Remote, hybrid, or all in-office? That’s the question organizations are asking as official pandemic protocols lift.
I’ve heard a range of different opinions from employees and employers alike about working remotely. The reality is that you can maintain a lot of your culture online, but certain aspects will fade or change with time. And, some aspects of in-person work are nearly impossible to duplicate online.
To decide what’s right for your organization, it’s important to know the two major factors that will impact it: the variance among your employees and the difficulty of building online relationships.
1. Employees vary immensely in their opinions on remote work.
Employee experience surveys that Culturebie has conducted show that employees disagree wildly about going remote versus returning to the physical office. In fact, our surveys have shown that employees vary more in their opinions about working at home or at the office than they do about almost everything else.
The variance is due to a range of factors, some obvious, but some surprising. It’s not unexpected that employees’ roles, their life-stage, the nature of their work, the prevailing company culture, their feelings about their bosses and co-workers, and their family circumstances would all matter. For example, workers caring for relatives at home usually prefer working from home.
But, it’s also the case that the same employees who claim to want more social connection and a higher degree of collaboration disproportionately claim to want remote meetings. (This might not be so surprising if you remember that correlation isn’t causation. We have some data that hints that workers who are constrained to be at home – and therefore express they “want” to be – are the ones most hungry for human interaction.)
Meanwhile, we also find that the people who most want to go back to the office tend to have higher morale and a greater sense of engagement. (Here, too, the causality is unclear, but some of our data suggests that senior leaders and high performers are the ones who want to go back to the office. Managers might feel a greater sense of control with their workers in the office; high performers might be those who enjoy everything about work – including the workplace – more than others.)
The huge differences in opinion mean that any enforced decisions about working online or in office will be received with strong reactions in multiple directions. Some will be very happy being (or continuing) online. Some will absolutely hate it. And most will fall somewhere in between. But, where exactly in between? That requires a better understanding of your employees at scale.
2. Building relationships online is different than building them in person.
While online interaction may be sufficient to maintain relationships, it’s much harder to build them. Kentaro Toyama, a professor at the University of Michigan, told me about the research one of his students is doing on the social lives of graduate students during the pandemic. Her results are still unpublished, but here’s an overview.
Her primary finding was that students found it much more difficult to establish friendships, even though everyone was desperate to make new friends. Students saw each other frequently online in classes, but their engagement rarely went beyond course content. After an online class, no one stuck around for small talk about their personal lives and extracurricular interests, an essential precursor to friendship formation.
That finding translates to the workplace, too – though employees interact often in online meetings, they don’t stick around for casual chit-chat. Without that, strong ties don’t have a chance to form. And without that, much of the human glue that makes organizations cohere fails to stick. Gallup – the famous survey company – even uses the question “Do you have a best friend at work?” as one of their top 10 key questions to measure employee engagement. Workers who have never worked with their colleagues in person are much more likely to answer no.
The things we lose most in online-only interaction seem small – little gestures, fleeting looks, the small talk before and after a meeting – but they play a giant role in human interaction. In person, we can tell with a glance when people seem harried or overworked; we sense when the muted reaction to an announcement at a meeting is indifferent, concerned, angry, or something else. And, we can react accordingly. When in person, we can encourage one another with a high-five or an elbow bump; we can rally energy through applause or laughter. These are the things that make human interaction human. On a Zoom call, these things are much, much harder, if not altogether impossible.
Successful remote work requires a balance between business needs and employee preferences
Companies typically have a good understanding of their business needs. Leaders understand what jobs can be effectively carried out remotely or in a hybrid state and what jobs require in-person work. What companies often lack is a deeper understanding of employee preferences and their social needs. Before making the decision to stay remote, it’s critical to acknowledge the essential aspects of human interaction that you risk losing out on, and how you might mitigate them. Before forcing employees to come back to the office, it’s important to know what they feel they’ll lose in the process, and how you might soften the blow.
About the Author: Jasmit Kaur
Jasmit Kaur is CEO of Culturebie, a people analytics company that specializes in understanding
employee experience and workplace culture. She brings her experience as a former HR executive at Microsoft to her work as an entrepreneur, data scientist, and mom. (Management skills are handy with children!) Jasmit applies her endless curiosity and tireless energy toward advising leaders on HR and business strategy.
This is the first installment in a series on building company culture. Stay tuned for the next piece by subscribing to the Purpose Jobs weekly newsletter.