Remote Work Isn’t the Culture Killer Everyone Predicted
Months before the COVID-19 pandemic upended office life, I proposed a radical idea to my organization. More than 90% of our employees worked in the office together, except for a handful of folks like me who worked from home. Being one of the few remote employees — and one of the longest tenured — I wanted to help everyone understand how to better incorporate remote work employees into our culture, rituals and work experience.
My proposal was simple: Have a group of employees rotate through working from home for a full week. They couldn’t come to the office, even if they lived next door. They couldn’t participate in any meetings in person, even if it would’ve been really helpful. They would basically become what I was for a week — a face on the other end of a chat bubble, email message or video conference call.
The crux of my idea was to help people who had never worked from home more than a day or two understand what it was like to work remotely. “If only they had this experience, I think they would better understand some of the difficulties of working remote,” I said.
Now, of course, I don’t have to worry about that at all.
Remote Work Kills Culture, Right?
Outside of a year-long stint in our San Francisco office, I haven’t commuted to an office since 2009. I've worked with and freelanced for companies where my physical location doesn't matter. I’m not only productive; I’m also a good coworker, even if I only see my colleagues in person a few times a year.
Steve Connelly, founder and president of Boston, Mass.-based advertising agency Connelly Partners, wrote a scathing rebuke to remote work before it was even a widespread thing in 2017. “How can a person working from home contribute to the life force of your company?”
In an article for Campaign US, he wrote: “Don't give me Google Hangouts, conference call, emails and Slack talk. You simply cannot contribute to a culture from an offsite location in your pajamas. You need the spontaneity of connection that only happens face to face to cultivate culture.”
Connelly wrote that working from home serves the needs of employees and not the company. There is no shared value or culture with working from home. As bombastic as it may seem, Connelly was, at the time, voicing the thoughts of millions of work leaders.
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As much as we’d like to say things have changed since then, it's not necessarily the case. Research from Microsoft shows half of employers still want workers back in the office five days a week, with many citing culture as a key reason.
Related Article: Is a Return to the Office Right for Your Company?
Work Culture Might Look Different in Remote-First Organizations
Lattice CEO and cofounder Jack Altman recently wrote about the company’s experience moving to a remote-first hybrid company, fully embracing remote work while maintaining office spaces to build community. Despite the company's success with this model, Altman embraces the skepticism of remote-first, writing: “If we were building Lattice again, I would still go for a physical office. I’d want to be there.” He isn’t a work-from-home cheerleader.
But Altman also acknowledges that this unique approach has taken some of the sharper edges off of hypergrowth — Lattice's headcount has tripled since then. He also mentions the inclusivity that the company is able to achieve with this approach, welcoming parents and other caregivers into a culture that used to exclude them.
The challenge for many organizations is that whether you believe that remote work can be helpful or harmful, you’re probably right. Work leaders' attitude and approach to working from home or in hybrid environments are going to be based on whether they believe it’s feasible. Self-defeating measures, attributing challenges like turnover or disengagement to WFH or even forcing remote work on people who genuinely need an office can turn out poorly for any organization.
Remote work is tougher in some ways, like ensuring shared values remain in place, but easier in others, like scaling in growing organizations. A remote-first organization will need to make different choices than companies trying to recreate the pre-pandemic norm of people working out of the office full-time. In other words, it’s not necessarily better or worse. It’s different. Not only can your culture survive, but as Altman puts it, you can scale it. And that’s not too bad.
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About the Author
Lance Haun is a leadership and technology columnist for Reworked. He has spent nearly 20 years researching and writing about HR, work and technology.