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Working From Home and Company Culture. Can They Co-exist?

An opinion piece by Chemistry Director, Joseph Silk.

I’m a big believer in the pendulum effect. When something is out of whack the pendulum has to swing to the extreme right to force change before it can come back to centre and become the norm. 

For decades the workplace has been out of whack. Companies forced to chase higher profits every year to satisfy shareholders strive for efficiencies to meet the demanded ROI. And when there are no more production efficiencies to be had they look at people . Fewer bodies doing more for less. It doesn’t take an economic genius to know this isn’t sustainable. 

So how does the pendulum shift? Work life balance becomes the catch cry of a whole generation and the desire to work from home puts a new kind of pressure on businesses. Add to this a younger generation coming through with vastly different views on how to work to those in senior management, who are more traditional.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hits. Out of the blue this has effectively pushed the pendulum out to the extreme with enforced work from home required for our personal and community safety. The traditionalists are forced to acquiesce and trust that working from home will actually work, productivity will remain high and what everyone has been trying to tell them for years will deliver profits.

And it does!

Or does it?

Jerry Useem writes about an IBM experiment way back in 1979.

IBM had been extending its bricks and mortar footprint into pretty much every major city in America. That year, one of its new facilities—the Santa Teresa Laboratory in Silicon Valley—tried an experiment:  it installed boxy, green-screened terminals in the homes of five employees, allowing them to work from home.

The idea of “telecommuting” (aka WFM) was a novelty. But this little experiment seemed to be effective. Five years later, about 2,000 IBMers were working remotely. The bean counters eventually realised that the business could save millions by selling its signature buildings and institutionalising remote work;  WFH ballooned.  An IBM report said that “40 percent of IBM’s some 386,000 employees in 173 countries have no office at all.” More than 58 million square feet of office space had been unloaded, at a gain of nearly $2 billion. Then, in March 2021, came an unexpected press release.  IBM wanted thousands of its workers back into actual, physical offices again.

Is it just a coincidence that revenue had fallen 20 quarters in a row? Or had IBM finally realised something that  two of the most creative and profitable companies in the world, Apple and Google, had known for years.

Steve Jobs was a famous opponent of remote working, believing that Apple employees’ best work came from accidentally bumping into other people, not sitting at home in front of an email inbox. “Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions,” Mr. Jobs said. “You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.”

So while we’re all sitting at home in our pyjamas, satisfied that the powers that be have finally instilled in us the trust we so long craved; as we jump on to our 100th Zoom meeting for the day; as we gaze out at the neighbourhood around us; should we take a moment to think where this is all heading? Should we wonder, if only for a fleeting moment, whether or not this is physically, mentally or even financially sustainable?

If you haven’t already, I strongly suggest you do; I believe the pendulum will swing back towards centre, and very soon.

Work life balance versus mental health

Interestingly, work life balance, often characterised by the ability to work shorter hours, work from home, exercise when we want to and so on, has become, or is fast becoming, a hollow term, a concept that is not delivering on its promise. How many times have you heard people say, during recent lockdowns, “man I was so productive, I really smashed through the work”. And how quickly has that translated into “Man, I’m just in back-to-back Zoom meetings. I can’t find any time to get my work done, I’m so tired.”?

The marriage of working from home and productivity is broken. We are now starting to hear conversations about mental health. People living the dream working from home are waking up to realise that water cooler conversations, lunch with colleagues and mental timeout on the dreaded commute to and from work are all integral parts of our ongoing mental health. Take them away and our busy brains just fill the void with more work. Great for the boss but extremely short-term when it comes to employee wellbeing. Work life balance conversations are now turning to mental health conversations and that is scary.

The tightrope that is company culture

A company’s culture is  the glue that binds its people behind its purpose, or what Simon Sinek calls the business’s enduring reason WHY it actually exists. Whatever culture you desire for your business, it is nurtured and propagated by people and their interactions together. The direction comes from the top and flows down through your people. It is these people in all parts of the business, sharing experiences, working side-by-side and bringing their shared expertise together that grow a company’s culture. 

How can this be achieved if 70% of staff are working from home 70% of the time? People will quickly go from employees working together with a common cause to individuals working for themselves at home receiving a monthly pay check from a company they are increasingly falling out of love with.

Companies with a really strong culture know how to nurture people, help them grow, facilitate sharing of thoughts and ideas. Not only that, but they’ve worked on it relentlessly until it forms the very fabric of their soul.

So what happens to your culture when you take your people and stick them at home with the option of staying there if they want to? You may think you’re offering work life balance, a chance for people to choose the working style they want and that you’ll see the benefits. In actual fact, you’re abdicating responsibility for your culture and you are standing on the precipice of a really big problem.

I know of companies that have embraced this so deeply that they are selling off real estate because, with everyone working from home three days a week, they won’t need as many seats. Managers of those same businesses are struggling with staff who are starting to feel displaced, disconnected and dissatisfied. Mums with young children can’t escape. Young people flatting can’t find some quiet space and the broadband is laggy because there are three other flatmates using it. The holy grail of work life balance now seems to be out of kilter again. The very thing we were all so desperate to secure is now the noose around our neck. And all the while, the company we work for is slipping into the cultural abyss.

What’s the solution? It’s a good question, and honestly, I don’t know the answer. I do think the pendulum needs to come back fast though. New rules need to be put in place so we can all have the best of both worlds. Emails from home in the morning and then a late start to avoid the traffic. More quiet spaces for people to work from in the office so they can replicate their home environment. And an end to hot desking so people can build their own space again. 

Maybe Googles most recent announcement is an insight to the future as they look to implement a hybrid work model under which some 60 percent of Googlers will spend a few days per week in the office, 20 percent will work in new office locations and another 20 percent will work from home.

Time will tell but it does feel like we are quickly coming to a cross-roads. Do we innovate and iterate before it’s too late? Or do we carry on with this giant social experiment and see where it takes us? I fear we may not like the outcome.

Joseph Silk (left) and Mike Larmer, both Directors of Chemistry

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