A version of this story first appeared in Reputation Today. Click here to read it.
Prior to 2020, remote working had largely been a novelty, trialed only by a handful of companies in the search for a better work-life balance.
Then came COVID-19, and with it the weeks-long, then months-long nationwide lockdowns to flatten the infection curve. This triggered what has been called ‘the world’s largest telework experiment’ and catapulted remote work into the spotlight.
Today, many employees want remote work to remain an option and companies are exploring the idea. This has positive implications for recruitment and scalability — imagine being able to hire from anywhere, instead of being bound by geography.
But if this arrangement is to be permanent, how will that impact company culture? During the pandemic, many managers struggled with virtually managing their teams and building bonds between co-workers, which is essential for synergy and productivity.
I believe that a middle ground can exist between the flexibility of remote work and the cohesiveness of a good company culture. However, it will take a lot of communication, tolerance, and open-mindedness from all parties to succeed.
Better schedule flexibility, reduced expenses and little to no commute time are significant advantages of remote work. But if it is not managed well, there are downsides too.
Many remote employees struggle with social isolation because of insufficient communication and support. Additionally, with homes becoming offices and people constantly connected to work through their devices, it is more difficult than ever to ‘switch off’. This prolonged stress is a proven precursor to breakdowns and burnout.
I also find that there is a tendency for managers to micromanage when work is done remotely. They have less visibility over an employee’s daily routine and are concerned that they may be less productive as a result.
I have heard incredible stories of apps that remotely track mouse movement or webcams having to be on to make sure that the employee is in their seat. These excessive measures result in an oppressive company culture that is stressful for all parties and not conducive for work.
Trust is the backbone of any healthy corporate culture — especially for companies with dispersed teams.
If an employee is producing good and timely results, and is responsive and responsible, leaders can give them space to manage their own workloads. However, granting autonomy does not mean abandoning them; a remote employee depends entirely on the manager’s responsiveness for help and support, and an absent or unsupportive leader can be detrimental to their confidence and productivity.
A middle ground can exist between the flexibility of remote work and the cohesiveness of a good company culture, but it will take a lot of communication, tolerance, and open-mindedness from all parties.
Leaders need to train their people and empower them to make decisions, then trust the process and focus on the results. Leverage communication and collaboration tools for visibility and to stay informed. Keep expectations clear and consistent.
Managers can set regular sessions with remote employees — in groups or individually — to check in with them. Give them adequate time to report on their progress and any obstacles they may be facing, then work together with them to find a solution.
Openness and transparency are key to build accountability and trust, which are, in turn, critical ingredients for an enriched company culture.
Leaders need to make their team part of the journey — instead of just telling them about new policies and processes and expecting compliance, managers can get their team’s feedback on the changes they would like to see, incorporate it, then show them what they have accomplished together.
There is a tendency for communication and interaction to become more purpose-driven in a remote setting. People are more likely to only get on calls and meetings for work-related matters, instead of the casual in-person chats that you might have over work lunches and at the water coolers.
This might sound like good news for productivity, but the absence of these small, personal interactions can lead to feelings of isolation and disconnection, which can result in disengaged and unhappy employees.
It is entirely possible to maintain a tight-knit culture with remote colleagues — it just takes some extra effort. For instance, I started the ‘Samurai Soirees’, a weekly Friday bonding session with my team where we just set aside an hour to do some fun, non-work activities.
Once, we split into teams and debated each other on popular conspiracy theories like birds being government drones. Not everyone was a fan at first, but over time they started looking forward to it and I think we’re all closer for it.
Without downplaying the depth of virtual connections, I also think that companies should make the effort to host the occasional offsite team-building activity. In-person meetings do wonders for work relationships because you get to know people more fully, and offsites overall are excellent for improving creativity, encouraging collaboration and boosting motivation.
I have been part of many company offsites, and have left each one with stronger work relationships and a recharged spirit.
Transitioning to a hybrid or fully remote work environment requires more thought than companies may initially realise. Policies and processes that worked for a fully in-person office may no longer be effective for remote employees.
Take the onboarding experience, for instance. When we have new hires from all around the world, how do we design an experience that helps the new member feel connected and welcomed?
Maybe that involves assigning them a work buddy or scheduling a virtual bonding session with their teammates. Maybe that also means maintaining an updated, intuitive intranet with relevant collaterals so that everyone starts off from the same knowledge base — no matter where they come from.
Communication and interaction may become more purpose-driven in a remote setting, which is good for productivity initially but may lead to feelings of isolation and disconnection over time.
The key, I find, is to remember the original intent of why such policies were designed and find new ways to adapt them for a remote setting.
Some companies might change a travel allowance to an allowance for ergonomic furniture — the goal here is to defray costs incurred on the job. A manager that used to rely on Friday team lunches to bond with their team may now choose to organise virtual scavenger hunts or sharing sessions instead.
There is, after all, more than one path to the same destination.
There is no question in my mind that the workplaces of the future will be more flexible than ever before, especially with advanced connectivity and cutting-edge technology transforming work as we know it.
Remote working is just the start of this phenomenon, and a business’s ability to maintain a robust company culture against this fluid backdrop will be a strong indicator of its future resilience.