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‘Remote first’ isn’t a culture. Here’s what companies should focus on instead

Likely many companies can provide conferencing technology or enable Wi-Fi from across the globe, but not all can unite workers through less tangible factors.

‘Remote first’ isn’t a culture. Here’s what companies should focus on instead
[Source illustration: ajijchan/iStock]
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Scan through job postings these days, and you’ll inevitably see it. Sometimes it’s spelled out in big, bold letters; other times it’s buried in the perks and benefits: “remote-first culture.”

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After a year of lockdown, growing numbers of companies are embracing remote-work options—some, such as Twitter and Shopify, are allowing employees to “work from home forever”; others now offer flexible, hybrid arrangements. To be clear, I think these options can be great. There’s just one problem. Remote-first isn’t a culture, not by a long shot. And confusing where we work with how we work is actually a big deal.

The elusiveness of company culture

Even before the pandemic, precisely defining company culture wasn’t easy. A library’s worth of books has been written on it, but the concept ultimately is a vague one. Culture can be “what people do and how they do it.” It can be attitudes and behaviors, or even less tangible (but distinctly not toxic).

Moreover, what counts as “good culture” can be night and day, depending on the company. Some businesses champion freedom and responsibility, while others practice radical candor or radical empathy, all in pursuit of a well-functioning team.

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Since culture is so hard to define, we wind up reducing culture to tangible, physical things. Before the crisis, culture was often equated with office perks. Silicon Valley companies were in a veritable arms race of cushy offerings before the pandemic, touting access to everything from in-office massages and car washes to indoor slides as part of their culture.

At their best, these sorts of features are inputs, not outputs; at their worst, they’re just empty trappings. In one study, 60% of office workers reported that “fun” perks actually make it harder for them to do their jobs. Other statistics show that tech workers are some of the least loyal employees, despite having some of the best perks at their startup workplaces.

The limits of the “remote first” label

In the pandemic era, all those in-office perks have understandably gone out the window. Now, “remote first” is the shiny object that’s being conflated with culture. For example, BuiltIn, a digital community for tech companies and startups, recently posted a celebratory list of remote-first companies, positioning all 50 startups as progressive, forward-thinking businesses. The problem is that “remote” gives little clarity on values or goals, the process by which teams are built and led, or the way people are treated.

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As an employee, are you in for a cutthroat environment where performance is prioritized above all else? A people-first workplace where colleagues support the whole person? All you know for sure is that there are going to be a lot of Zoom calls.

Meanwhile, as an employer, leading with a “remote first” label is selling your company and culture short. It’s like pitching your business by saying it’s on a bus route. And you may well be alienating employees for whom remote work is not their ideal circumstance. According to a recent survey by real estate company JLL, a quarter of office workers hope to return to the office full time, while another half would prefer a hybrid schedule to a fully remote arrangement.

Building culture that transcends location

Real culture goes beyond these physical and virtual trappings. At a gut level, it’s intimately wrapped up with how people are expected to treat one another, but also how people actually treat one another when they think no one is looking.

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For me, building culture starts with a clear statement of values. At my company, this centers around three pretty straightforward pillars: employee pride, customer success, and revenue and profitability. To me, running a company without clear guideposts like these is like getting in a car and stepping on the gas without a destination in mind.

These values can’t just be signs on the wall, however. They have to be reinforced in the processes you implement. Take that employee pride pillar. That’s expressed in everything from how we onboard new people to rituals such as weekly “good news” check-ins. Within this framework, remote work is just one more process put in place to help support employees.

Above all, culture is manifested in lived behaviors, big and small. You know employee pride is real, for example, when people go the extra mile unprompted. One of my favorite examples: a support representative was on a call with a client who suddenly went into labor. Despite this, she was still trying to solve the issue. Taking charge of the situation, the representative told her he’d get the issue fixed as soon as possible, and immediately booked an Uber to her office, expensing it himself.

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A culture built in this way can be location-agnostic. An office space or an internet connection is just a delivery method. The underlying substance remains unchanged. When I attend our all-hands Zoom meetings, I see, clear as day, that we are still the same company, with the same heart, even if we’re not physically together.

Just as you wouldn’t settle for ping-pong and “beer Fridays” as a definition of your culture before, don’t settle for remote-first as a definition of your culture now. The crisis has introduced so much uncertainty. Timelines are still shifting, and plans for returning to work remain up in the air for so many companies. However, an enduring culture can withstand all the twists and turns in the road ahead.


Chris Litster is senior vice president at RealPage, where he manages platforms that help property managers and owners become more efficient and profitable, including Buildium and Propertyware.