Look at Your Workplace Culture, Not Its Remote Work Policy

Since the founding of my company Atomic Object, physical co-location with team members has been a core cultural practice for us. In fact, we pushed the boundaries of interdisciplinary co-location before it was cool. I’m proud of how our team adapted to remote work and continued to perform excellently for our clients when the covid-19 pandemic made it necessary to be apart for 15 long months. However, we believe that for the early-stage innovation work that we do, a workplace culture that emphasizes co-location is better all around. It’s better for our clients, for our employees, and for the communities we inhabit.

As of this writing, we reopened our offices just over a month ago, and I can genuinely say that there’s no place that I would rather do my work. Each day, I’ve seen and participated in happy reunions between colleagues, impromptu whiteboard sessions, and mentorship sessions between senior developers and our newest hires. I’ve also seen quick, “Hey, have you got a minute?” conversations where we solved a problem in real-time and moved forward with more confidence.

And each day, I’ve overheard people having fun doing their work: exulting together and goofing around in celebration when they solve a bug. I’ve seen laughing and remarking together over how easy and frictionless it is to get things done when we can talk face-to-face. Taking breaks together for lunch or a walk to our neighborhood market has also been nice.

Is the remote-first model more beneficial?

That’s why I cringed when I read the headline, “Do Chance Meetings at the Office Boost Innovation? There’s No Evidence of It.” Referencing research by Ethan Bernstein and Ben Waber, columnist Claire Cain Miller writes for The Upshot that “there is no evidence that working in person is essential for creativity and collaboration.” Further, she writes that “the demand for doing office work at a prescribed time and place is a big reason the American workplace has been inhospitable for many people.”

Cain Miller goes on to suggest that a remote-first culture has significant benefits over being in the office for creativity and collaboration. She also suggests that digital tools like Zoom, Google Docs, and Slack are more than enough to bridge the gap. She even suggests these tools lead to better innovation because they enable participation from a broader group of people:

“Requiring people to be in the office can drive out innovation, some researchers and executives said, because, for many people, in-person office jobs were never a great fit. They include many women, racial minorities, and people with caregiving responsibilities or disabilities. Also, people who are shy; who need to live far from the office; who are productive at odd hours; or who were excluded from golf games or happy hours… Online, people who are not comfortable speaking up in an in-person meeting may feel more able to weigh in. Brainstorming sessions using apps like Slack can surface many more perspectives by including people who wouldn’t have been invited to a meeting, like interns or employees in other departments.”

I mean, she’s not entirely wrong. However, viewing remote work as a panacea for challenges with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in offices is like using a band-aid to fix a bullet hole. It overlooks some fundamental, possibly unsolvable, challenges with remote work. Instead of addressing the real cultural challenges that impede Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the workplace, it sidesteps them and allows them to continue festering.

Remote work isn’t working.

On the surface, even for my own organization, it could appear that our period of remote work was quite successful. Billable hours were up, the profit margin was up, and demand for our services grew. From these metrics alone, it would be hard to justify going back to a workplace culture that emphasizes co-location. However, being remote-first has had many hidden costs for our company and workers around the country.

Our collective mental health is frayed, and isolation is a big contributor.

In its 2021 report, Mental Health America reported a 93% increase in the use of their anxiety and depression screening. Of those who completed the screening, 70 percent reported that one of the top three things contributing to their mental health concerns was loneliness or isolation. Humans are healthier when we are together, in the same physical space.

Burnout has risen over the past year and a half.

A recent survey found that 4 in 10 employees say they are more burned out on the job today compared to a year ago. I believe this is due to a combination of isolation and long hours. When working in isolation, only communicating with a subset of people from the organization, it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, and your individual role in it. Work becomes transactional, and trust becomes frayed. Without a commute and the comings and goings of colleagues to mark the rhythm of the day, it becomes easier to spend long hours at the computer. It’s easy to answer one more e-mail or make one more change to the code.

All of these things create the perfect circumstances for burnout to set in. Furthermore, some organizations value revenue and short-term shareholder returns more than they value employee welfare and long-term success. Such companies will seize on this and close their offices because that’s what the metrics are telling them to do. However, working remotely will not change these companies’ expectations of their workers. If anything, as home and work blur together, these employers will expect even more from workers. They’ll expect more responsiveness at all hours, disguised as “flexibility,” and more hours and productivity. Workers, beware.

Our physical health has been impacted, too.

While we may joke about gaining a “covid-19 lbs”, a study from the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine confirms that without careful attention, our physical health suffers when working from home. A total of 64% of survey respondents reported one or more new physical health issues, including decreased activity and increased back and neck pain. It’s not hard to understand where that pain is coming from. The same survey also indicated a 1.5-hour increase in daily screen time.

When I’m collaborating with colleagues in person, it’s a physically healthy experience. I’m standing, pacing, moving around, and using the whiteboard. During the pandemic, I was tethered to my computer, jailed in the little box that my webcam could capture. I definitely felt the repercussions in my back, neck, and wrists.

Mentoring and career development are harder to access remotely.

In her article, Cain Miller concedes that “In-office work is essential for some innovation jobs, like those that involve physical objects, and beneficial for some people, like newly hired employees and those seeking mentors.” I observed this firsthand as we navigated this year of remote work. I saw my newest colleagues in our career accelerator program working tremendously harder to come up-to-speed and settle in at the organization, than their colleagues who joined our company in previous years.

I will always admire Jori, Lauren, Jimmy, and Patrick for how they stuck it out and brought their best efforts, day after day. Now, these new folks can come to the office and work with their more experienced colleagues face-to-face at the same computer. It’s like pouring rocket fuel on their learning and career development. And this is an especially important issue for companies seeking to become more equitable and inclusive. Access to mentoring and development opportunities, as well as face-time with senior colleagues, is critical for the success of marginalized and underrepresented people.

Especially in the context of a learning organization with a vibrant culture, working together in the same space is simply better for employees. And for this reason, it’s better for innovation. Employee wellbeing impacts innovation and creativity. Stressed-out, unhealthy knowledge workers are not going to perform as well as healthy, flourishing ones.

The office isn’t the problem — the workplace culture is.

Cain Miller writes, “The notion that spontaneous interactions in the office would spur creative thinking was a driving force behind one of the first open-plan office buildings… Yet Professor Bernstein found that contemporary open offices led to 70 percent fewer face-to-face interactions.” Cain Miller, like others before her, would like to use Bernstein and Waber’s research to conclude that the office, especially the open office, is a hindrance to productivity.

However, this perspective overlooks the way the authors conducted the research. They measured interactions in two Fortune 500 firms before and after the companies transitioned from cubicles to open offices. Each of these office cultures and associated behavioral norms was formed in a cubicle environment. During the transition, it would have been necessary to help workers establish new behavioral norms that would help make their new open-office environment a place of thriving collaboration. Instead, the workers just put on headphones. The drop in face-to-face interactions was not caused by the space itself. It was a result of how the organization’s culture influenced employees to behave within the physical workspace.

Interestingly, several paragraphs down in their article, Bernstein & Waber call out the risks of remote work for innovation. “Remote work, while undeniably cost-effective, tends to significantly inhibit collaboration even over digital channels. While studying a major technology company from 2008 to 2012, we found that remote workers communicated nearly 80% less about their assignments than colocated team members did; in 17% of projects, they didn’t communicate at all. The obvious implication: If team members need to interact to achieve project milestones on time, you don’t want them working remotely.”

If individuals experience barriers to collaboration in a workplace due to issues in inclusion and equity, those barriers don’t go away when you go remote. In fact, I suspect they become more insidious. If an organization has cultural problems that stifle workers’ voices, exclude people, or disadvantage certain individuals or groups, those problems are going to persist and potentially flourish in an all-remote context. In an all-remote model, there is even less spontaneous interaction between disparate groups. There’s also less visibility into the social structures of the organization and the activities of its leadership.

Any time we reduce a living, breathing human to written words on a screen or a little video box, it’s that much easier to “other” them and to disregard or discredit them. In an all-remote or remote-first workplace, interactions between colleagues and between the employee and the organization become transactional. Even as they relish the freedom and flexibility, employees of remote-first organizations will find that the organization feels an equal amount of freedom to cut ties with the employee when it’s expedient.

The hard but right way to address the barriers Cain Miller mentions is to tackle the cultural problems (both organizational and societal) head-on, not sidestep them with a remote-first workforce. Companies should strive to create cultures of social excellence. And, workers should expect social excellence from their relationship with their company and their colleagues. I know that this is possible because I work for a company that behaves this way. I’m also aware of many others in many different industries who operate with social excellence at their core.

Look first to your workplace culture.

Our world’s grand experiment in all-remote work has yielded interesting information for organizations and employees about how we get work done. I’m encouraged to see many organizations exploring more flexibility for more workers while recognizing the value of the office. That’s because I think that the right balance of flexibility/remote and in-person work will ultimately be the healthiest for everyone. Additionally, it’ll be the most equitable for workers from marginalized and underrepresented groups.

But as Bernstein and Waber said in their article, “A single best physical or digital workspace architecture will never be found. That’s because more interaction is not necessarily better, nor is less. The goal should be to get the right people interacting with the right richness at the right times.” The workplace or technology can both facilitate interactions. But, ultimately, the culture of the organization and the individual behaviors it rewards dictates what interactions happen and how successful they are. When productivity, innovation, and/or equity and inclusion are suffering, look first to your workplace’s culture, not its remote work policy.