How to nurture company culture when everyone’s working from home

When you’re alone.
When you’re alone.
Image: Reuters/Caitlin Ochs
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If sudden national lockdowns proved anything to the business world, it’s that mass remote work is more possible than many ever dreamed. When the Covid-19 pandemic swept through Asia, Europe, and the Americas, stock exchanges went fully electronic and bankers began to work from bedrooms. Overnight, multinational law firms closed their offices, and businesses predicated on collaboration and “face time” moved their faces to video-conferencing software.

For many workers, the new prevalence of remote work is in line with a desire they’d already expressed, to be less tied to offices that were often located in city centers, a long commute from people’s homes. But as the dust begins to settle, many also say they miss the office.

The things we miss are often intangible: Chance conversations, jokes, shared complaints, and shared lunches. Collectively they can be called “company culture”—an amorphous term which can refer either to the way an employee experiences a firm, the way a firm tries to present itself, or a mixture of the two. There’s no doubt that company culture has one of the most powerful impacts on how we feel about our jobs. And culture as we know it is undergoing a profound change.

“I have this concern… that there’s this decay rate in culture that occurs as we’re fully remote for an extended period of time,” says Rob Falzon, vice chair of Prudential Financial. The company’s 22,000 employees moved quickly to become largely remote in early March.

“I’m a big fan of introducing an increased level of remote, but 98% remote is an extreme,” Falzon says. “And you’re remote in combination with a health crisis and an economic crisis. That obviously puts stress on individuals.”

To help deal with the stress, the company introduced enhanced benefits including counseling, and increased access to managers and to health professionals. But trying to keep people healthy and happy is only part of the picture, Falzon believes. “The benefit of being together in the workplace is around how relationships get formed, and informal interactions that occur that reinforce culture and build culture.”

Prudential’s approach to replacing what’s been lost has included short weekly CEO videos which Falzon says have been popular with staff. It’s meant managers stepping up, often by increasing their availability: A ten-minute serendipitous chat in a hallway now needs a scheduled 30-minute video call to achieve the same effect.

A lot of his extra work hours since the pandemic, Falzon said, go to “communicating, communicating, and then communicating some more.”

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The intangible power of the office prank

It started with a rubber stamp.

Banks Benitez is the CEO of Uncharted, an “escalator” that aims to help companies contribute more positively to society, based in Colorado. He recounts how, during a team call at the start of the pandemic, the company’s chief strategy officer, Sara Rodríguez López,  joked that she’d taken a company rubber stamp home with her and was enjoying finding things to stamp with it. She might “drop some strategic wisdom and finish it off with a powerful stamping,” said Benitez. The rest of the 14-strong team “caught glimpses of this stamp in our Zoom calls,” Benitez said.

Over the subsequent weeks, a complex prank developed.

Another team member conspired with Rodríguez López’s husband to steal the stamp. She then created a Gmail account for the stamp to which the rest of the team had logins, so that they could send poems and riddles about the identity of the stamp thief. The stamp went on journeys around Colorado and sent pictures of itself in different locations. Its anonymous purloiner got a Slack profile. Scheduled Zoom calls purported to involve several team members, but only Rodríguez López and the stamp showed up.

Company leaders may well bring in a raft of measures to try and give their employees a sense of cohesion or inclusivity. But culture is idiosyncratic and often consists of the very things—interpersonal relationships, happenstance—which are most difficult to force.

The example of the rubber stamp might sound silly, but Benitez described it as way in which close-knit colleagues, spread suddenly across a state, went in search of a workplace experience they were missing. “Stakes are low, of course, but it was also something that created a sense of unity at a time when people feel disconnected from each other,” he said. “There is something powerful in frivolity, especially when times can be challenging,” he added.

Inevitably, much of the communication and many of the social events planned since remote working proliferated are computer-based. (Few are the opportunities to take a rubber stamp on a trip to the mountains.)

Adrienne Gormley, head of EMEA at Dropbox, says the company, which employs around 3,000 people globally, has tried very hard to maintain “the social connection of teams, the things that you miss from being in the office every day, the little bit of banter or the water cooler chats.” Gormley was speaking from Dublin and said that morning she’d been part of a Zoom call with 80 others, listening to a member of the transgender community in Tel Aviv talk about her experience as a marketer, part of Dropbox’s program of Pride-linked event in June 2020.

Where normally “we would be involved in parades in all of the cities where we have offices, this year we’ve put [all that energy] into movie evenings, bingo…talks from LGBTQ communities,” Gormley says, as well as more regular joint coffee breaks, evening drinks, and workout sessions conducted over video call.

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What work culture looks like now

A July study conducted by Qualtrics, a firm that helps companies manage employee experience, and Quartz, sought to understand how global employees’ experience of company culture had changed since the pandemic. Perhaps surprisingly—given the fears Falzon and others have voiced about cultural erosion—37% of those surveyed said they thought culture at their workplace had improved since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, compared to 15% who felt it had deteriorated. Almost half said they felt more connected to their organization, compared with 18% who felt less so. Respondents included more than 2,100 salaried employees in Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, and Oceania.

Of course, it’s early days for the new, remote-heavy workplace. Culture will likely change further, and may deteriorate, while the ways we work are certainly still in flux. But one reason for any perceived improvement might be that many workplaces are making a new effort to take concerns like inclusivity seriously. In part, this is because the pandemic has forced to the fore employees’ personal circumstances which companies were hitherto able to ignore, like having children or other caregiving responsibilities, or difficult living situations. In part, it’s been a response to the Black Lives Matter movement which has swept through the US and several other countries in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May.

In the Quartz/Qualtrics survey, over 60% of people said their company’s diversity and inclusion efforts had improved since the start of the pandemic, and 48% said that the BLM movement had improved such initiatives.

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Closer but further

In some ways, lockdown has led colleagues to understand one another better. It’s forced workers to let managers into their lives, and managers to open up in turn. Seeing people’s homes, dogs, kids, spouses, and lack-of-haircuts has brought us closer. Facing an existential threat, often alone and while trying to juggle work and other commitments, has led to a deepening of team relationships, Gormley suggests.

“An Irish response to ‘How are you?’ is you go: ‘Ah, grand, fine.’ And everyone goes: ‘Now where were we, what was the meeting about?’” she says. “Now I find I’m spending much more time going: ‘How are you? How’s your dad, how are the kids, did the childminder come back?’”

Workplaces are beginning tentatively to re-open in many places, albeit with social distancing measures, reduced staff, and the complication of how to get there without too much use of public transport. We all have a lot of questions about returning to the office, including whether it’s safe and what it will even look like when we get there. The next phase of the post-pandemic office will tell us whether any extra closeness wrought by the necessities of lockdown will last. And even if it lasts, will it be enough to counteract the wariness we’ve developed via months of extra vigilance, time alone, layoffs, and worries about everything from our family’s health to our country’s future economy?

Because of restrictions still in place, workplace culture is unlikely to rebound soon to pre-pandemic levels of social interaction: There will be fewer hang-outs by the beer keg. But when we come back together, we might do so with a renewed appreciation for what the office brings us. And we might be kinder, gentler, and more open to diversity as a result.