How Company Culture Can Survive Remote Work and Be Ethical

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Just as important as the new challenges, is what is missing from the remote office—coworkers, supervisors, a professional environment, office pop-ins, small talk, and casual social clustering.

Due to advancing technology, COVID-19, and demands from workers, the prevalence of virtual work advanced dramatically in 2020. Companies with the capability to go remote, like Facebook, are doing so until at least mid-2021 while acknowledging this may be part of the new normal, with up to half of employees working from home by 2030. Interactions between organization members will change in frequency, timing, and method. The surroundings of employees will shift to the home or a chosen work space, varying greatly in their characteristics. Without their famously lavish and collaborative onsite work spaces, what will happen to the culture at Facebook and those at other companies? 

For organizational culture, distributed work presents a tectonic shift of the environment in which the culture typically operates. Being out of the office (and instead at home) brings with it the realization that there are many new possibilities, interruptions, and distractions. If you’re in your home all day, why not exercise or spend time with your family during the sunshine of the day, then work in the evenings? For those with fewer family obligations, the call of becoming a digital nomad will likely beckon to many remote workers. Notwithstanding the global pandemic, many remote jobs can be carried out remotely from any city, from hotels, rental homes, RVs, or coworking spaces. No surveillance is watching you (unless your employer decides to monitor you) while family, the kitchen, television, and great outdoors are at your immediate disposal.

Going remote makes clear what was becoming more obvious for quite some time due to advancing globalization—hiring within your country and culture is optional.

Success will likely fall along a spectrum based on environment and willpower, with work-from-home distractions more detrimental to certain job tasks that benefit from (or require) sustained attention, such as producing creative content, complex analysis, or synthesizing various pieces of information. 

Just as important as the new challenges, is what is missing from the remote office—coworkers, supervisors, a professional environment, office pop-ins, small talk, and casual social clustering. Motivation derives from these—shame of being seen loafing, making an impression with snappy business attire, dazzling with intellect, and feeling accepted or even admired as a part of a social group. While none of these vanish because you are virtual, they do feel diluted and distant. In psychological terms, the salience of the extrinsic motivators decreases, and when this happens intrinsic motivation either fills this void or the void remains. 

What kind of company culture can support successful transitions to working remote? Those built on trust, empowered collaboration, and where value is placed in results rather than process compliance. In addition, a culture of personal development and empowerment may be critical for success in virtualizing the workplace, as the responsibility for staying motivated and self-regulating is still the employee’s. 

Trust is important when a work group is virtual, and trust issues among managers is a common problem as their subordinates go virtual. A 2010 white paper described a manager’s hesitance to trust in this way:

The most common objection we hear from managers who resist distributed work environments is “How do I know they’re working if I can’t see them?” That’s basically a statement of distrust—a belief that employees will “goof off” or otherwise abuse their remoteness and their freedom from “management by walking around.”

However, there are benefits for managers who place trust in employees. A 2014 review, co-authored by Lucy Gilson and others, found that managers will be viewed as more creative, intelligent, and unique when they cultivate relationships more than functioning as transactional taskmasters. The same management approach is also related to increased performance, satisfaction, and motivation. 

An important factor in trust, Gilson and her colleagues noted, is respect for the abilities of co-workers. A distributed work group may have fewer opportunities to observe the work of others in the group, with work going directly from subordinates to supervisors. This can be countered by implementing policies and culture that foster communication, peer review, or formalized collaboration where it may not happen incidentally. One creative solution could be having pairs or small groups of familiar coworkers remaining in communication (audio or video) throughout their workday, ensuring that workers hold one another accountable and appreciation talent but without an oppressive gaze. However, this risks pressuring people to talk, which, according to a 2020 paper, can undermine productivity, so an intermittent rather than always-on approach would be best. And of course, rotating the group members would ensure broader benefits. 

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If your company goes virtual, it may inevitably become more adhocratic. This means employees act more independently and adaptively, with less hierarchy. A 2019 review found that a change in this direction is likely to be beneficial, with increasing virtualization leading to less effectiveness of hierarchical leadership and greater effectiveness of structural support (structure, rewards, communication, technology, clarity). Knowing this, employees may need to learn new strategies for making visible contributions that demonstrate their value, while leaders adapt tactics to motivate, support, and keep connected distributed talent. Company culture can also support de-centralized productivity by emphasizing the importance of sharing your work regularly and routinely asking for feedback or assistance. 

Because not all individuals are prepared to self-motivate, an emphasis on personal development and empowerment is likely an ingredient of a successful culture receipt for remote employees. Companies may want to consider training and resources to assist with these challenges, as well as allowing employees to openly discuss these challenges. Sharing challenges, and solutions, as a cultural norm will aid companies in adapting faster and more effectively to working from home. 

Whether synchronous or asynchronous, remote communication can decrease well-being in the absence of self-control. A 2020 study, for example, found that the feeling of needing “recovery” or being “drained” due to the strain of not receiving it, can be reduced with improved self-regulation. Employers cannot protect their employees from the necessity of remote communication, but can provide them with training and tools that enhance their ability to maintain well-being despite this stressor. A culture that promotes including self-care and personal development as part of working life may signal to individuals that taking care of themselves in this way is valued and an acceptable use of time on the job. 

In a 2018 paper, researchers described one solution for this—empowering leadership. This means seeking to empower others to self-lead by way of coaching, skill development, and receiving the necessary support to succeed. An organization’s culture can support it by allowing for leaders to relinquish control and weather the growing pains endemic to the process. Empowering leadership is not always appropriate. As a 2020 paper notes, the approach can be effective where there is high job clarity yet backfire when there is too much job ambiguity. And, empowering one to lead themselves does little to overcome remote-worker problems of isolation and disconnection, in fact enabling further withdrawal. 

Working from afar may lead to a sense of gratitude for a job that allows a quality of life and new comforts, but this may also fade once it is taken for granted. Others may notice the benefits of escaping their least preferred coworkers, harsh lighting, and inconsiderate microwaving etiquette. But just as gratitude tends to fade out, unattended needs fade in after a period of neglect. The needs for rich and meaningful connection to others, and belonging to a community, will likely increment slowly as they go unfulfilled, and will be more difficult to satisfy via screens. For the foreseeable future remote interactions will feel less real, lacking in body language, presence, and comfort. 

In their 2020 paper, Anna Rudnicka, of University College London, and her colleagues conducted interviews during COVID-19-related transitions to remote work. They found that some participants “felt lonely, sharing ‘I miss the interaction with my colleagues’ . . . Others highlighted the difficulties of socializing with coworkers over the Internet, ‘Having an informal chat now takes a lot of organizing!”

If children returning to school online is any indication, workers may form “pods” with their friends or neighbors. In these online learning pods, children may attend the same or different schools, but share the same space while doing so and getting assistance from one or more parents (while the others get a break). Working adults may work from the same space, and share resources that could include internet service, equipment, coffee and snacks, or even personal assistants. For the same reasons people enjoyed co-working spaces pre-pandemic, they will probably now seek more intimate groups based on friendships, shared values, and proximity. Or for the immediate future, perhaps this will be driven mostly by agreement on virus-related issues like avoiding gatherings and mask-wearing, controlling who is within one’s “bubble.” 

A large part of what we have always thought co-workers to be—those you share a space with, mutually support, bounce ideas off of, and have a good laugh with, are in remote work chosen, not by the company, but by the employee. Sharing close proximity, these people are likely to be a key source of support and kinship. Productive but strictly business relationships, paired with cultivated friendships found in the co-worker pod one chooses, may make for adequate work-life balance. 

Remote work clearly offers a lot of exciting opportunities, but it also comes with a lot more risks from the employer perspective. Some companies may deal with the emerging questions and risks with controlling techniques like surveillance and monitoring. While there are valid arguments for this approach, especially in certain sensitive industries, it is probably beneficial, for any companies that can use a more friendly approach, to do so, rather than imposing controls and restrictions that aren’t ultimately productive. 

We can only anticipate with educated conjecture what unexpected developments may arise from a more distributed workforce. With that in mind, looking ahead to how organizations and individuals may respond to distributed work could lead to being better prepared. 

  • Working multiple jobs, even full-time, may increase. With pressures from increasing costs and joblessness, some breadwinners may take on two remote jobs. This can be done more easily for remote jobs with flexible schedules, and perhaps the old fashioned homemaker may even make a comeback where one of two income earners is out of work while the other doubles up. Employers may not know this is taking place, and when they are aware it may be difficult to know when this is problematic. Where is the line? A side job, a second part-time job, or two full-time jobs?
  • Outsourcing by employer and employee may become increasingly attractive. Going remote makes clear what was becoming more obvious for quite some time due to advancing globalization—hiring within your country and culture is optional. Loyalty is a luxury. What difference does it make where the work gets done? This is hardly a revelation, but the challenge will accelerate with increasing virtualization. Often forgotten is that employees can outsource too. Nearly everyone is doing this with personal tasks like shopping and meal preparation. But what about work tasks? Will employees seek to expand their productivity by having a few spreadsheets or reports farmed to a cheaper source of labor? This is easier than ever to do undetected when working remotely.
  • No doubt a wave of products and services are on the way to solve the problems of building a thriving remote work culture. Out-of-the-box solutions and consulting proposals will be hammering c-suite inboxes claiming to have the cure for the cultural challenges of a remote transition. How will leadership differentiate the proposals that are little more than tenuous teleconferenced trust falls from more effective, evidence-based offerings, and make the right choice?

Brian Harward is a research scientist at Ethical Systems.

Lead image: Ekaterina Bolovtsova via Pexels