Has remote working killed company culture?

05 January 2022 Consultancy.uk 4 min. read
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Lindsay Wall is General Manager EMEA at Wongdoody, a human experience company powered by consultancy Infosys. He explains how bosses can continue to get the best out of their staff, as they return to home-working amid a massive spike in coronavirus cases.

The Prime Minister’s recent guidance that people should work from home where possible is the latest development on the rollercoaster that businesses across the country find themselves riding, as they navigate the ‘not so new normal’ of hybrid – or remote – working.

Only recently we were discussing how businesses can best manage a hybrid workforce, with some employees in the office and some working from home. However, as continues to be the case with this pandemic, the dial has shifted once again and just as we think we’ve come to grips with the situation, we are handed new guidance to adhere to.

Has remote working killed company culture

Without doubt, remote working has a huge impact on how a business operates, sometimes for better, and sometimes for worse. It has undoubtedly dealt a blow to the typical ways a business builds and conveys its culture; through its purpose, values, behaviours, rituals and norms. With employees all based in different locations, it is more difficult to continue with company rituals and practices that may well have been originally designed for the physical world.

What’s more, remote working has reduced valuable opportunities for relationship-building through informal colleague interactions, which is so often where the magic happens. How often do we hear it’s the people that make my job great? Well, in this remote world, you can forget the brief chat in the kitchen while making your morning coffee, or the everyday desk conversation with co-workers that may help to spark an idea or answer a quick client query.

It has also become apparent that digital social interactions aren’t that normal for many people outside of the gaming world or other communities with a shared interest. Because, given the choice, a large number of us would prefer face-to-face interaction with one another. Humans are by nature sociable beings and nothing can replace the personal magic of in-person conversation.

However, remote working has not delivered a blow on company culture that is fatal, especially for global organisations like ours whose teams were collaborating remotely well before Covid-19. While the term ‘Zoom’ seemed to have become universal almost overnight, many businesses were in fact already conducting regular team or client meetings via video conferencing, enabling different members to dial in from all over the world.

Remote working has in fact led to the adoption of entirely new - and arguably more productive - ways of working and accelerated the use of collaboration tools like Miro and Slack to help enable communication and build and drive positive company culture. It’s accelerated the need for businesses to re-think how they work and how they deliver Employee Experience, creating meaningful reasons for people to connect socially and professionally rather than just expecting it to happen. For our business in particular, remote working has forced us to create well-structured digital interactions and will lead to us exploring and embracing new platforms, like Unlock.

Moreover, the notion of working from home, which may previously have been regarded with suspicion by business leaders, is now universally recognised and legitimised, as company bosses have learned to trust their employees that the work will get completed and standards won’t slip if they aren’t clocking into the office at 9am every day. Similarly, workers have realised that there’s no place to hide, and if their tasks are not completed in time or to a high enough standard, then they will face consequences. This new-found trust works both ways, with businesses and their employees both equally vested in upholding its value.

There are however negative implications for work-life balance. The principle of trying to put boundaries up to protect people’s personal time from work time is key, particularly with working from home, when the line between the two is completely blurred. Organisations with brilliant Employee Experience recognise that this will be critical to overcome burnout as we move into another period of enforced WFH.

The real practical solution is trusting employees and providing flexibility to allow them to work on their terms. In a global organisation this could mean starting at 7am and finishing at 2pm. It could mean working for four hours from 11am, doing the school run and then doing a couple of hours after kids’ bedtime. Successful employers today will understand that employees want to know they’re trusted to do what’s right, on their terms to get the work done.

Finally, there’s no denying the enormous changes that businesses have had to implement over the last two years, in large part because of the introduction of remote or hybrid working. Covid-19 has been one of the greatest accelerators of organisational change and digital transformation in modern times. We have seen major innovations in product and service offerings coupled with tectonic shifts in purpose and direction, but no aspect of business has been more deeply or rapidly changed than Employee Experience.

So, while company culture remains as important as ever, how it’s being delivered has changed, if not just for the foreseeable future, then very possibly… forever. How you choose to respond to that change could separate those who survive from those who will thrive.