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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

It’s Tough to Build a Corporate Culture in a Remote-Work World

Rita Ramakrishnan started as head of people and talent at the real estate startup Cadre in April 2020. She had moved from San Francisco to New York for the job, where she planned to oversee the growing startup’s workplace culture. Ramakrishnan had all kinds of plans, but she never made it to the office; instead, she spent her first months converting her new apartment into a home workspace. The experience reminded her of an old saying: Man plans, and God laughs.

Ramakrishnan’s job was to make people feel connected at work. But now, with everyone working in home office silos, connection seemed impossible. She’d been told about rituals that felt precious to Cadre employees: mingling over drinks on Thursday, bagels every Friday morning. “We tried to recreate that with a virtual happy hour,” she says. “It didn’t really work.” Other things worked better, like a Zoom social hour paired with real bagels, paid for by the company. But none of it approximated the magic of meeting your coworkers, none of whom Ramakrishnan had yet seen in person.

Two years later, most of Cadre’s employees are still working from home—and will be for some time to come. Like many businesses, it has embraced a “hybrid” working model, opening its office to vaccinated employees while allowing others to work remotely if they want. Three-quarters of its current workforce started during the pandemic, meaning the remote work culture is all they’ve ever known. The question of whether those employees feel a sense of belonging is a serious concern for Ramakrishnan.

For all the triumphs of remote work, social connection remains a pain point. One survey of 700 remote workers, who had previously worked in offices, found that social connection was the thing people missed most about offices, outranking office banter, a dedicated workspace, and face-to-face meetings. And yet, despite the obvious need, most companies haven’t figured out how best to broker connections in the virtual world. No one wants to attend another virtual happy hour or digital offsite. But without a sense of friendship among coworkers—a shared connection beyond a shared to-do list—employee ennui sets in.

Some companies are counting on the eventual return to offices to mend the social fabric of the workplace. Google and Facebook, which both expanded their real estate footprint during the pandemic, have historically used their office space to create a sense of shared culture, and they will continue to do so. But many other companies have embraced remote work, allowing some or all of their employees to remain dispersed in the months to come.

People managers like Ramakrishnan are deeply concerned. There are plenty of advantages to remote work—and, after two years of doing it, some people refuse to go back to the office. At the same time, employees who don’t know their coworkers, don’t interact with people beyond their team, or don’t have strong ties are far less likely to stay in a job. “The single greatest indicator of retention and engagement is whether you have a best friend at work,” says Ramakrishnan. Some of her coworkers have worked at the company for four or five years. But in the pandemic, Cadre has also “seen a lot of folks move on.”

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Without personal connections, “it’s just a job, it’s just a list of tasks, there’s no loyalty to the company,” says Chris Collins, an associate professor and director of graduate studies at Cornell University’s ILR School, where he researches human resource management. He compares isolated employees to gig workers, who may do the same tasks for different companies. People can still feel productive, even content, working by themselves. But when work feels transactional, it’s very easy to trade one laptop for another. “It’s not surprising that turnover is so high.”

Can Tech Help? 

At its essence, workplace culture is defined by shared norms and routines. Something as simple as providing free coffee can create an office routine for employees to meet each other or socialize. At their best, those small interactions open the door to friendships or collaboration. Even when they don’t, they give people a sense that they belong to a larger group.

Remote work challenges these routines and office norms—when people come in, when they leave, what they wear, and whom they interact with. The flexibility to work on your own time, and in sweatpants if you choose, is one of the great advantages of remote work. But it can also leave employees feeling detached, unsure when it’s appropriate to ping a coworker or how to start a conversation about something that’s not work-related. Since remote work doesn’t seem to be going away, there are people trying to solve this problem—and make money off of it.

One such company, Cleary, makes a “digital lobby” where people can ask questions, post announcements, and congratulate each other on workplace wins. It works kind of like a Facebook feed, personalizing updates to each employee. “When you have 50 people, but they’re in 50 different home offices, you actually have bigger communication challenges than you do in a 300-person company where everyone’s in one location,” says Thomas Kunjappu, the company’s cofounder. It also offers a place for employees to share personal information about themselves, and icebreaker prompts that can be used before meetings.

Another “virtual office” platform, called Tandem, encourages employees to share updates throughout the day, so coworkers can see when they’re available for a chat, when they’re out walking the dog, or when they’re head-down in work. Employees are meant to volunteer their statuses, but Tandem also integrates with platforms like Asana and Google Docs, so colleagues can automatically see what someone is doing at the moment. Like Slack, Tandem is designed for getting people to talk to each other more often during work. But unlike Slack, it’s designed to show when people are truly available—not just when they’re online.

A promotional video for Tandem recites the common complaints of distributed work. “In the office, you can just look over and say, ‘Hey, quick question,’ and get an answer,” says one woman, perched on her bed with her laptop. “But when you’re remote, it’s like—oh, that’s right, I’m completely alone.” The implication is that a software product can make people feel more together.

Yet another startup, Donut, aims to “create human connection between people at work.” Donut integrates with Slack to add new ways for remote workers to socialize, including a cheeky water-cooler channel where people who don’t know each other can bond over conversational prompts. (Example: “What’s your favorite form of potato?”) While other software tools are focused on strengthening the bonds between people who already work together, Donut is designed for people who don’t. There are fewer reasons to approach a coworker in a different department, and it’s more awkward to do so virtually. In the #donut channel on Slack, the Donut bot randomly pairs coworkers and sets them up for a virtual chat.

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All of this can seem like a lot of effort for the social interactions that, in a physical office, are natural. It can also be time-consuming. Saying hello to a coworker while you grab coffee takes five minutes; meeting a new coworker through Donut can mean another half-hour Zoom call. Some companies that have used Donut, like Flexport, say it helps keep employees from feeling isolated or disconnected from colleagues. Jennifer Longnion, Flexport's chief impact officer, says the company also uses Cleary, and it encourages employees to meet each other through smaller groups on Slack. (She mentioned Freight Femmes, an internal group for women who work at Flexport, which organizes things like virtual cooking classes and trivia nights.)

Still, Flexport has doubled down on the importance of working together occasionally. Employees don’t have to come to the office regularly—but they have to live within a few hours of a hub to come in for things like quarterly team meetings, where everyone works together in person. Longnion says that she, and other people in her position, are still scratching their heads about how to create culture in a remote environment. “It’s really on my mind right now,” she says. “How can we create those touch-points but not go into an office?”

Virtual water coolers, bot-generated icebreakers—it all can feel a bit cheesy. But for new employees, even superficial interactions can go a long way. One friend of mine, who recently started working at Google, said she had genuinely connected with her remote team through exercises like icebreakers before team meetings. “Those things are lame, but they help,” she told me. “Even if we all collectively think it’s lame, we ping each other to say it’s lame, which brings us even more together.”

Other remote workers, who asked that I not print their names for fear of upsetting their managers, said they felt unmoored in the remote office environment. “It’s definitely harder to make actual work friends virtually,” said a Salesforce employee. “At this point in the pandemic, I do not want to spend one second longer on Zoom calls than I have to. I will never attend another virtual happy hour. The two close work friends I’ve made since the pandemic are those I’ve been able to connect with in person.”

No Clear Answer

Research on remote work is sparse, and the conclusions vary. Some studies find that workers are happier; others says workers experience more loneliness, irritability, worry, and guilt. Also, the recent research on remote work has taken place during the pandemic, making it difficult to separate whether people feel bad because of their work arrangement or because of the pandemic.

One thing that is clear, though, is that remote workers do not tend to replace in-person interactions with virtual ones. Remote workers send more emails and instant messages than in-office workers, and they collaborate less with their “weak ties”—colleagues they don’t know as well. One study—which compared the emails, instant messages, video calls, and calendar invites from 60,000 Microsoft employees before and after the pandemic shift to remote work—found that working from home had caused these employees to “become more static and siloed, with fewer bridges between disparate parts.”

It stands to reason that forced social interactions could be one way out of this. Using a Slack plug-in like Donut might give coworkers an excuse to chat with one another; icebreakers at the start of Zoom meetings might give people enough personal context to build relationships. But there’s little research to prove any of that. When I asked Cleary founder Kunjappu if he had relied on academic research when building his product, he waxed poetic about the challenges of remote work before finally saying no. “We’re figuring it out together in real time,” he says.

Maxim Wheatley, who works for the parent company of Remote Rated—a Glassdoor-style review site for remote companies—says remote workers don’t put much stock in superficial social interactions. “The companies falling flat are the ones that misidentified trivial interactions in an office environment—like small talk—as culture,” he says. “Now they feel like they can create a digital analog of that by introducing small talk on Zoom, or having Slack channels where people can share a photo of their dog. It doesn’t work.”

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Instead, Wheatley says the remote companies with the highest employee satisfaction are those that recognize the advantages of working from home, while also finding creative ways to bring people into the same room. GitLab, for example, offers a travel stipend for employees who want to cowork together. The company was remote-first before the pandemic, but it encourages people to meet each other when they can. “There’s something very healthy, I think, about a company recognizing that we can do fabulous work as a remote-first company—but when it comes to creating cohesion, there’s no doubt benefit to us getting together in person,” says Wheatley.

Collins, the Cornell professor, says there’s no definitive way for companies to build a culture in the remote-work world. There’s ample research on how to design physical office spaces with collaboration and culture in mind, but not for virtual offices. Still, Collins is pretty sure the answer isn’t more virtual happy hours or trivia nights. The early research on the impact of things like Zoom socials finds that, at best, there is “no association between the frequency of virtual social interactions and well-being.” Collins allows that things like Cleary’s digital lobby might improve workplace communication, but says they won’t make people feel connected. He compares the idea to superficial interactions on social media. “It’s like me thumbs-upping someone’s pictures on Facebook,” he says. “We’ve interacted, but have I really connected with them?”

The price of this lost connection is more than just dissatisfied, disengaged, or departing employees. It can also cost companies the innovation that comes from people who know how to work together. Remote workers can be productive—even more so than when they work in offices. But Collins says those productivity gains apply mainly to solo work, the kind that gig workers and freelancers do. Collaborative work, which is linked to innovation, has not fared nearly as well. “Early in the pandemic, companies were shocked by how high productivity stayed,” says Collins. But as the months wore on, employees left, others arrived, and new teams formed. “Then people remembered: There’s a reason we had people coming in.”


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