Is remote working bad for corporate culture?

Photo: @9_fingers_ via Twenty20
Jun 08, 2020
Tom Ryan

In a recent survey of Americans who are working remotely, 55 percent felt less connected to their company.

Overall, the survey from Prudential Financial of 2,050 taken from April 29 to May 6 found favorable perceptions around remote working:

  • Fifty-four percent would like to work remotely in the future, with the figure higher (68 percent) among those currently working remotely.
  • Fifty-nine percent currently working remotely felt as productive as they do at the worksite.
  • Sixty-nine percent currently working remotely made more time for self-care.

Isolation and distractions, however, were tied as the biggest challenges to working remotely, each cited by 40 percent.

A Wall Street Journal article last week — “The Office Is Far Away. Can Its Culture Survive?” — cited the loss of hallway banter and asked whether remote workers can develop the connections of those working side by side to feed collaboration and innovation.

One reason remote working appears to be succeeding during the crisis is because teams already know each other. Developing bonds for new staffers working remotely may be challenging, though.

Maintaining etiquette on virtual calls, including making sure everyone can participate equally as well as working out the kinks of virtual conversations, may help remote teams better connect.

“When we’re in a group, we make eye contact and we use our body language to signal that we want to say something, and other people are able to pick up on that,” Anna Cox, a professor of human-computer interaction at University College London, told The New York Times. “But when we’re not together, we can’t share that information in the same way.”

Smaller group meetings and one-on-one check-ins are being seen by some as more productive than virtual town halls.

Online happy hours and games may also face limits in building camaraderie. Andi Owen, CEO at furniture maker Herman Miller Inc., hasn’t found a substitute for dropping by an employee’s desk and asking about their children. She told the Journal, “That unplanned kind of interaction that contributes so much to how we build relationships with people and how we build culture, those things are what are missing.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you see working from home as having a positive, neutral or negative effect on corporate culture? What solutions do you see for driving engagement and building camaraderie in remote-working environments?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"The worst thing companies can do is to go back to their pre-COVID-19, inflexible WFH policies."
"Just beware: Humans are hard-wired for connection. Video calls, while good, are no replacement for face to face interactions."
"Since many of our clients now are working from home, I have learned WFH is far harder on the extroverts among us than the introverts."

Join the Discussion!

29 Comments on "Is remote working bad for corporate culture?"

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Mark Ryski

There is no substitute for face-to-face interaction. But that doesn’t mean that work from home doesn’t offer some practical advantages either. Overall, work from home has been a win for any business that can successfully operate remotely. And as the surveys suggest, for some employees it may be even better than working in the office. I think work from home is especially effective with an experienced team that was already operating well, but I’d worry about onboarding new employees remotely. Ultimately, every business will need to find its own way through to the other side of the pandemic, but some elements of work from home will most certainly become permanent fixtures in everyday work life.

Lee Kent

Absolutely Mark! I see the future as some kind of blend. It may not even be the same for every team within an organization or the same schedule every week. Teams will need to be fluid as will businesses of tomorrow. And that’s my 2 cents!

Richard Hernandez

I know a lot of BrainTrust members have worked remotely for a number of years and from remembering their comments, they seem to like it very much. I have worked remotely as well in the past, and it’s not a bad thing. But if the percentage of those that want to work or are working from home is over 50 percent, then the corporate culture number (55 percent) does not make sense. You can still keep in touch with people in your office via messaging, etc., so is it a choice in which you feel you are not part of the company? I would love to hear from BrainTrust members who have worked from home for a long time period.

Suresh Chaganti

Organizations that have always been encouraging work from home had fewer issues with transitioning. Successful WFH requires a culture of trust and self discipline to make it effective. It is a dynamic that is hard to get it right in just few weeks. When things return to normal, it is an opportunity to provide the flexibility and things will get better.

The worst thing companies can do is to go back to their pre-COVID-19, inflexible WFH policies.

Laura Davis-Taylor

I think it depends on the company, the vertical and what the corporate culture was before this COVID-19 period. It also depends on the tools being used. We are actually working more productively, and with little-to-no issues. Meetings are almost all video-based, where before we were mainly using teleconference. We’re having to be more creative and nimble while also work together more effectively–and globally. Frankly, it’s trained us to realize that we can limit office time and save money/precious work time (versus sitting on the highway for two hours a day) while also enhancing personal quality of life. If the company was previously lean back and/or dysfunctional, I’m not sure if this would be possible. I’ll be curious to read what others are experiencing as well!

Bob Amster

While certain jobs and certain people can easily handle working remotely without any loss, human beings are social animals — they don’t enjoy being alone. Corporate culture is hard to develop remotely. Friendships are harder to develop with virtual colleagues. The disadvantages outweigh the advantages. However one day a week of working remotely may work well for all.

Georganne Bender

I am more productive working from home, and I used to really enjoy it, but now, not so much. I am working harder than ever before and I miss the camaraderie of real life interaction. A Zoom call just isn’t the same. People need people. If I can feel it in our small consultancy then it definitely has to have an effect on the workforce of a big company. I can see a divide brewing from the conversations I have had recently with corporately employed friends and colleagues. There is a lot of miscommunication going on out there.

Small conversations in hallways, stopping by others offices to brainstorm; these things can’t be replicated using technology. Moving forward, perhaps a compromise of a split between working from home and working in the office can be met.

David Naumann
David Naumann
CEO and President, Cogent Creative Consulting
10 months 14 days ago

While working from home has some challenges from a corporate culture perspective, the pandemic has taught management to find creative ways to build camaraderie with a remote workforce. I have worked from home for the past 12 years and I personally absorbed corporate cultures at the three companies where I worked. It starts from the top. Corporate leaders that are personable, transparent and passionate demonstrate the mission and values of the organization and it radiates throughout the management team and the organization.

For remote workforces, companies have found creative ways to demonstrate the corporate culture on company-wide virtual meetings and reinforcing it on smaller team virtual social hours.

Dr. Stephen Needel

Working from home is all three. Yes, it’s much harder to maintain a tight connection with someone(s) you had a tight connection with and it will certainly be harder to build new connections – not impossible, just harder. On the other hand, let’s not assume all corporate cultures are good and should be maintained. I work with enough clients who live in fairly toxic cultures to see the relief on their faces when they can get work done instead of having to run to fire drills or posture all the time. It’s what you make of it that counts. Keep the good stuff, lose the bad stuff, and take two minutes for the small talk.

Bethany Allee

WFH modifies corporate culture. Some work better from home. Some work better from the office. Some work better with a blend.

This is a wake-up call to employees to understand how they work best and for employers to facilitate that environment.

Lee Peterson

WFH is going surprisingly well for us, including the cultural element. One of the features, frequent Zoom/Houseparty meetings every week has definitely made us closer as a team. There’s an intimacy element that helps culture when you’re actually looking at someone’s house/kids/dog, etc.. Seeing things you don’t normally see from associates in an office setting are a welcome reprieve from the “heaviness” of big company culture.

Having said that, you do have to communicate more when WFH or much is missed. It is easier in an office to just have a meeting and get on the same page. But all in all, once that gets solved, WFH is definitely the way of the future.

Ben Ball
There used to be a management philosophy called “Management by Walking Around.” I can’t recall who to attribute it to – apologies for that. I have worked in office-centric environments, open offices, companies with multiple office locations and companies with remote workers and one that transitioned back and forth. Companies comprised of individual contributors — think consultants, journalists, agencies, attorneys — can work remotely quite successfully. Collaboration is typically sharing and enhancing individual work products. We transitioned to remote work when we figured out we were emailing and Skyping more often than we were standing up and walking down the hall in our own office locations. Traditional company office environments are different. The overall work product is more the output of a process flow than individual contributions. Leadership teams are also much more dependent on personal interaction to be effective. But in the final analysis, “calling around” or “Zooming around” is never going to be an effective substitute for “Management by Walking Around” in creating and maintaining a culture — especially in traditional corporate office… Read more »
Scott Norris

Tom Peters’ book “In Search of Excellence” was where the phrase got popularized, but it was a big element in Deming’s Total Quality Management work to revolutionize Japan’s industry post-war. Both Peters and Deming would say the whole idea that management must be intimate with the people and processes applies just as much to remote work as to office/factory settings — the managers have to work with staff to devise new ways of interaction, new cultures to match the new reality.

Now that I’m back in the office full-time, I’m honestly not sure if I’m any more productive overall. Impromptu meetings are good and there are some interactions/processes that can only be done in a building together, but a lot of the corporate workday is a time suck and it is much harder to concentrate when I hear so many other conversations around me.

Gene Detroyer
Let’s be careful how we refer to “corporate culture.” Corporate culture itself can be a very positive force in a company or a negative force in a company. How many of us know of situations in which people made incorporate decisions that ethically they would never have made personally — how many of us have done so ourselves? That is the downside of corporate culture. Of course, there is a positive side and that is how great companies became great. New ideas, innovation, and sales effort are also about corporate culture. I was fortunate enough to experience that first hand in my first job. With regard to the question of WFH — I don’t believe it matters if a worker is comfortable with it or not. it displaces the worker from the company environment. Our human traits demand that we interact personally, face-to-face with people. The best ideas and decisions are often not made in the formal meetings (online or not) but by the “water cooler” in the cafeteria and sticking your head in someone’s… Read more »
Jeff Weidauer

If it’s handled properly, WFH could have a positive impact on corporate culture. As companies learn to trust employees and measure results instead of seat time, employer/employee relationships will improve. Eliminating commutes can only be a positive, even if it’s only a couple of days per week.

Brandon Rael

The entire corporate office operating model was disrupted during the COVID-19 pandemic, and some of the changes that have come out of this will lead to re-imagining the future of the workplace. Having worked in a blended office, client site, shared offices, and work from home mode, flexible work models are indeed the future for corporate America.

Those who have been working for firms that were able to keep most of their staff employed, working from home, and productive are indeed part of the privileged members of the workforce. Many firms have done all they can as we work remotely to do virtual happy hours, keep connected, and maintain morale. While this doesn’t replace the interpersonal interactions, it was out of necessity.

As we slowly return to our new normal, we should expect a far more blended office model, where there is more flexibility to work from home. The days of mandatory 9-5, Monday-Friday office work may be behind us.

Kevin Graff

Like everything else, there are pros and cons to WFH. Who doesn’t want to avoid the commute? Who doesn’t want the freedom that comes from working at home to get a few personal things done during the day?
Just beware: Humans are hard-wired for connection. Video calls, while good, are no replacement for face to face interactions. My fear is you’ll see a breakdown of company culture (remember, culture eats strategy for breakfast) in the mid to long term. Not to mention relationships.
A hybrid model (part WFH, part in-office) may be the way forward.

Gregory Osborne

Working from home has both positive and negative effects. Efficiency, employee satisfaction, and increased productivity stem from allowing flexibility in hours and work-from-home choice when possible. For some, the office is filled with unnecessary distractions. For others, it’s the home. By allowing employees to chose what works best for them, while maintaining high expectations and accountability, employees will become more productive with their freedom to chose.

Steve Montgomery

I have worked from home since founding our consultancy 26 years ago. To me and our team this is the norm. We all enjoy meeting clients and working at their locations and with their teams but then return to WFH.

Since many of our clients now are working from home, I have learned WFH is far harder on the extroverts among us than the introverts. For them the corporate culture included all the daily business and non-business interactions with others in the office. Without it they feel a loss and WFH has a definite negative impact on their view of the corporate culture.

Harley Feldman

Working from home has a negative effect on corporate culture. Much of corporate culture comes from personal interactions and communications in the workplace. Especially for new people joining a company, this level of corporate culture transmission is very difficult to do remotely. Possible solutions include having local meetings with employees and setting up sessions where these employees can find time to interact.

Cathy Hotka

Imagine how hard it will be to get white collar workers back into office buildings, enduring traffic and suffering long waits for a socially-distanced elevator. Like the song said, how do you keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paris?

Ralph Jacobson

Consistent, mandatory video conference team meetings, as well as one-one-on video meetings have proven to be very effective over the decades that I’ve personally done remote work. I can remember doing my first teleconference in the late ’90s. This ain’t anything new. It can definitely work.

Brian Numainville

Having worked in large corporate settings and 100% remote, I find the remote work arrangement to be far more productive. While you have to be intentional about connecting for reasons beyond work discussions — to socialize and interact — it really is possible to still build culture and relationships. And tools like messaging and video conferencing work great (if implemented well and etiquette observed). It’s time to morph forward — I hate to think of how many hours of time I wasted sitting in traffic just to get to an office.

Ricardo Belmar
Ricardo Belmar
Retail Transformation Thought Leader
10 months 14 days ago
Having worked from home for a number of years, I find these surveys very interesting, and in some way very flawed. We have to remember that working from home, when it is a choice, is very different from being isolated from your coworkers at home. The keyword here is “isolated.” Perhaps one of the lesser-known secrets to working from home successfully is that you still have the ability to interact with people quite frequently. You are not automatically isolated from the world as we have been during these lockdown phases. Surveys like this one try to compare the current situation with what it was like to work from home pre-COVID, and the two scenarios are not the same. Pre-COVID, there were plenty of instances where I still went into our corporate office to meet with colleagues, customers, or vendors. Plus, there was plenty of business travel to customer sites, conferences, etc. that kept human interaction quite regular. Most if not all of that has been lost during the pandemic. Many people are now finding out… Read more »
Craig Sundstrom

Although it’s certainly possible to have long-distance relationship with coworkers (I’m sure many of us have had the experience of “finally meeting” someone after years, even decades of talking to them on the phone/emailing), I don’t think it can really work if all of your work relationships are like that. And frankly, I’m dubious about claims from people who claim they’re just as or even more efficient working from home. Such people probably exist … but not in the numbers claimed.

Mark Ryski

Good point Craig. As an employer myself, it can be very difficult to discern the real impact of WFH. Many of my team say, “I’m more productive WFH,” but I can’t help but wonder if for some it means ‘I appreciate the flexibility and I’m happier.” Higher productivity is good for the company; having a more flexible lifestyle MAY or MAY NOT be better for the company, though it still may be very agreeable to the employee. And while I do want to have happy employees, I need to solve for the business first.