June 28, 2023

- BY


How businesses can build culture-first workplaces in the era of remote work

There's a shift in the way we do work culture that is ultimately going to affect us society-wide, and I’m not sure we can just assume personal preferences are enough to guide us here.

This article was originally published on SmartCompany

Recently we surveyed our team at Kablamo and 40% said they preferred to work fully remote with no weekly commitment to spending time in an office. What do you do with that kind of feedback when you believe, like I do, that human-to-human connection is essential to building and preserving great company culture? And if you’re trying to figure out, like me, how to achieve this human-to-human connection in a “remote first” workplace?

What is management supposed to do when employee preference is so strongly against a return? As Stefan Stern recently wrote in The New York Times:

“A CEO steps out of the corner office, stares into the abyss of a sparsely occupied floor, and only the abyss stares back. Disconcerting questions arise: What kind of a place is this, and what kind of a leader am I if so few people want to show up? What has happened to my authority?”

But this isn’t really about me or any CEO; it’s about a shift in the way we do work culture that is ultimately going to affect us society-wide, and I’m not sure we can just assume personal preferences are enough to guide us here.

Remote work matters

I’m fortunate that we have a strong culture at my company, but would it have been as strong if we hadn’t had three years working in person with the core group of our team prior to Covid? Without that time, I genuinely don’t know if we would have been able to continue to build our culture as we have in the remote work era.

What I do know –and would have known without our survey– is that remote work options are really important for a lot of our team. And who am I to tell a deeply talented individual, or anyone for that matter, how they are to best work and live? The days of the dictating CEO are over –at least for a company of our size in tech and especially as we begin to recognise new human dimensions, like the wonderful differences and strengths that come from neuro-diversity and the power of different personality types and work styles.

After all, despite what Elon Musk has said about remote work being “morally wrong” (a questionable premise), if you begin dictating (and we never would), you probably won’t lose your worst performers, you’ll lose your best.

For many years, there’s been extensive discussion about how voluntary redundancy might lead to a loss of your in-demand talent, because they’re not worried about finding another job. Will forcing office-based work have the same effect? And even if the industry starts becoming less and less remote-friendly, these top performers who want flexible work arrangements will keep moving until they can’t anymore. And even if they didn’t leave, what happens to your culture if 40% of your employees are showing up under duress?

But still, I can’t shake the sense that some non-remote time is critical for culture and we have to find a way to re-introduce it as the norm. Our engagement survey engagement scores remain strong, and our attrition rate has been very low for the last two years, but we want to build the best place for people to work we can, one that can scale and last. Even so, I have to ask: do organisations run the risk of diminishing good culture without the rejuvenating effect of more in-person, on-site culture building? There are no guarantees here that we aren’t still running on the organisational adrenaline from powering through the COVID disruption any way we could.

How the big end of town is responding

Clearly many of the big guys are thinking the same, but the approaches are very mixed. When JP Morgan recently required its managing directors to work from the office five days a week it received ample media attention, mostly negative, despite keeping a hybrid system in place for many. Yet that hasn’t stopped CBA from mandating everyone back into the office at least 50% of the time.

Meanwhile, Atlassian has doubled down on its Team Anywhere policy even though that now means 40% of its workforce is more than two hours away from an office. Considering construction has begun on their new headquarters, the world’s tallest hybrid timbre tower, I am looking forward to seeing how this market leader encourages their team to come to their amazing new space.

And just a few months ago, Amazon CEO Andy Jassy informed his tens of thousands of employees that after years of working from home, they would now be expected to work in person at least three days a week. Foremost among his reasons why: workers would “absorb [Amazon’s corporate] culture” better than if they were allowed to continue at home indefinitely. “Our culture has been one of the most critical parts of our success the first 27 years, and I expect it will be in our next 27+ years as well,” he added. “Strengthening it further is a top priority for the s-team and me.”

Jassy is right to focus on the challenge of “absorbing” culture, and CBA cited internal research that showed “innovation is an outcome of our people physically working together”. Our company lives and dies with its culture, but first, it has to be shared and absorbed. While we’ve done culture well remotely, this question of how do you best absorb culture doesn’t have a clear answer. For me being fully remote feels a little like staying in the shade all the time, when it’s well-known that humans need some vitamin D from the morning sun to stay healthy. At least every so often you need to soak up the rays of direct human exposure in a physical human environment.

Still looking for answers

It might be that a company-by-company approach is ultimately the way to go. The big guys might lead the way with enforced mandates and we’ll all be taking notes on how that goes, but companies like mine will have to play a more nuanced and sensitive game, working closely with where our people are and want to be and navigating together. That might be one way for us to attract and retain the best talent over the coming years.

We don’t have all the answers, but we’ve gathered some clues to share for people navigating this journey like us. Twelve months ago, the first thing many candidates would ask is “how much do you pay and can I work remotely?” This script has flipped to an applicant’s primary concerns being around what type of company we are, what our values are and who they will get to work with – and, importantly, the kind of work we do. And also after a run of tech companies going south after gorging on cheap VC cash, they ask if are we running a sustainable business – in other words, will we be here for the long haul?

Culture is clearly where it’s at. Thanks to my team’s thinking and a few in-person and remote culture experiments, we’re starting to see some ways forward. For starters, consider enabling opportunities for semi-structured casual learning and knowledge sharing whether remote, in-person or both goes a long way to keeping culture ticking along. We do that with twice monthly PechaKucha sessions (google it) where the presenter is randomly selected – it’s an excellent icebreaker and the learning is welcome by anyone on a growth-centred team.

We’re still looking for more answers, but we know this now: if we really put our people first – not lip service, but genuinely believing that our company lives and dies based on each of these extraordinary individuals – and we build our culture and business around that belief, we will all eventually find what works. So why not make it even better than before?