Is remote work killing company culture? Tech execs chime in

Without the happenstance interactions of the office, remote and hybrid work present a number of social challenges associated with team building and company culture.

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In the standard office, there are myriad opportunities for casual interactions with coworkers, watercooler chats and on-site team-building exercises. However, the ongoing great remote work experiment adds a quantum layer of complexity to traditional workplace camaraderie and other social considerations. Executives and business leaders often tout company culture, but how important is it?

When posed this question, Jewell Parkinson, chief people officer at talent cloud company iCIMS, quoted Peter Drucker the famed management consultant, stating "culture eats strategy for breakfast."

"In other words, company culture is everything," she said.

"It is the catalyst for engagement, productivity, profitability, customer satisfaction and retention. The shared experiences of this past year and a half reaffirm that workplace experience matters," Parkinson continued. "The elements on which culture is built: purpose, values, behaviors, symbols, language, norms, rituals either serve to help or hinder during times of change and ambiguity."

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Hybrid workforce challenges

Amid this reimagining of office life, a future with increased remote and hybrid work arrangements could force companies to rethink their approach to company culture as well as supporting strategies. As nontraditional work arrangements take hold, Parkinson said companies "are challenged to think about inclusion and equity in new ways."

"They have to think about how on-premise and remote employees have a similar shared experience that engages them and inspires them to do their best work," she continued. "Where opportunity for advancement is not contingent on office "face time" or presence factor but is driven by impact and readiness no matter where you choose to work."

The importance of shared physical experience was also emphasized by another executive we spoke with. Overall, Jeff Seibert, co-founder of Digits, said that hybrid work arrangements are "worst of both worlds, especially when it comes to company culture." Without the latter, he said it's "hard to see how a company can be successful."

As TechRepublic previously reported, one expert we interviewed warned that hybrid work could create a two-tiered "class" system for employees and Seibert echoed similar concerns regarding remote work.

"There will always be a sense of inequity when part of a team is physically together while others are remote," he continued. "To make up for it, remote team members constantly feel the need to travel to headquarters to be seen and are left out of important decisions, hallway conversations and team-building opportunities."

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For most people, Seibert said the basic understanding of remote work involves using a "big HQ somewhere" and scattered remote employees. This results in these off-site employees "missing out on a lot of the ad hoc conversation" and culture developed in a colocated space, he explained, adding that remote employees are often left out of meetings and "inevitably begin to feel like 2nd-class citizens."

Contrasting the two arrangements, Seibert said a fully remote team "means no conversations are happening in an office somewhere to miss out on."

In a fully remote model, Seibert noted the importance of finding opportunities to physically bring the entire company together in the same place regularly to build company culture, although it "may seem counterintuitive."

"Working remotely makes these in-person moments together even more memorable. It also creates unique opportunities to mark major company milestones, take a step away from day-to-day work to reprioritize, or even just re-energize a team," he said. "Onsites should be driven by company goals, but with special moments that allow teams to connect on items outside of work too." 

Technology can also play a role in supporting company culture in a remote or hybrid arrangement. For example, at Digits, Seibert said "the pulse and culture of the company [are] pushed online" so everyone can engage such as upgrading chats to video or voice calls 

"when written communication is not enough." 

"There is no stigma towards, or friction preventing, those who were passively following along in the chat room now asking to join live," he continued. "Everyone is on the same level playing field and there is a strong culture built on trust, communication and collaboration."

Great Resignation: The result of WFH?

For months, there's been speculation about a Great Resignation of sorts as burnout employees quit in droves amid a tight labor market and deal sweeteners to jump ship. A poll published in March found that about half of employees were planning to land a new job in 2021. In recent months, employees have been quitting at a high clip.

The timing of this turnover after a year of remote work begs an interesting question: What role has the switch to remote work and the separation of employees from other coworkers and the traditional office culture played a role in recent employee turnover?

Citing reports, Parkinson said "the U.S. is experiencing the most significant restructuring, redistribution and rehire of labor in history," adding that the "current hiring boom leaves employees many options." However, the time period prior to a mass turnover is something she dubbed the "great reflection," during which time she said, "connection and communication are key."

"Leaders must stay connected with their people and in touch with employee sentiment, career ambitions and workplace preferences while also seeking direct feedback from those they wish to engage and retain," Parkinson said.

As to whether remote work is negatively impacting company culture, Parkinson said there's "no doubt" the arrangement has "put a spotlight on company culture," as companies prioritize helping workers adapt. Additionally, she emphasized companies focus on the "evolving" needs of their workers as well as the importance of listening to better understand these needs.

"This new work experience is shared, but everyone's situation is unique. Considerations need to be made for the gamut of needs – some may enjoy a virtual happy hour, others may not," Parkinson. "Giving employees a choice for their ideal remote culture initiatives empowers them and ultimately creates a more inclusive culture."

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