I get it, really I do. Working from home, once considered a privilege, has now entered the realm of being a “right” of employees. That’s what 15 months of remote work environments will do. Even the most old school manager has grudgingly admitted that work-from-home is a viable business model in some form or fashion. So we finally have some overlap in perspective between employee and employer (except maybe this guy,) perhaps for the first time ever, on the value of a flexible work environment. Huzzah!
Some overlap, yes. But the anxiety level of employees is rising when they see rumblings of returning to a live office environment. While we have almost universal agreement that there have been positive revelations on the ability of companies to pivot successfully to a remote work environment, there is a huge disconnect on the value of returning to a live work environment, even on a blended schedule that still includes remote work. And I don’t think the anxiety is related to safety precautions – this goes a little deeper than that. From a remote employee’s perspective, the question is less about “how” we return or “what” company precautions are in place. The question is simply “why?” Why do we have to return when things seem to be going along pretty well?
If you take a pulse check of senior leaders about “why” it’s important to have team members in the office, you could probably capture their feedback under one familiar term:
Yes, “culture;” that squishy, fuzzy, ethereal term we have all struggled to define over the years. Word clouds, mission statements, vision statements, “North Star” definitions and some sort of cute acronym to put on company SWAG. Now I think culture is much more tangible than ever before and much simpler to define. It’s the people that truly define the culture of a company, not vice versa. And speaking from the perspective of someone who joined a new company during the pandemic, you quickly find yourself at a disadvantage when there are no real people in the building. That’s why I was shocked (but not surprised, if that makes sense) to see the results of a poll question in the June issue of the HR Specialist:
- “A wide majority (76%) of remote employees say their company’s culture has __________________ since the pandemic forced teleworking.“
b) Gotten worse
The answer, of course, was “a,” as in “Improved.” My professional response?” Reaaaaaaaalllly?.
The question isn’t about quality of life, work-life balance or convenience – there’s no arguing that we all love the casual dress, missing that commute (remember traffic?) and spending more time with our family. The question specifically asks about company culture; and the answer is a resounding percentage of people saying company culture has improved. What we have here is one of two options. One explanation would be the personal definition of “culture.” Are employees measuring company culture or are they making a statement about the new work environment they enjoy? My at-home culture has certainly changed for the better, but professionally? Nope. Another more skeptical explanation might be that employees are hip to the “our culture is suffering” statement from business leaders and feel like they need to pre-emptively address that question in print. Can you imagine if the percentage were reversed? That would be like waving the white flag.
My guess is it is the former, not the latter. It’s actually been an unbelievable transition that could not have happened otherwise. That’s the silver lining from our pandemic response. Working remote is possible, just as going to school while remote is possible, but at what cost? “Possible” doesn’t mean perfect. There is an undeniable value in the day-to-day interactions, formal and informal, that occur in an office environment. How many of you have been on Zoom/GoTo/Skype meetings where all you see are empty black boxes? I just celebrated my one-year anniversary with my company and could not identify at least 50% of my colleagues.
There are ways to improve the virtual connection, and technology is rapidly trying to fill that need. But let’s be honest about this – has your company’s culture really improved, or are you comfortable with your new personal situation?
Just to be clear, I am not in favor of returning to a full-time office environment. That ship has sailed, to think otherwise is obtuse. What I am saying is it takes honest communication between employees and employers about the value inherent in both work environments. And for all the pluses of remote work, “improving company culture” does not belong on the list.
In the meantime, please turn on your camera and smile.
John Whitaker is EVP and Chief People Officer at National Partners in Healthcare, a management-services-organization partnering physicians and health systems in the anesthesiology world. His blog and podcast “HR Hardball” promote transparent communication in the workplace. In the simplest terms, human behavior IS human resources.