The Hidden Impact of Remote Work

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August 28, 2020

When you interview for a new role, the hiring team will often reference their company’s culture. You leave the interview with the impression that cultural fit is critical in the hiring decision. Despite this, workplace culture is often poorly understood. What creates it, breaks it and the role it plays in enabling success often remains a mystery.

At Totem, our goal is to understand workplace culture and the role it plays in the success of a business. Whilst COVID-19 has disrupted every part of our lives, it has also created the grounds for one of the largest cultural experiments in history. What happens to workplace culture when we take out the shared office experiences? Did we ever really need these in our lives?

The home-working success

On the surface, the home-working experiment appears to have been a success. Organisations including Siemens, Twitter and Google are exploring a permanent shift to a hybrid workforce, allowing their employees to split their time between the office and home. Underneath these headlines are the smaller stories; a small accountancy firm in the north of England – which had never considered a remote work policy – found their employees carrying home desktop computers as the office closed and the firm desperately tried to source laptops. In just five months, it is now successfully running its day-to-day operations remotely. Few companies were truly prepared for this level of remote working, yet many adapted faster than they considered possible.

Change creates opportunity. With a hybrid workforce you can reduce a key cost to your business: the office space. You can expand the talent pool and reduce another key cost: salaries. If you no longer need to recruit from set geographical locations then you no longer need to meet inner-city salary expectations. You also offer your employees an entirely new perspective on work-life balance.  

Our research indicated that people have welcomed home-working. In a survey conducted by Totem of 250 U.K based respondents, only 38% expected to return full time to an office. Furthermore, when the same group was asked for their preference, only 22% would select to return to the office. Nearly 75% of respondents wanted to continue at home or work in a hybrid model. This trend is supported by third-party reports including a recent Adecco study. Whilst an individual’s sentiment toward home-working can vary based on their social, personal and environmental pressures it is clear that for the majority, expectations on home-working have fundamentally changed.

Question – We asked 250 U.K based respondents where they would like to work from in the future

(Numbers – Office 22%, Home 36.40%, Mixture of home and office 36.80%, Other 4.80%)

The hidden issue

Employers save money and employees are happier. It sounds ideal. However, we have begun to see indicators of a fundamental change in our workplace interactions. When interviewed, individuals who previously worked in informal cultures referenced a perceived increase in formality when interacting with colleagues. Inversely, individuals who previously worked in hierarchal, formal cultures referenced a perceived decrease in formality. Whilst seemingly minor, it shows how removing the office environment can impact our perception of our colleagues and the nature of our conversations. This has created an even more important issue. Our research identified a perception of decreasing familiarity between colleagues.

“The shared office experiences help us feel like we know each other and create our intrinsic sense of belonging. Crucially, this enables us to communicate confidently.”

Familiarity influences how we judge someone’s emotional state, goals and desires which in turn informs our communication style and tone. Without it, our anxiety when communicating increases and our confidence and trust decreases. Our ability to challenge, ask for help and problem solve with our colleagues is inhibited. Essentially, teamwork is getting harder. The unnatural formality created by video conferencing and the faceless avatars on instant messaging tools do not replicate the sense of warmth, understanding and familiarity generated when meeting someone in person. Intent becomes harder to understand and anxieties inhibit discussion.

For an organisation, a team that is unfamiliar with one another is less effective. For an employee, it is anxiety inducing and can create a sense of isolation. The soft power of your workplace culture was building this familiarity. Every new process, task or teammate decreases our sense of familiarity. When working remotely, our ability to rebuild it is severely inhibited. Silos are created between old and new and the outcome is an organisation that struggles to communicate and adapt to change.

How do we solve it?

For many, returning full time to an office is unlikely. In the short term, COVID-19 creates uncertainty. In the long term, employee expectations have fundamentally changed. People want the option to work from home. If successful, it also offers organizations significant financial benefits. The issue needs a future facing solution.

  1. Plan and design your employee experience for remote working

Your employee experience matters to the stability of your workforce. Even if you intend to return to a hybrid office model, design for remote working. Your ability to deliver a systematic, meaningful employee experience regardless of an employee’s location will define the success of a hybrid workforce. You can’t rely on the office experience to paper over the cracks anymore.

  1. Build familiarity at every opportunity  

We should assume a hybrid workforce will experience a drop in familiarity. The person you previously might have bumped into in the kitchen may not be in the office on your designated day. It is therefore key to build familiarity at every touch point, online and offline, so employees can communicate confidently with one another.

  1. Invest in what matters  

Recognition, support and guidance were identified as the most important aspects of positive workplace culture by our research. Creating the channels to support these aspects of culture when a workforce is remote is critical. Whilst zoom coffee calls are helpful, enabling employees to feel confident in asking for advice or feel recognized for their efforts will have a larger positive impact than regularly video calling each other.

  1. Start measuring your employee experience  

The shared office environment helped us identify and resolve issues. Without it we often only identify that an issue exists when output is impacted or employees leave. We need to go beyond blanket employee satisfaction scores and measure the critical aspects of our employee experience. Famaility, confidence and trust are built or lost at key moments. Understanding, measuring and improving these moments will help you build and maintain an effective hybrid workforce.  

At Totem we are designing solutions to overcome these challenges. We believe there is a future for hybrid workforces but organisations need to take an active role in building familiarity and trust based cultures to enable success. If you’d like a copy the research paper we completed in full, you can find it here!