Over the holidays I asked a family member, who runs a 500-person organization, “How’s business?” The clarity and intensity of his response surprised me. “I’m done managing offices—we’re going 100% remote in 2021.”
After decades of owning or renting well-manicured, three-story buildings with 200-plus-person parking lots, he was determined to go virtual. I couldn’t help but wonder whether those 500 employees were equally as eager for this abrupt change.
Although it might be in the long-term best interest of organizations, managing a remote workforce is no simple task. There’s more to it than saving on overhead. Yes, the technology is ready and waiting. But I fear that organizations are failing to plan for the organizational culture implications of going remote.
Many organizations are likely to deal with this in 2021. Prior to the pandemic, 2.5% of U.S. employees during 2017-2018 worked from home. Currently, over 40% of the workforce is working remotely due to the outbreak of COVID-19. And a recent study suggests that 37% of U.S. jobs can be done from home. Many leaders, just like the family member I mentioned, are adamant that employees don’t need to come back. If this is indeed the case, there are several factors organizations should be aware of to prepare for this change in culture.
It’s hard to build trust in remote work environments. There’s something about face-to-face interaction that virtual communication can’t replace. This is important because trust is a cornerstone component of several important team processes such as team psychological safety, team cohesion, and team satisfaction.
Team building happens more organically in face-to-face settings. Thus, in virtual environments, team building will need to be scheduled and more purposeful. Organizations should consider mandatory off-site retreats or regularly scheduled Zoom sessions, perhaps in the form of weekly brown-bag lunches or the like.
Organizations should also pay close attention to the socialization of new employees. Newbies will have an exponentially harder time getting to know team members when they don’t have the luxury of getting to know them in face-to-face settings.
Stretched work hours
Since the invention of the internet, work time has increasingly been stretched across the week. The traditional 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday schedule is less relevant. This trend became even more drastic after the invention of mobile devices.
Moving an entire organization virtual creates a herding effect of stretched work hours. If everyone is working from home, everyone has blurred lines between work and home, and everyone is “sprinkling” their work across the entire week—in the evenings and on the weekend—instead of “chunking” their work into traditional timeframes.
Organizations need to be aware that employees work more total hours when working remotely, compared to when face-to-face. While this might sound appealing, it can also lead to burnout, and in turn, poor performance and turnover.
Another important consideration is recognizing that when it comes to the interface of work and home, employees typically associate as either a “segmenter” or an “integrator.” Segmenters prefer to keep work and home separate and become frustrated when they can’t retain clear boundaries between these two life domains. Integrators enjoy the dynamic and fluid nature of going back-and-forth between work and nonwork tasks.
Virtual organizations work well for integrators, but not for segmenters. Organizations should therefore consider whether it’s worth retaining a small, communal office space for employees who want the option of getting out of their house. This can be particularly helpful for employees with less-than-ideal conditions at home due to interruptions from family, or a subpar workspace.
The degree to which an organization is formal or informal plays a strong role in how employees interact with each other, their customers, and their clients. In face-to-face settings, expectations regarding formality are relatively clear. The office setting (e.g., quiet versus noisy, offices and cubicles versus shared space) combined with observing superiors (e.g., the way they dress, the way they interact with others) offers strong cues on formality expectations.
These signals are muted in virtual work environments. Further, when working from home, the tendency is to lean toward being informal given that we typically let our guard down a bit while in our own space. For many employees, going virtual will be the first time they’ve wondered whether it’s acceptable to wear sweatpants, skip the shower, or manage nonwork tasks (e.g., kids, pets, making food) while on a Zoom meeting.
If an informal organizational culture fits with the organizations’ brand, strategy, or human capital initiatives, great. If not, organizations can run into challenges. For one, it’s nearly impossible to mandate formality. Instead, the best organizations can do is articulate their professionalism expectations and send strong signals on expectations by role modeling appropriate behaviors.
Stronger commitment to purpose
Many organizations have been experimenting with virtual workers for years, or already have specific positions that have always worked remotely. When we hear stories of big-name companies such as Facebook and Google stating that they will give employees the option of working from home for the foreseeable future, it’s tempting for the masses to want to do the same.
The difference, however, is that these organizations have already been working hard at figuring out how to manage remote team building, adapt to the stretching of work hours, and find the right balance between formality and informality.
As organizations prepare for 2021 and evaluate the potential for a virtual workforce, they should pay attention to these potential changes in organizational culture. Regardless of whether you believe the old business adage that “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” it’s hard to dismiss the reality that cultural considerations should be part of a transition plan.