The effects of remote work on company culture

In spring 2020 a significant portion of businesses were forced to become remote companies overnight for an extended period of time. This huge, worldwide experiment proved that things also get done when people are not in the office. It proved that companies still function when the employees are working from elsewhere.

Anecdotally, it seems like many enjoy spending the majority of time working from home or elsewhere. It also seems like the vast majority of companies will allow very flexible work arrangements in the foreseeable future.

Now that the intense part of the corona pandemic is over (fingers crossed), companies and teams are transitioning to a permanent new normal, and figuring out how to do so. Thus, now is a good time to write down some thoughts on how to deal with the effects of remote work, specifically on company culture.

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Remote work is awesome

First, some general thoughts on the positive aspects. There are a few that stand out to me:

  • No commuting
  • Family time
  • Increased flexibility 
  • Less distractions 

No commuting

The fact that we do not need to commute to the office every day is very obviously a huge time saver. In my previous job, I was driving 65km or an hour one way to get to the office. There were ways to make the drive less horrible. I always listened to podcasts, audiobooks, or just called people. I even feel that the drive had some sort of meditating effect. 

Still, you are forced to stay in the car or train. There is a finite amount of things that can be done in the car and the time spent commuting was simply not available for other activities.. Not having to spend time commuting is probably the main benefit of working from home. 

Family time

Less time spent commuting leads to more time available on other things. For me and many others it means more time to spend with your family, or whoever else you may be living with. For some of us this may be a bad thing but for the sake of the argument I will assume that it is net positive. 

For me personally, I was able to experience my daughter – she was four months old when the pandemic hit – growing up much more closely. I was able to jump in and help in case my wife, who was staying at home full time at that time, needed an hour of rest. I cannot remember how often I was in zoom calls with my daughter strapped to my chest (mostly) sleeping. 

Increased flexibility

In general, remote work just offers so much more flexibility. Want to work in a coffee shop for a day, why not? Want to go to Italy and work with some friends from there for a week? Sure, knock yourself out. The possibilities are endless. Everybody has the option to find something that works for them. I actually recently moved to Spain and am now working from there.

Less distractions

Compared to an open office plan, working from home is much more quiet and thus offers much fewer distractions. In the past, I would have told you that a noisy office was no problem for me. Nowadays, I believe there are so many distractions that I find it hard to be really focused for a longer period of time on a given task. For most of us, that is not the case at home (Slack and zoom might want to argue that this is not always true).

The downsides

Although in my view, the positive aspects outweigh the negative, not all things remote work are awesome. There are some real drawbacks. Managing electronic communication, the many many many zoom meetings, and onboarding new team members are some that are frequently talked about.

I want to focus on one other point that I feel is frequently overlooked. The effects on company culture.

Company culture in a distributed world 

When the entire company is in the office all the time, the company culture is somehow formed naturally through something similar to osmosis. Even companies that don’t put too much thought into their values or how they operate create a culture. It just happens. People see how leadership acts, how people communicate, and what they talk about. Generally speaking, people see how things function and (mostly) adapt to fit in.

This is no longer possible in a remote world. You are sitting at home all the time. You cannot see how your boss interacts with his or her superiors. You are not able to listen to groups of people that you otherwise don’t interact with talk about issues they are facing over coffee. You are sitting at your desk doing your own thing. Depending on your role, you may interact regularly with only a handful of people.

How are company values, culture and how stuff gets done supposed to spread organically in that context? 

It’s deliberate leadership 

As it is so often, it comes down to leadership, the fuzzy, messy, abstract topic of leadership. As hinted at above, many companies already put a lot of thought into this. Others do not. The latter now need to put that much more effort into how to be a cohesive company in this new reality. If they do not, they will end up with a number of loosely connected teams. They will likely have a lot of employee turnover because they are missing the connective tissue.

How to foster a culture in a remote world?

Leadership needs to be extremely present. The employees are no longer able to passively absorb how the people within the company operate. Thus, I feel there is a significant need for leadership to be much more direct and communicate why decisions were made, how things are being done and what is being executed. Only then, is there a chance to foster a deliberate culture.

Of course, the why part of the above is extremely important. Why the company is doing what it’s doing, its vision, is a prerequisite to everything else. However, I want to stress the importance of explaining how things are done. How a company executes is the embodiment of its values and its culture. 

The concrete

There is so much that needs to be addressed. One big category could be summarized as business process design: how communication within the company works, how decisions are made and where they are documented, what products or features get developed, how findings are documented. All of this needs to be deliberately defined. 

For sure, it is possible to let it develop naturally. However, you then run the risk of getting a fragmented landscape of tools and processes. Also, it might not be what you want the company to be.

The abstract

The other is more of the fuzzy parts of leadership and company values. What type of company do we even want to be? Do we go straight to business topics whenever we meet or do we talk about the last weekend? How important is product quality for us? Are we extremely structured in our plans or do we have a rough plan and figure the rest out as we go? How do we introduce new people to our company and what do we do when people leave?

There are many more questions like the above and there are no right or wrong answers to them. How the company leadership answers them does, however, have a significant impact on the culture. 

Again, it comes down to really putting thought into these topics and deliberately taking action. I believe it comes down to communication and leading by example. Leadership needs to be extremely present and talk about these topics over and over again. The leaders need to show how they embody the values in their daily work life and promote examples of actions from employees that really exemplify them.

It’s really not that much different from an in-person company, except that it needs to be done that much more deliberately and that now the company is forced to address it. This is the connective tissue that will keep the company together in the long run.

Who is the leadership anyway

You might have noticed that I never specified who is actually meant with leadership. This is by design. This new reality is also a chance for those of us not formally in a senior leadership role to shape the company. Anybody can theoretically propose a standard of how things get done, if they see it lacking.

I believe it is preferable to define standards of working in such a way that they are consistent across the company. If this is not done on a large scale, it is still beneficial to be deliberate about values on a smaller scale. It is better than nothing at all and over time with a little pushing here and there it may even spread.