Culture eats 🍴 remote for breakfast 🍳🥞🥓
Why culture is the biggest impediment to post-COVID remote shift for large corporations, and what to do about it
Happy Monday, everyone.
Debates on the future of work and remote work, specifically, are this year’s version of the 2015 buzz around RPA and AI, on heavy steroids. Instead of weighing in on remote work’s prospects (there are countless, way more qualified experts arguing about this day and night) - I want to look at the topic from the business culture angle. What’s the major obstacle to remote specifically for large corporations? And if it is culture - what norms and issues should be addressed to fully leverage opportunities offered by remote working, and not fall behind competitors in the remote goldrush?
Move towards remote is a fact.
This Chris Herd’s thread went viral on Twitter a couple of days ago:
Lots of great insights there, which you’re welcome to check out for yourself. The gist of it is - whether going fully remote or combining remote and office work, companies of all sizes and industries are increasing the proportion of non-office time spent by their employees.
The benefits for the firms are countless.
Most employees want it, according to this PwC US study. Going remote also pleases CFOs - there are ca. $10k per employee real estate cost savings to be realized, with further cost reductions from decreases in employee churn and unscheduled absences. And, top-line growth is unlocked through hiring top-class talent regardless of the location.
Moreover, one of the most feared obstacles to flexible working, namely technology, has been proven to be a bridge rather than a barrier. Millions of businesses shifted to remote without any prep since March.
Happy days, right?
Remote has its problems, too.
An important caveat: remote working is not all hunky-dory.
There are concerns about the creativity and productivity of a largely remote workforce. Equally, serendipity is the sorcerer’s stone some think we’re losing to Covid - although I’d take research by one of UK’s largest property firms with a grain of salt 🧂.
On a more serious note, there are health and well-being implications of being remote as well. CNBC reported an astonishing 2/3 of employees experiencing burnout symptoms while working from home. Similarly, back & neck pains are on the rise as we scramble to convert our living rooms and bedrooms into offices.
It is important to note, though, that many of the above problems are symptoms of what remote became during the pandemic - i.e., working solely from home, with a lot of added non-work stress. Rather than working from anywhere, which remote is truly about.
Culture is THE roadblock to remote.
Neither technology nor productivity or collaboration concerns are the main impediments to embracing remote for large organizations.
Instead, it is an inefficient, outdated culture that is eating remote for breakfast there:
Quoting Chris Herd:
“The majority of companies have replicated the office remotely and it is causing strains that are beginning to show”.
Here are the five cultural issues, experienced at many large companies, that are at odds with going remote and async:
A disproportionate amount of time is spent on meetings, check-ins, status updates, and follow-ups in a micromanaged environment. Employees aren’t trusted to execute by themselves, so their diaries are packed with endless meetings as a result.
This, in turn, decreases the sense of ownership - if there is no trust, nobody wants to take on end-to-end tasks. Figuring out whose job it is to do the job dramatically increases the proportion of non-value-add time spent.
Thus, micromanagement makes async and remote work problematic. Not seeing people in the office leads to a perceived loss of control, which is addressed by…..increasing the already high number of meetings. And, Zoom fatigue knocks on the door.
Centralized decision making
Tightly linked to micromanagement. Individual decision-making power is limited, and all decisions are taken collectively in meetings, committees, and boards.
As a result, execution stalls. Again, this is exacerbated in a remote environment - feedback loops when everyone isn’t in the office are lengthier. The time that could have been spent on execution is wasted on waiting for a decision.
Oral communication prioritized
Meetings are preferred to writing (and reading) memos, documentation, and reports. Even when written documentation is made available, a meeting is called to “go through” and “exchange views.” In practice, this means the author takes the audience through what she’s written and, in the best-case scenario, gets a decision from them on the spot. In the worst-case scenario, additional time is taken to “digest” the information - which should instead have been done through a pre-read.
This, of course, is anathema for remote working, which requires asynchronous collaboration over projects and documents in the cloud, with most of the work done by participants individually and in writing.
Insufficient process documentation and standardization
Having a clearly defined, documented set of processes is one of the key prerequisites for async working.
In the absence of this standardization, employees risk working on overlapping activities, choosing wrong priorities, and delivering outputs which deviate from what was required.
Poor output measurement
When individual and team performance is not rigidly measured in an office setting - managers can see what everyone is doing. At least, in theory.
Remote, however, can't work without measuring individual output to a set of deliverables and KPIs.
Organizations used to manage employees on things like “time spent in a chair” or “being the loudest in the meeting room" have to create output measurement systems viable for remote.
What to do?
Betting against the (part)-shift to remote is like flogging a horse 🐴 when trying to outrun a Maseratti - brave, yet pointless:
At best, large businesses are merely delaying the immediacy of the change. At worst - they will lose their best talent, fall behind versus the competition, and be forced to change later on - this time around, with a time bomb ticking in corner offices.
What's important to recognize is that cultural barriers to remote working described above were value-destroying even in the fully in-office environment. Businesses didn't thrive thanks to those being in place - they did so despite.
And this brings me to the key takeaway of this post:
Whether you are on a remote bandwagon or not as a business and/or its C-suite - addressing negative cultural norms will yield positive outcomes.
Less micromanagement increases a sense of ownership and reduces non-value-add time spent in meetings. Decentralized decision-making and emphasis on written communication both accelerate execution. Lastly, standardized processes and proper output measurement improve the quality of products and services generated.
Therefore - organizations should target improvements in culture regardless of how bullish or bearish they are on the future of work being remote. So that they reap the benefits in any scenario.
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Also, I am keen to hear your feedback. It's easiest to catch me on Twitter - let's connect! I cover topics at the intersection of effective communication, digital transformation, and disruption every week.
Until next time,