Now September’s tentative return to work plans are in the wastepaper bin, new research from LinkedIn suggests business leaders are concerned about the long-term impact of home working on culture and engagement.
Carried out before the latest round of COVID restrictions were announced, the survey of 250 UK leaders found that many had been prioritising the reopening of offices, driven by concerns over the damage to company culture (39%), employee mental health (37%) and staff motivation (35%), as a result of this prolonged period of remote working.
Janine Chamberlin, Director at LinkedIn, observed that leaders were, “concerned that the extended period out of the office is severely damaging organisational culture and employee morale, which can have a knock-on impact on business performance.”
The issue appears to sit easier with some organisations than others. Tech giants like Facebook and Twitter say at least some of their teams will continue to work remotely, possibly indefinitely. While Barclays, at the other end of the scale, say they want all their employees to return to the office at some point in the future – acknowledging the cultural and collaborative benefits of in-person interaction.
Whichever side of this complex question you come down on, there is no denying the intuitive legitimacy of the concerns about culture and remote working.
Culture is based on beliefs and behaviours, on how they are communicated, demonstrated, and celebrated. It’s how team ethic and momentum develop; how new starters assimilate the expectations of them as employees and colleagues. It’s what happens when people start to think and believe the same things.
So, do we need to start thinking differently about workplace culture in a world of remote work?
Office perks, like ping-pong tables and breakfast bars, are often seen as signs of healthy workplace culture; they are not… in themselves. But they do serve as connection generators. An interdepartmental game of ping-pong, however badly played, is a culture facilitator.
What these things promote is the building of relationships and trust. So fundamentally, we are talking about empathy, connection, which is something that can be nurtured regardless of location, right? We just need the right digital tools, Teams, Salesforce Chatter, Zoom.
But during lockdown, when digital was all we had, anyone who sat through a three hour murder mystery party on Zoom will appreciate that it didn’t fulfil the connection-craving parts of our monkey brains in quite the same way.
So in a remote environment, it might not be enough to simply provide channels, these interactions should perhaps be nudged along.
The social platform Pinterest, for example, analyses its remote employees’ Pinterest boards to identify shared interests. Then, without revealing what the interest is, puts them in groups so they can discover what they have in common.
But you don’t need complex data analysis to get people interacting virtually, just a bit of creativity (and some encouragement). There are lots of ideas online. The employee experience platform Perkbox has published a nice list of 10 activities for remote teams, designed to elicit precisely the type of connections we’re talking about. They include starting a ‘good news’ chat conversation that provides a channel for people to share things that make them happy. Or a daily non-work snapshot challenge that could incorporate anything - what they had for lunch, their new jumper, a crazy haircut, anything. The point is these activities are catalysts for conversation and connection.
But maintaining culture is about more than just interaction. It’s also about how people are valued. In the current environment, no achievement or piece of good news is too inconsequential to be shared and celebrated, particularly where it demonstrates desired behaviour.
Zoe Wilson, founder and Director of ReThink HR, has addressed this issue with a growing number of clients in recent months. “Leaders that have communicated regularly, said thank you to their employees, continued to share their expectations, style, vision, goals and values – a bit like walking the floor but virtually – have maintained the most engagement within their teams,” she says. “It’s where there is no contact or sporadic contact that I’ve seen cultures start to be effected.”
Visible leadership matters. In uncertain times, something as simple as regular communication can be a deal breaker. Research from Canada Life would seem to suggest a looming retention crisis for some organisations, with one in five employees considering a change of job as a direct result of their current employer’s handling of the crisis.
Support line management
Good line management is crucial to effective culture-building at the best of times. In the current environment, new starters are joining at a time when recruitment and onboarding are performed remotely. Feedback and performance reviews take on greater significance in a heightened emotional climate and must be delivered with fairness, consistency, and transparency.
Homeworking may not be a healthy solution for some – especially those in cramped spaces, those juggling childcare pressures or struggling with their mental wellbeing. Uncharacteristic behaviour, emotional outbursts or changes in productivity are all red flags, and line management need the tools and processes to ensure they can respond appropriately to signs of people in difficulty.
“I would suggest companies do some sort of SWOT analysis (Strengths Weaknesses Opportunities and Threats) based on remote working for them,” advises Zoe Wilson. “Then create a vision for how it could work and what communication channels (and frequency) and line management support they need to shape culture and encourage feedback.
“I believe remote working can benefit culture - by harnessing the benefits of no commute and fewer interruptions, balanced with social interaction, team, meaningful work and goals. If done right, it absolutely can.”
The big questions CEOs are asking HR about COVID-19
- Who are our most at risk people?
- What is the scale of infection in our workforce?
- How resilient is our skills pool to cover sickness?
XCD’s new COVID-19 Impact Dashboard gives HR leaders the ability to provide immediate answers to the CEO’s most pressing COVID-19 questions.