Companies with a "remote work" problem actually have a culture problem
This article was originally published on Forbes.com.
Zoom, the tool that defined pandemic-era remote work for millions, made a startling reversal this month: any of its 7,400 employees living within 50 miles of an office would need to return to the office 2 days a week.
It was just the latest in a long line of big-name companies packing up the remote experiment and going home, joining the ranks of Google, Amazon, and Apple in moving to enforce a return to office (RTO) policy. But Zoom’s announcement was notable for the cognitive dissonance of its metanarrative: if the producer of the world’s best-known remote work tool can’t work remotely, can anyone?
The answer, of course, is yes. But only when the right conditions are met. Remote work requires a commitment to culture, an investment in the workplace community, and clear (and clearly communicated) norms.
When the events of 2020 pushed us en masse into a widespread remote work experiment — the National Bureau of Economic Research found that about 50% of work hours were done remotely between April and December of 2020 — two camps quickly emerged.
A Tale of Two Workforces
For one group of companies, remote work was a revelation. They were more nimble, more productive, better able to balance work and life, and liberated from the constraints and expenses of everything from expensive office real estate to button-fly pants. Airbnb, early to commit to a “work from anywhere” policy, told NPR, “The business has actually never performed better since we moved to this program,” and credits remote work with helping them compete for global talent.
For others, the strain was profound. Teams became siloed; innovation dropped. Disengaged, isolated employees began to drift apart, and their attachment to company culture and mission diminished. A trend towards “quiet quitting” took off and attrition spiked. And, as the economy turned, tech companies in particular went through rounds of layoffs and budget cuts, actions that served to further diminish morale and erode the workplace community. Zoom — which underwent a 15% reduction in workforce earlier this year — falls squarely into this latter camp.
Culture is the Key
Why does remote work click for some companies and not others? It’s not about size or industry or even about where employees are located — it’s about culture.
Teams that thrive while working remotely tend to meet the key benchmarks for healthy company culture.
- Stronger connections. A 2023 report from the payroll and benefits platform Gusto found that fully remote small-and-medium businesses achieved higher scores across almost every metric of performance — including culture metrics. (Disclosure: the author of this piece is the CEO of Gatheround, a company that has a mutual vendor-client relationship with Gusto.) The report notes, “Strikingly, 40% of fully remote SMBs reported being “far above average” at building personal connections among workers, while just 33% of fully in-office and 24% of hybrid companies reported the same.”
- Higher engagement. Fully remote teams also enjoy higher rates of employee engagement. Gallup finds that 30% of exclusively remote employees are engaged at work, as compared to 24% of hybrid employers and 21% of fully on-site employees. The same report notes that employee engagement is 3.8 times more important than work location for improving employee stress levels.
- Clear norms and expectations. Reporting from CNBC finds that successful remote teams also tend to make a practice of establishing and codifying clear norms for work, including their expectations and practices for distributed work. GitLab’s playbook for remote work is so successful that they’ve made it available to other teams.
- Trust and appreciation from managers. Gusto’s reporting also found that “trust by default” was a common theme among successful remote managers. 75% mentioned regular check-ins with employees and 63% cited setting clear goals as key strategies for tracking team progress. Only 1 in 4 relied on actively monitoring employee activity in order to see work getting done. Expressions of gratitude were also linked to remote success, with remote managers that regularly offered kudos and celebrated with the team 1.5-2 times more likely to build strong team culture.
A Challenge Worth Solving
Teams that struggle with remote work may have inadvertently uncovered some foundational flaws in their organizational structure and norms. In Gusto’s reporting, the 23% of managers that signaled low trust by actively monitoring their employees were also significantly less likely to feel that remote work was a positive development for their team and that the company had maximized the benefits of distributed work. It’s hard to tease apart the cause-and-effect in these statistics, but it may be that teams that struggle with remote work were already grappling with low trust, low engagement, mismanagement, and other significant cultural challenges that were simply papered over by the weak ties and incidental social connections provided by a physical office.
Now, more than three years into the remote work experiment, these companies are likely to find that a return to the office is not a quick fix for significant cultural challenges. If anything, an unwilling return to office is likely to deepen these fissures. Gallup finds that more than 90% of remote-capable employees want to work remotely at least part of the time, while a report from Unispace notes that 42% of companies with a mandatory return to office policy are experiencing higher-than-usual rates of attrition and 29% are struggling to recruit, even as the job market cools. For companies like Zoom, Amazon, and Google, all coping with budget cuts, restructuring, and a difficult business climate, RTO mandates may prove a much bigger headache than they anticipated and are already facing significant backlash.
And for other companies weighing the merits of returning to the office, the message is clear: it’s not too late to invest in building remote culture. The rewards for those that succeed are high, and the costs for those that don’t might prove steeper than they can imagine.