Has Remote Work Killed Your Company Culture?

Remote Work Kills Culture

This will be perhaps a departure from the business tech fare that we typically serve up here on the i.t.NOW blog.  I also want to preface this by saying that I’m confident that I don’t have all the answers.  I’d love your thoughts and feedback.  Let’s dive in.

Problem:  Remote work has made it hard to make work fun.  It’s a struggle to really connect with our coworkers.  Building relationships is challenging.  Having a best friend that you work with is difficult.  That makes folks not like their jobs as much even if the work is the same.  It also makes turnover higher which presents a huge set of challenges as well.

Solution:  I don’t really know.  The research I’ve done on the subject has yielded a list of things we can try.  I’m not confident that any will 100% solve the problem.  I do think there are some benefits of being together in the same space that are hard to replicate.  Here are some ideas.  First, I’ll outline why I think that 100% remote work is a real problem.

Why is this such a problem?

Having friends at work makes you a better worker.

According to Gallup, if you have a “best friend at work” you will be more engaged, produce a higher quality product, and have a higher wellbeing.

Before the pandemic most of us had friends in the office.  Somebody that we would grab lunch with or stop by their desk to say hi.  Most of these conversations weren’t about work at all.  Sometimes they were about our kids, our dogs, or the terrible traffic.  I submit that those moments are important.  They allow us to see our coworkers as real people.  They stop being just an output of work. 

There is something disconnecting about words on a screen that allow us to act differently than we ever would in real life.  So much is lost without tone, body language, eye contact, handshakes etc.  A big part of communication is non-verbal.

Yeah, I know that many of you will say that video calls give you all that.  I love technology.  I’m an advocate for it and selling it makes my living.  I still don’t think it’s the same as a face-to-face conversation.

Informal conversation and brainstorming suffer as well.  When I’m in the office it’s not uncommon for somebody to stop by my desk and ask me a question.  I do think there is value in those impromptu conversations.  They can help us identify potential problems, gather ideas, and create solutions.  It may be possible to replicate this interaction online, but I don’t think it happens nearly as often.

All of this adds up to people not liking their jobs as much, and not feeling connected to the organization.  That means that it’s easy to leave.  They feel nothing.  Turnover is costly and painful.  It can also damage your relationships with your clients.  If they never form relationships with anyone on your team, it’s easy to leave.  Relationships are what make both employees and clients stay.

Communicating Culture

Another facet of the problem is this.  How do we help folks that have joined the organization in the last year to understand our culture and how lovable we really are?

I’ll use our team at i.t.NOW as an example.  I think this picture sums us up well.

I call this a nerd art object.  This kind of thing is common around the office here at i.t.NOW.  Lovingly handmade by a member of our staff with mostly 3d printed parts to replicate a helmet of one of his favorite video game characters.  Its also wearable of course, so he can take it comic-con.

Gives you the vibe that we’re a bunch of nerds that love technology, don’t take ourselves too seriously, and make awesome stuff.  It’s cool.  How do you help someone get the vibe of that culture if they’ve never set foot in the office, or had a chance to have those conversations with their coworkers?  It’s an important part of our appeal to employees as a company.

What can help?

Here are a few tips that folks have brought up to try and help solve this problem.

  1.  The #1 tip you see online when folks bring up this topic?  Meet up in person.  Duh.  They say to make sure that you make it not 100% about work and that you should take the time to talk to them like a human being.  I feel like this answer is an old joke…. Patient says, ”Dr. it hurts when I do this!?”  The Dr. says, “Don’t do that.”
  2. Informal Communication Channel – One idea that might help is to have a channel for office chatter that is informal.  Maybe it’s a slack group chat or something similar where people can share their cat pics and make a joke.  They can give each other kudos and throw up a smiley face.  Informal communication may not seem productive, but if it makes folks feel like they are part of something it has value.
  3. Share with Your Coworkers – Take the time to share more about yourself that you might usually.  Talk about hobbies or fun facts.  One idea I liked was having a group chat with an ask me anything.  The idea is to make it fun to get to know your coworkers a little bit.
  4. Make a Point to Say Thank you More – One of the advantages of face-to-face interaction is that I think we are much more likely to express appreciation.  That doesn’t happen with virtual communication as much for some reason, and the thanks we do get somehow don’t seem quite as meaningful.  Make a point of saying thanks more.
Final Thoughts

There are a lot more ideas that folks have floated out there.  These ones seemed most likely to create some type of connection.  I think that is key, but in my opinion it’s very hard to do.  It’ll be interesting to see in a few years how remote work has impacted turnover rates in businesses both for employees and clients as we have less connection than ever. 

One thing is clear.  We still need each other.  Relationships are key to success as a team, and a key to keeping our clients happy and businesses growing.  I think it’s also clear that we need to make more of an effort to build those relationships now than we ever have before.

I’d love to hear your great ideas and thoughts on the topic.  Maybe one of you has the solution we’re looking for.  Feel free to drop me a line or hit the comments below.