According to Glint’s Employee Well-Being Report, work culture is a critical element of employee happiness. Compared to peers at other organizations, employees at companies with highly rated cultures are 25% more likely to report being happy working for their organization.

But what drives a great work culture? The latest People Success Community event—a virtual gathering for leaders from a wide range of organizations and industries—tackled one of the most important topics for HR professionals today: workplace culture. The quarterly meetup covered the effects of remote work on company culture as well as the future of culture in flexible and hybrid work environments.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, work culture was often shaped heavily by in-person interactions like water-cooler chats, shared meals, and team retreats. Now, after more than 14 months of working through the pandemic, the way employees view company culture has been forever altered. 

New ideas shaping work culture

Organizations are increasingly focusing on less tangible aspects of culture, while using frequent employee engagement surveys to uncover how employees are feeling. Here are three drivers of culture that leaders say are here to stay as more companies and employees embrace a future shaped by remote, hybrid, and flexible work.

1. Belonging 

While belonging has always been an important part of the employee experience, its impact on employee happiness increased by 12% in the first half of 2020. Now, belonging has jumped four positions year-over-year to become the second-most important driver of a great work culture. 

Many attendees discussed the rise in importance of belonging at their organizations, but also identified that there were differences between belonging at the team level versus the company level. Throughout the past year, this group perceived that employees had a stronger sense of belonging within their immediate teams, but not across the broader organization.

As a result, many leaders took action to foster more consistent belonging across the business. Just one example: setting up cross-functional learning opportunities where representatives from other lines of business joined team meetings to increase visibility and share a bit more about their world. 

One attendee’s organization launched three-month “culture sprints” and spent the most recent sprint focusing solely on belonging. The effort provided all employees with tools to help them foster and practice inclusion at work. 

2. Psychological safety

While the pandemic stripped away physical interaction and threatened people’s health and well-being, it also provided the opportunity for organizations to be more intentional about creating inclusive, equitable, and psychologically safe work experiences. 

“Remote work has been the great equalizer,” says Dina Zukic, a Glint People Scientist who served as the group’s facilitator. “It has provided a level playing field for all employees to be seen and heard.” 

In the past, high-stakes, high-pressure environments like a meeting in the boardroom with the executive team represented an organization’s perceived power structure. In a virtual-work environment, however, every meeting looks the same, and each person in it takes up the same screen real estate—from the CEO to the intern.

Virtual work has also helped people bring their authentic selves to work. One HR pro noted that a new chat function implemented in the early months of the pandemic provided another forum for employees to speak up. It not only created equal opportunities when it came to communicating, but helped people feel safer contributing to a conversation compared to in-person meetings.

3. Manager empowerment 

Successful managers activate employee engagement, inspire positive energy and retention, and help build thriving work cultures. However, being a manager is a tough job—even without a global pandemic. Now, managers are coping with new obstacles, as the world and the way we work continues to change. 

The group agreed that while managers are the critical linchpin for supporting employees, managers themselves also need to be supported. And the key to successfully supporting them moving forward? Upskilling. 

As a result, organizations across all industries are investing in leadership development opportunities to help managers shift their mindsets and behaviors as the future of work begins to take shape.  

Final takeaway: culture is still the ultimate competitive advantage

The pandemic shifted what workplace culture meant for many. But, that doesn’t change the fact that culture is still a strong competitive advantage for organizations today. The right culture can have a positive effect on talent and key business outcomes. Leaders who lean into these new drivers will find powerful levers for future success.