Ask executives why they’re desperate to get workers back in offices, and productivity—the corporate north star and initial obsession of pandemic anxiety—suddenly has nothing to do with it. Many sound like Judith Carr-Rodriguez, the chief executive officer of FIG, a New York City-based advertising firm. She was shocked at how well things went when her staff of 80 pivoted to remote work; the firm actually grew. Yet, she’s resisting a fully remote future because of the je ne sais quoi of the office. “I know people are being productive,” she says. “But are they learning, growing, being challenged? I worry we’re creating a culture where people are not exposing themselves in ways they would be in the office.”
We know by now that people were wildly productive during COVID lockdowns. A Goldman Sachs Group Inc. survey from July found that worker output per hour rose 3.1 per cent in 2020, more than double the growth rate of the previous business cycle. Yet bosses have been pushing hard for in-person work ever since, well, it didn’t seem in poor taste to. Multiple heads of the biggest U.S. banks, have, in so many words, called working-from-home the dumbest idea they’ve ever heard. Sure new COVID-19 variants have upended their short-term plans, but eventually they want butts in seats, at least some of the time. In a June survey of 1,000 human resource professionals, fewer than 10 per cent said their employers plan to operate fully remote long term.
While talking to nearly a dozen CEOs about this attachment to a physical space, they all had the same reason for bringing people back. “We’ve spent all the effort to create this great culture,” says Willy Walker, the CEO and chairman of Walker & Dunlop, a commercial real estate financing firm. Walker’s had a “get vaccinated; get back in the office” attitude for his 1,200 employees since last summer. When I ask him to elaborate on what he means by “great culture,” he says—from Denver, in one of his company’s 41 offices—“that’s a long conversation.”
What is workplace culture, anyway? Talk to a half-dozen management theorists and you’ll get as many different answers. Some say it’s a common set of beliefs, behavior, and assumptions shared by a group of people working together. Others believe it’s what employees say their goals and values are and how they act—which aren’t always the same things. What they all agree on is that some sort of culture inevitably develops when people spend time together. “Cultures emerge, whether you want it or not,” says Amir Goldberg, a researcher studying organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “It’s not as if there are companies without a culture.”
There is little doubt among the experts that shifting to fully remote settings has changed company culture. People are interacting in new and different ways. But what’s most worrisome to bosses is that they now have less insight into what those changes look like because they can’t physically witness them. And even if they do know what’s going on, they have less power over everyday interactions. “Culture is a way for organizations to control their members, police their behavior,” says Goldberg. “That’s difficult to do when you can’t—after a meeting—say: ‘You know, John, maybe you shouldn’t have said x or y.”
It’s not entirely unreasonable or self-serving for leaders to fret about these things. Strong cultures do enhance performance and can manipulate people to work more, but they also reduce harassment, burnout, and fraud. What the office enthusiasts misunderstand is that facilitating healthy workplace interactions doesn’t require the trappings of a conference room or a midtown high-rise. “Culture is happening in every interaction that the people in your company have with each other, regardless of whether you’re in person or not,” says Matt Mullenweg, the founder and CEO of the web software maker Automattic.
Mullenweg has some credibility when it comes to this point: His company has operated without a home base for its entire 16-year existence. The founder has become a sort of sage for the post-office era. Mullenweg hosts a podcast called Distributed, on which he has heady, meandering conversations about remote work with such guests as Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey and Basecamp’s Jason Fried. They talk about tips for improving Zoom meetings—have people submit their ideas via Google Docs beforehand—and creating “water cooler moments” on Slack.
Mullenweg is the prototypical millennial startup success story; he dropped out of college to work on his side project, WordPress, the open source platform that now serves as the backbone of many online publishers. A year later, he started Automattic, the parent company of WordPress.com, and hired whomever he thought was best for the job, wherever they happened to live. His first employees worked from Ireland and Texas. The company staff has since grown to more than 1,800 people working from every continent except Antarctica—and it still has no headquarters. Mullenweg circulates among Houston, San Francisco, and Jackson Hole, Wyo. He has no love for offices, calling even the nicest ones a “very subpar experience,” but in some ways he doesn’t sound that dissimilar from his peers who favor offices. “I love thinking about culture,” he says.
To Mullenweg, there is nothing inherently beneficial about working alongside people in a physical space. Indeed, the work-from-home revolution has revealed that aspects of the analog experience are toxic for many. Black workers, for example, say that while working from home in the past year, they’ve been treated more equitably, have come to better value their co-workers, and feel more supported by management, an October survey from Slack’s Future Forum found. Many variables could be contributing to that, but Black people say physical distance from racism and everyday slights has brought relief.
Even Walker & Dunlop, the real estate financing firm, saw a 10 percentage point increase in employees saying they felt like they could bring their whole selves to work during the pandemic, says CEO Walker. That question is known to be a key predictor of employee engagement, which keeps people happy and productive so they are less likely to get antsy for new opportunities. Walker recognizes that eliminating certain in-person dynamics has relieved burdens for some, but he can’t let go of the idea that the costs of staying home are too high.
He could be right in his particular case; just as the office doesn’t automatically confer some cultural special sauce, neither does working from home. The pandemic has revealed plenty of ways toxic cultures can fester in our digital work lives. Workplace harassment happens online, for one. It can be isolating; parents fear they’re being unfairly judged, and young workers or new hires may have a harder time learning the ropes. Managers can also easily exploit the lack of boundaries between home and work lives.
But as much as bosses want to will remote work away, all signs point to at least some days spent at home. Even the finance industry, which has aggressively pushed for a mass return, is seeing just 27 per cent of workers commute to its skyscrapers daily, found a survey in October of major employers by Partnership for New York City. In the meantime, homebound workers are forming new cultures. Stanford’s Goldberg says it’s too soon to tell whether those are worse or better than what existed before the pandemic. He suspects bonds—both among workers and with their organizations—have weakened. A more interesting question to him is: Who’s benefiting from the new world order?
Mullenweg encourages his fellow CEOs to lean into remote work. He has some practical tips: When he hires two people in the same city, he likes to have them work on different teams to encourage some interteam mingling. Automattic uses a networking tool called Donut that randomly pairs two people for informal chats over Slack—his company’s way to simulate some of the informal networking that happens in offices. He suggests that leaders, particularly those who once relied heavily on charisma, brush up on writing skills: Clarity is key when communicating mostly via email and chat.
It takes work. “I wish I could say there was some secret to distributed organizations—that if you do this one thing, it would unlock everything,” Mullenweg says. “It’s really about understanding your colleagues, communication, empathy.” Whether that happens in the company kitchen or over Zoom, that’s incidental.