03 May 2020
Remote workforces - a popular fad but kryptonite for culture

In these late Covid-19 times, telecommuting and working remotely is as popular as a Dua Lipa single but is it sustainable for professional services firms? Or will the world’s infatuation with virtual workplaces have all the endurance of a Zsa Zsa Gabor marriage?

Even before a global pandemic vacated city office blocks and made work-from-homing the new norm, there had been a gradual, but significant increase in the proportion of the workforce that spent at least part of their week working remotely.

According to one report, the number of US workers that telecommuted had doubled in the previous 15 years and according to a study by IWG, some 70% of global employees work at home at least one day a week; while 53% work remotely half of the week. I wonder what those numbers would have looked like in April 2020?

In industries where corporations and businesses compete globally for talent, remote work and an asynchronous workforce is a practical reality.

And even in national enterprises with multiple sites, if meetings are taking place on laptop screens does it really matter where those devices are located? According to disciples of the work-from-home philosophy, the benefits are compelling; flexibility, improved efficiency without long travel commutes, savings on accommodation costs in expensive city locations and even improved competitiveness in the war for talent as the team can be sourced across the globe.

A number of commentators have suggested that the recent global lockdown has simply accelerated a process that was already well underway – because with fast internet connections in homes, cloud capability and multiple devices in every home it made sense that technology be used to its potential and deliver convenience to a workforce once tied to a bricks and mortar office. Why bother to waste that time travelling to an office when everything we need is at home? And how good is it to be able to recruit the best talent from all over the world or country because we don’t even require them to pack their house, family and pets and move to another city?

But to traditionalists, telecommuting is often seen as a dystopian world bereft of relationships, team work and alignment to strategy. How can workers build relationships of trust and confidence in their work comrades if they’re tenuously connected only by a wireless router and 4G? How do organisations avoid silo builders thwarting the team’s objectives and subversively acting in self-interest? And how do charismatic leaders engage a virtual workforce and align them to strategic vision? Sure, we can connect on a video link and talk on the phone, but how many people are really comfortable to bare their souls on a zoom session and how secure are the connections through cyberspace anyway?

For many workers, Covid-19 has provided them with their first taste of working from home. For those also having to simultaneously home school their kids, it has probably been a stressful (if not soul-destroying) experience. But for others, the lack of interruption and the ability to do a load of washing while working has been blissful; and the sanctuary of quiet home environs has provided a pleasant adventure in to previously unchartered waters. At least at first, the idea of staying in pyjamas all day held almost universal appeal! And how good was it to attend those Microsoft Team meetings dressed only above the waist and to be filled with mirth as you address your team wearing nothing but your most comfortable pair of boxers below the desk?

But for all the benefits of technology, virtual workplaces and our many available modes of instantaneous communication, I can’t help but wonder if (at least for professional services firms) the cost of working from home on organisational culture will be a price too high in the longer term? Because to most of us, culture is simply “the way we do things around here” and if there’s no-one here, or if many leaders are absent, what hope does the organisation have of enshrining work practices and norming behaviours and customs in the wider workforce? Without the ability for junior staff to see the seniors walk the talk and undertake informal knowledge transfer at the water cooler, how are they to grow professionally and develop in a way that is consistent with the organisation’s values?

Few would argue that the value of those informal discussions held over a cup of coffee or in the tea room are usually just as valuable as the toolbox talks and seminars that most organisations inflict on their staff with rigour and monotomy. After all, junior staff are normally far more likely to ask questions about what they don’t really understand in an informal one-on-one at the water cooler rather than risk embarrassing themselves in a larger group environment. When more senior staff are working remotely, firms may as well put a “do not disturb” sign on their virtual wall!

For me, perhaps the biggest risk posed by telecommuting is the inability to onboard passionate new employees and to connect in a meaningful way that will ensure staff retention. Many studies (including a Gallup one that I recall being highly regarded by some Harvard Business School Professors) have shown that when team members have a “bestie” in the workplace they are seven times more likely to be engaged and have higher job satisfaction levels. With strong personal relationships in the workplace and low human capital loss, firms are well placed to drive and solidify their own utopian culture. If, to quote Peter Drucker, “culture eats strategy for breakfast” can organisations really afford to sacrifice corporate culture for HR expediency?

No doubt the closet misanthropes and hermits will have loved their isolation through lockdown, but even introverts have a role to play in creating effective teams and shaping organisational culture. And what impact does seclusion have on the office extroverts who crave human interaction?

Of course there is always middle ground where staff can spend part of their working week at home and the balance in the office, but as soon as an organisation gives a perceived freedom or privilege to one worker, human nature often gets in the road and others in a similar role feel aggrieved if they don’t get the same opportunity. And we all know what that does to morale, team play and broader relationships! Remember that experiment that primatologist Frans de Waal did in pay the two capuchin monkeys differently for the same task? And what it did to their moral compass around fairness, co-operation and reciprocity. It begs the question as to how fairness is achieved amongst staff and what balance is right – whether the bias should be at one end of the spectrum or the other; mainly at home or mainly in the office?

Just as platform shoes, flared jeans and rollerblades all enjoyed their moment in the sun, I suspect that remote working will be with us in the short or medium term but in time, just like hot-desking and open-plan offices, we’ll realise that what we had wasn’t so bad after all. Working remotely makes for a popular fad, but working from home is kryptonite for culture. Isn’t it?