Friday 25 September 2020 5:00 am

Don't sacrifice company culture on the remote working altar

Back to work
Kate Mercer is co-founder of leadership consultancy Leaders Lab

The UK recession, like its predecessors, will cause massive shifts in the market: new startups will be born (just as Airbnb, Uber, and Whatsapp were last time); many SMEs will be forced to adapt, refine, and then rebuild; and larger companies, spanning sectors as broad as property, law and finance, will find the pandemic era brings about seismic structural change in their organisations.

The biggest change so far has been the great work from home experiment. This week, along with a raft of new restrictions, the government announced a “shift in emphasis” encouraging people to work from home if they can — less than three weeks after launching a “back to work” campaign to get staff to return to the office. 

Read more: Boris Johnson to tell Brits to work from home in lockdown U-turn

Now, many of the bosses I work with have an entrepreneur mentality, even if they’re running large teams and businesses.They like to experiment with the latest toys and ideas and, if these work, adapt quickly. The shiniest corporate toy of 2020 has, of course, been the home office and its proven efficiency, which is making many leaders consider running remote teams indefinitely — especially to keep overheads down during a potentially sustained recession.

But in all this excitement about remote working, business owners and managers need to be mindful of throwing out a very important baby with the bathwater: company culture. There are problems that can arise without consistent in-person interaction, and fostering company culture is very difficult if no one is in the same room. 

First, it’s harder to foster a close team mentality with everyone physically separate. Personal relationships, the ones which breed long-term corporate loyalty, can stagnate. Introverted employees are less likely to speak up. On-boarding new people takes longer and is more about technical skills than psychological fit. Motivation at tricky times is always going to be harder. Innovation from serendipitous meetings disappears (it’s hard to schedule serendipity), and emotional or contentious issues are difficult to surface and resolve. These are just a handful of the disadvantages that leaders need to consider.

Read more: DEBATE: Will long-term remote working jeopardise London’s status as a global financial centre?

Exclusively remote working will cause a build-up of these issues: bumps under the rug that never get swept out. Working only from home will erode that intangible, but crucial, “buzz” that you feel in a physical building or office. It’s the atmosphere and energy a client notices when they walk into the reception of an organisation humming with industry and creativity, rather than feeling eerily like the Marie Celeste.

If you don’t have a building, where is your culture going to reside? If keeping overheads down is essential, is there a halfway house? Something which allows you to build an atmosphere without having employees in the same room every day? 

The solution is fairly simple: schedule a number of sacrosanct in-person team and one-to-one meetings that punctuate the remote working calendar.

Ringfence these days in everyone’s calendars, and make it clear to the company that you see these meetings as being as important as client meetings. Put culture firmly on the agenda, so your team can mentally mark this date in the diary as the opportunity for discussing anything sensitive. Show your company that you take culture seriously, that you pay attention to how people are feeling, and that you want any simmering issues to surface and then be resolved. 

That would be my word of warning to business leaders. Even if you see a path to growing your business significantly while remote (because there’s no denying that efficiency and productivity have increased during the last few months), keep an eye on building and maintaining the right sort of company culture: the same sort of “buzz” that you’ve always wanted in your physical building.

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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