How to Prevent Remote Work From Killing Company Culture

When the verdict of the Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard trial was announced, all of a sudden, I was reading about “stan” this and “stan” that. I admit the word was foreign to me. I also recall my son telling me about taking a selfie, and I replied, “A what?”

So don’t Boomer me for what I’m about to say. Elon Musk recently proclaimed that at Tesla, working from home is now a no-no

I thought to myself, ‘This makes a lot of sense.” 

Trust me, there are a lot of things I don’t agree with Elon Musk about. But when it comes to remote work: he’s absolutely right.

Am I too old school? I understand it’s easier to work from home, and once you’ve eliminated commutes… it’s hard to go back. Going back to the office might seem like a jail sentence. I get that.

And I also get it from the employer’s perspective. They get to save money on a physical office and other expenses that are related to being in the office five days a week.

Company culture rules everything. And five days a week fully remote is a recipe for disaster.

Now, let’s get this straight. Throughout my career, about 25% of my time has been spent working from home, and the same went for much of my team. I’ve been doing this since 2010, a decade before I’d even heard of the term hybrid workforce.

After all the time I devoted to creating an office space that demonstrated our culture in every nook and cranny, and designing said office to force interdepartmental interactions among associates, you may be surprised to know I was an early advocate of telecommuting.

I especially benefited from that when I needed to think without distractions. An open-door policy only works when the door is open, which invites precious and unplanned interactions with associates. 

Remote work is great for solitary, deep work. But five days a week in solitude with no spontaneous interactions and cultural reinforcement leads to ineffective, overworked teams. 

Groundbreaking ideas aren’t discovered over Slack

“Okay, team–During these 30 minutes, we need to come up with company-changing ideas. Stacey–we’ll start with you. Any ideas?”

What you don’t get with remote work is the ability to observe people working or trying to collaborate or obstacles they may face unless you’re there witnessing them in person.

The more people that discover more things, and be able to collaborate about them, the more likely large-scale improvements can be achieved- many of which the people with the pain didn’t even realize was a problem. 

Also, without being physically there, one would not happen to spontaneously discover pain points or processes that could be improved. 

Instead, we’ve replaced our spontaneous interactions with more work. It gives teams no time to think about the big picture. No time to be creative. No time for fun. No time for improved relationships. No time for real, team-bonding effectiveness. 

Believe it or not, some people truly enjoy working in an office with other people.

It’s amazing I even had to write this as if it was some sort of massive contrarian view. It shows you how much has changed in a few years.

Workplace office visits are up more than 300% since the pandemic, and office visits are up 88% since the start of this year for companies with 1,500 or more employees, compared to just 56% for those with fewer than 50.

My son is starting a new career in tech and elected to go into the office, even though he had the option to work from home. In his case, it was better for him. It’s easier to collaborate, be seen (raising the opportunity to get promoted), and learn the culture from the inside.

I’m convinced that because of this decision, he will be in a much better position than others who chose to stay home.

A back-to-office policy will lead to some employees leaving, but no one is irreplaceable, and the position can be filled with someone who wants to be there. There are some who are skilled at certain positions but whose core values are not aligned with the company. And those people should stay away or leave once it’s clear there’s a misalignment.

 Here’s the deal. If you think remote work is good for your employees and thus great for the company, go for it. But if you’re a believer that company culture is the #1 factor for growth, think again about full work-from-home policies.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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