company culture, executives should be asking: how can I harness digital-first collaboration to build an even stronger culture for my company’s future? Here are six proven tactics that leading companies are using right now to foster culture digitally.

1. Prioritize connection as a key requirement for business success

Creating ways for your employees to connect isn’t supplemental to the work — it is the work, and it’s just as important as setting strategy and defining objective and key results (OKRs). A Gallup poll updated in 2022 found that teams with high engagement scores were 23% more profitable than disengaged teams, and a 2021 study from Ignite80 and Front found that high-performing teams were 25% more likely to connect and discuss non-work topics throughout the day. As Ella Washington, a contributor to Future Forum’s research and an organizational psychologist at Georgetown, puts it, “too many managers think of human connection as extraneous, as something I’ll tackle when I get to the bottom of my To-Do list.” Leaders need to clarify that they expect their managers to carve out time for human connection, and they need to model that behavior for their teams.

2. Create forums for two-way communication

Back when a door was all that separated your workspace from those of your colleagues, were you the type of leader who kept that door open to employees with concerns or ideas to share? You can keep building that open-door spirit in a digital-first workplace through “Ask Me Anything” sessions (a.k.a. AMA) or open office hours on a messaging app like Slack. “A leadership AMA session can give CEOs, department heads, new employees, and others the opportunity to ask and answer questions internally among their team members or externally for a wider audience,” says Forbes Communications Council. “This helps boost transparency and allows employees and customers to make more personal connections with a business’s leadership.” Feeling nervous about opening the floor on a public forum? Check out how the technology security company McAfee used the Slack Workflow Builder to launch its first-ever AMA

3. Get clear on the “how, what, when, where, and why” of digital-first work with team-level agreements

Different teams throughout your organization have different needs and rhythms for collaboration no matter where they’re working, so it doesn’t make sense for the details of digital-first work to come from the C-suite. Executives should set some organizational guardrails, then task each department to agree on what flexibility means for them through team-level agreements. Also known as team norms or team operating manuals, team-level agreements are guidelines that establish crystal clear expectations for how all members of the team work with one another. Teams can delineate specific windows for synchronous work and solo focus time, agree on email response turn-around times, and spell out how to handle urgent situations that might arise after hours. This also unlocks the opportunity to establish more schedule flexibility on the team-level. Future Forum data shows employees with schedule flexibility report 29% higher productivity and 53% greater ability to focus than workers with no ability to shift their schedule. 

4. Create personal operating manuals and keep them current

Everyone’s communication style is unique to begin with — and the shift to digital-first work means that millions of seasoned professionals are still figuring out how they fit in amid all the new tools, norms, and expectations. Give your employees a structured way to think through what they need from their teammates — and head off communication challenges at the pass — by creating personal user manuals. These are short descriptions created by each employee outlining their background, values, and communication preferences. Alongside team-level agreements, personal user manuals can build psychological safety, ease the cultural learning curve for new hires, and spark self-awareness. And because change is the only constant (both when it comes to the future of work and the experience of being human), encourage employees to review and update their personal operating manuals at least annually.  

5. Keep the grand tradition of office banter alive in the digital world

Check out virtual water cooler tools like Donut, which posts topics that spark serendipitous conversations and friendly debates. Or create themed social channels: some of our favorites here at Slack are #trader-joes (for sharing our fave TJ’s snacks), #parentland (for parenting advice), and #doodlez (for parents and fans of poodle-mix pups). And if you’ve ever uttered a sentence like, “I’m too busy to be on Slack, so if you need me, just call me,” listen up: it matters that executives stay visible and reachable on digital platforms. Digital channels are where day-to-day work is happening, and if executives aren’t participating there, it’s almost like they’re not in the conversation at all.

6. Resist the urge to dive right into work 

Before you start tackling agenda items in your next big meeting, make time for each team member to consider and share something personal about themselves. We love this list of inventive icebreaker questions from our friends at The Ready/Brave New Work podcast, which range from mild (“Have you ever been told you look like a famous person? If so, who is that person?”) to spicy (“What is the worst argument you’ve had at work?”). In one-on-ones, always start with a personal check-in so you and your colleague can get a better view of the professional and personal forces that might be shaping each of your weeks. 

Notice any themes in this list? Culture is complicated and it’s different for every organization. But as companies adopt more flexible work models, the most successful leaders are those who are building in intentional ways to foster trust and connection at every level. 

I’d love to hear what’s working — or not — for your business and share your insights with Future Forum executives and readers. Drop me a line on LinkedIn and tell me how you’re building your team’s culture in a digital-first world. 

Sheela Subramanian is Vice President and co-founder of Future Forum. She holds 20 years of experience building high-growth global teams across Google, Slack, and startup organizations. As a champion for workplace equity, her work is cited in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, and other publications. She is also co-author of “How The Future Works: Leading Flexible Teams to Do the Best Work of Their Lives.” Sheela earned her BA from Stanford University and MBA from Harvard Business School and is the mother to two magical daughters.