Hybrid working in the cultural sector

An added layer of complexity for cultural organisations is that the majority of the activities they undertake are situated in physical spaces, with physical buildings, sites, collections, and events. This challenge truly came to the fore during the forced experiments with remote working in 2020 and the hybrid working reality of 2021.

This has led us, not just as a sector but as a society, to a place where we are all fundamentally questioning and rethinking how we work.

Between 2022 and 2023, through our groundbreaking collaborative Let’s Get Real (LGR) action research programme, Culture24 supported nine UK cultural organisations to begin a journey of interrogating, understanding and building on their hybrid working practices. As part of the project we supported participants to experiment with hybrid working, from running staff surveys or trying out new content formats, to creating new internal communications platforms.

Through those experiments and our ongoing research, we have uncovered three common themes and findings alongside recommendations for ways cultural organisations can develop their hybrid working practices for positive impact.

Theme: disrupting organisational rhythms and culture

Since as far back as 2018, Matt Locke, founder and Director of Storythings, has been talking about organisational rhythm as the ‘most important thing about your organisation that you don’t understand’.

We invited Matt to speak to the cohort, where he reflected on how the pandemic was a major rhythm disruptor for the sector. The pandemic was a challenge to organisational culture, as remote and hybrid working compromised the way things had always been done. This unfamiliar territory created a core challenge for the organisations taking part in LGR, and for the sector as whole.

This year’s LGR has highlighted some key issues with hybrid working, from communication, to platforms, equipment and staff skills, as well as struggles around infrastructure and appropriate space for work. But these challenges haven’t actually been caused by hybrid working, as they were always rooted within the rhythms and cultures of organisations. Instead, they were unearthed and exacerbated by changing working practices. It was only through experimentation that the LGR cohort was able to highlight and address those problematic rhythms and cultures and, in turn, hope to improve their hybrid working practices.

How can you change your organisational rhythm and culture?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, but the answer lies in investigation and experimentation. To address issues with rhythm and culture, you first need to investigate what they might mean within your own context. Rhythms might be dictated by things like funding cycles, or how often you have team or executive meetings. Culture could be shaped by key individuals, by organisational norms around communication, by the structure of teams or management.

The most important thing we found, when it came to any experiments around hybrid working practices, was the need to address any disruptive rhythms and attempt to challenge negative cultures within your organisation.

Small changes, implemented through experimentation, can build up to help support significant change. There are few better vehicles to make change than through addressing the way we all work. You can find out how our LGR cohort did it through their case studies at our upcoming online seminar.

What’s next for work?

Hybrid working practices will continue to be a challenge for the sector unless we start to properly address the issues and challenges they highlight. The pandemic caused a significant shift in the way we work and many organisations in the sector are not yet embracing that change. Instead the old ways of working (with their old rhythms) are creeping back. This is despite the positive changes that hybrid working can bring to the sector and the people working within it (as highlighted by our research into the impact of hybrid working on the sector in 2021).

In an upcoming report we’ll be taking a much deeper look at the other themes, which we will discuss at our upcoming online seminar on Friday 12th May 10am to 1pm. The seminar will bring together interesting keynote speakers alongside inspirational case studies from some of the participating organisations, as we explore how you can improve your own hybrid working practices.

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