“I know I’m not alone in missing the hum of activity, the energy, creativity and collaboration of our in-person meetings and the sense of community we’ve all built,” Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote in a June memo explaining why he eventually wants workers back in the office at least part-time.
“I worry we’re creating a culture where people are not exposing themselves in ways they would be in the office,” Judith Carr-Rodriguez, CEO of New York City advertising firm FIG, told Bloomberg last month.
A 2021 PwC survey found that 29% of US executives like the idea of employees being in the office at least three days a week for the sake of company culture, while 18% said they prefer four days a week in the office and 21% voted for five days a week in the office.
These executives aren’t wrong, exactly. Working from home can indeed make it harder for employees to forge relationships with one another. Sixty-five percent of people who switched to remote work during the pandemic say they feel less connected to their coworkers, according to a December 2020 survey from the Pew Research Center. And some management experts have theorized that employees’ newfound sense of detachment is one contributing factor in the Great Resignation.
But if the shift to remote and distributed work has made some employees feel less connected to one another and, by extension, to their companies, is that such a problem?
Perhaps it’s a sign that business leaders need to reexamine their views on what actually comprises company culture, and whether our traditional models are out of date.
Is a close-knit culture good?
Company culture is a wide-ranging concept, which can encompass everything from whether employees include their gender pronouns in their email signatures to whether meetings tend to be agenda-driven or meandering.
But when business leaders cite culture as a justification for calling people back to the office, they’re typically referring to the idea that connections and sense of community are formed over brainstorming sessions, coffee breaks, after-work drinks, and countless other in-person interactions.
It’s true it can be harder for colleagues to get to know each other as well online as they might if they were working 40 hours a week side by side. “In-person communication resembles video conferencing about as much as a real blueberry muffin resembles a packaged blueberry muffin that contains not a single blueberry but artificial flavors, textures and preservatives,” Sheryl Brahnam, an information technology and cybersecurity professor at Missouri State University, told the New York Times at the onset of the pandemic.
That’s not to say it’s impossible for remote colleagues to develop meaningful relationships with one another. There are still ways for remote employees to socialize online, and tactics (such as adding unstructured time to meetings) that managers can use to create a sense of belonging among distributed employees. Doing so simply requires a level of intentionality and planning that’s less necessary when you’re getting regular face time with coworkers.
The crucial question, however, is why company leaders think it’s important for coworkers to develop bonds that go beyond collegiality in the first place.
It’s easy to see how a tight-knit culture can benefit employers. When coworkers feel close to one another, they may be incentivized to work longer hours (can’t let the team down!) and feel more loyal to the company overall. Indeed, research suggests that employees who feel lonely at work are less committed to their jobs, while employees who have friends at work are more engaged and perform better.
That said, there are downsides to working for an organization that places a lot of emphasis on bonding and community in the name of culture.
For example, parents who have to leave work right on time are at a disadvantage in workplaces where people are expected to socialize after hours. People of color working for majority-white companies, older workers at companies dominated by twentysomethings, and anyone else who doesn’t fit in with the prevailing mold may worry about being penalized if they don’t fit in and comply with their employers’ “we’re all friends here” ethos.
Remote workers may feel isolated in hybrid environments where their in-person colleagues are hanging out without them. And there are plenty of people who simply prefer to keep their head down, get their work done, and avoid socializing with their teammates.
“Culture is a way for organizations to control their members, police their behavior,” Amir Goldberg, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, told Bloomberg in December. That’s not necessarily nefarious. A culture that frowns upon managers messaging employees after hours, for example, is policing behavior with the goal of protecting work-life boundaries.
But at a time when some employees would sooner quit their jobs than be forced back to the office, business leaders may need to accept that the work relationships that once formed the bedrock of many company cultures will never be the same. What’s more, there’s a big upside to that shift: It levels the playing field for people previously excluded by office-centric, team-bonding-heavy iterations of company culture.
What is office culture now?
Companies can still build culture that fosters loyalty in the distributed work era. What motivates employees just won’t necessarily be ties to their coworkers. Rather, it may be the knowledge that they’re getting paid well and receiving generous vacation and parental leave policies, or that their company’s mission aligns with their own values.
Companies can also communicate culture and values by investing in antiracist practices and offering flexible work schedules, by setting the expectation that colleagues communicate with one honestly and respectfully, and by offering employees plenty of recognition and positive feedback.
And if, despite good working conditions, employees still feel more detached from their companies than they did pre-pandemic, that may be good news for people’s lives overall.
The pandemic has inspired many people to question just how central a role they want their jobs to play in their lives. When they no longer expect to identify with the companies they work for, they may look elsewhere for a sense of community and connection—the kind that won’t fade away when they accept their next gig.