As a result of the advances in online communication and collaboration tools, remote work is becoming increasingly common. The number of U.S.-based employees that work from home has more than doubled in the past 15 years.
This practice offers many benefits to employees and businesses alike: Employees gain flexibility, avoid long commutes (which significantly impact job satisfaction), and remain free from office distractions, while businesses save on office management costs (a win in pricey markets like New York City and Washington, D.C.), and can source top talent from across the globe. It’s clear that telecommuting poses many advantages congruent with the needs of the modern workplace.
However, remote work programs have one notable downside: They often impede organizations from creating and solidifying their company culture. Company culture is fostered, in large part, by employees coming together and engaging in team-building activities and division- or company-wide meetings—so having disjointed teams can make this hard to accomplish.
But just how important is company culture? Can it be deprioritized in favor of the convenience that telecommuting offers? Developing a company culture isn’t just something to be done for its own sake—it has meaningful effects on employee retention, satisfaction, and productivity.
The reason for this is simple: When employees clearly identify with a company’s values, they’re more likely to engage with their work. Engagement is key in today’s workplace—one study showed that companies with high engagement have higher customer loyalty, productivity, and profitability than their peers. Companies with high employee turnover rates often suffer from poor employee engagement.
Additionally, organizations with an engaged workforce and a clear culture in place are more likely to attract top talent. When investing in long-term success, leadership teams cannot overlook the need to define company culture.
Work-from-home policies can affect the development of company culture in a variety of ways. Cultural effects that excessive telecommuting can have include:
1. Colleagues and teams being siloed from each other
When employees work mostly or exclusively from home, they likely only interact with their colleagues via email and occasional calls. Remote working isn’t conducive to building meaningful relationships with co-workers in the same way that working in the office is.
This is important for two reasons—first, interacting daily with coworkers facilitates expectation-setting. When new employees are continuously exposed to the behavior of their colleagues, they’re able to grasp the standards of performance and communication much more quickly than they would remotely. Second, social interaction is strongly correlated with workplace engagement and satisfaction. A Gallup study surveying more than 15 million employees indicated that those with a “best” work buddy are “seven times as likely to be engaged in their jobs, are better at engaging customers, produce higher quality work, [and] have higher well-being,” compared to those without.
2. Feelings of isolation among remote employees
Though working from home can make life easier at first, it can actually be detrimental to employees’ mental health. Humans are social creatures, and working without seeing anyone can make employees feel cut off.
Remote working can also cause anxiety. A recent study concluded the lack of close contact hinders three key ingredients in any effective working relationship: The formation of trust, connection, and mutual purpose. Remote employees are more likely to struggle with office politics, worry colleagues are saying bad things behind their backs and lobby against them.
3. Enthusiasm about building and growing a business is harder to foster
You want employees to be passionate about the work they’re doing—inspiring passion across a dispersed team is not impossible, but certainly not easy. Unless your employees are 100 percent intrinsically motivated, it’s difficult to stimulate enthusiasm about your service or product without ample social engagement—high spirits are tough to express digitally.
Action Items Make Remote Work, Work
Employees highly value the flexibility of remote work, and the success of fully distributed companies such as Basecamp and DuckDuckGo has proven that the model can work.
If your company’s remote work policy is failing, hope isn’t lost. Plus, you’re better off implementing new guardrails than dealing with the backlash of rolling back your current policy.
Whether your policy is for fully remote employees or flexibility as a perk, these best practices will help retain or enhance your culture, even with limited face-to-face.
- Consistent, scheduled check-ins: The exact cadence of check-ins can be dictated by team leads, but it’s important to provide consistent updates to projects, priorities, expectations, and what’s going on on-site. This ensures nobody feels neglected or directionless.
- Show and tell: Instant messaging apps may be the most convenient method of communication, but taking time for face-to-face or voice-to-voice communication helps build trust and clarify details as needed.
- Set explicit expectations: While we recommend setting clear expectations for every employee, it’s especially critical for remote teams. Employees who understand responsibilities and deadlines can work to exceed them, while avoiding the anxiety of wondering where they stand with their team and manager.
- Add a personal touch: When employees are together, make sure to schedule some team-building activities outside of the office. Encourage employees to share a little about themselves (within the realm of what’s appropriate and comfortable)—while it may not seem immediately productive, small talk can help create personal connections, build empathy, and strengthen working relationships.