Working from home has become the “new normal” for most industries and guarantees that operations can smoothly continue while the region or the country undergoes the next lock-down. Companies and whole industries have benefited from the paradigm shift and continue to do so. Though, if we go back to before the lock-downs and the pandemic, working from home was not as widespread, and even if your company offered it to you, it was heavily regulated. The unsaid consensus was that working from home was less efficient, and employees would do anything but work. This view was (permanently?) changed through COVID-19.
The question is whether this is a good change. It’s a provocative statement and question at the same time. Don’t get me wrong; I have benefited greatly by working from home. Be it that my children were sick, that my wife had an appointment, saving the trip to my workplace, and even something mundane as not feeling up to get ready since I slept terribly.
However, a home office does have a detrimental effect that most companies, especially those that had to scramble to enable their employees to work from home, have yet to recognize. I’m talking about the company culture – no, not the 5-page printout that you get when you start working at a company, rather the interpersonal relationships that form a good chunk of the company culture.
Usually, that’s something that evolves independently without the need for promotion or forced growth. Employees will build it by themselves through the interactions in the office (coffee corner, cantine, office corridor, to name a few). The topics will range from work and private life to what they did the last weekend as well as gossip about another colleague.
In time, this will build the foundation of the company culture at each branch location. Furthermore, it will also be one of the main reasons employees stay even though they may not be completely happy or, on the flip side, decide to leave for greener pastures. So, how does that work when (almost) every employee is working from home?
Creatures of habit
It doesn’t. Let us be honest for a second here; Humans are creatures of habit and convenience. That directly translates into the conscious effort one is likely investing into digitally connecting with most colleagues while being at home. Of course, there will be a small number of colleagues that have become friends over time. They will be more likely to keep in touch with each other. For an employee to contact someone else outside his circle is highly unlikely if it is not about a work-related task, project, or initiative.
This leads us to the issue with the company culture. If it cannot evolve and grow through daily interaction between employees, it’ll likely wither and break up into close-knit groups, which oftentimes foster an “us versus them” mentality. That may benefit the company overall depending on the industry it is operating in, but in the long run, it might cause severe damage. One of the main reasons a company is successful is its employees. If those very employees are more interested in the in-fighting between the different groups, then it’ll have a severe impact on the identification with the company and the overall efficiency.
Does that mean that home office is a failed concept? No, not all. Quite the opposite. Again, let us be honest for a second here; Humans are creatures of habit and (more importantly) convenience. Therefore, working from home is (for most employees) the epitome of convenience. Let’s put that aside, however. While enabling employees to work from home does bring many benefits to the table, it also brings certain responsibilities with it.
Besides providing the necessary infrastructure and hardware, it’s also a responsibility to enable and nurture the means to create as well as sustain a healthy company culture. Of course, it depends on the software you are using. Here are some examples I have come across which I found ingenious.
Possible solutions and ideas
- Daily coffee break call: A recurring team meeting that is at least 15 minutes long and allows the attendees to talk about anything and everything.
- Lunch break call: Same as above, only this time for the lunch break, and instead of 15 minutes, it’s for an hour.
- Off-topic communities: Either team-, department, or even company-wide communities to allow for off-topic chats, fun, or even just exchanging memes.
- On-boarding get-togethers: I have been in the position of switching companies during the pandemic, and let me tell you, it isn’t that easy. Besides my new boss and the head of HR, I met a total of 9 people (in person) during the first couple of months which, despite everything, put a heavy strain on me. An easy solution would be to create chat groups for all those who joined at the same or similar time to provide a foundation for easy connections.
Especially the last point is something that I’d like to stress. Changing employers during these uncertain times is not an easy thing to do. Coupled with the circumstance that you don’t know whether you’ll fit in with your colleagues because most of them are working from home only adds to the strain and anxiety.
There are solutions to prevent this and the degradation of the company culture, but it takes a conscious effort to do so. Like with all change, it needs people who lead, facilitate and live it before it can spread to become the new normal.
Photo credit: The feature image has been done by Yasmina H. The portrait photo in the body of the article has been done by Magnet.me. The picture showing a busy video conference on a laptop was prepared by Chris Montgomery.