I used to share author Malcolm Gladwell’s fears about remote work: It couldn’t be in people’s best interest to sit at home in their pajamas. Surely, remote workers would lose their “feeling of belonging” and no longer “feel necessary.” Gladwell may write from his sofa and coffee shops, but I would have agreed with him that “offices really do matter” for “collaborative, creative work,” as he wrote to CNBC attempting to parry accusations of hypocrisy.
That was before. Then came COVID-19. Companies across the globe closed offices, and everyone had to work from home. To my surprise, our employees did just fine. Productivity never suffered. No longer commuting two hours in a car, our teams were experiencing a different balance in their lives. Many people seemed happier despite the miserable global situation.
In August 2021, when we polled our teams about remote work, only 2% wanted to come back to the office full time (admittedly, I was part of the 2%). Could my colleagues—talented, hardworking professionals—not know what is in their “best interest”?
This enthusiasm for remote work challenged our leadership team to not merely accept remote work but test its full potential. Yet there is a tendency for CEOs to either defend remote work as the angel solving all their problems or view it as the devil bent on destroying corporate culture. With a less ideological view, informed by data and research, maybe we can see past the caricatures of all good and all evil. Maybe we don’t understand remote work and culture as well as we thought.
Culture without place
Until COVID-19, I felt that a strong company culture depended on togetherness. We had to work, laugh, and dance together to create a brand employees would love. Zoom calls and Slack could not create the camaraderie of FIFA and ping-pong at the office. I was wrong, but those assumptions fit my personality and leadership style. While other CEOs remain worried about remote culture, the past two years have shown their fears are misguided.
In November 2019, social media management platform Buffer, a remote-only company, ran its third annual State of Remote Work survey: 20% of respondents said that collaboration and communication was their biggest struggle with working remotely while another 20% said loneliness. After two years of pandemic remote work, loneliness remained a top difficulty (24%), second only to not being able to unplug (25%). Collaboration and communication slightly improved, with 17% continuing to struggle.
No, Gladwell isn’t crazy. Academic research, too, suggests that group cohesion forms more easily in face-to-face settings. Remote work may even cause ” . . . the collaboration network of workers to become more static and siloed,” as a study of Microsoft’s employees found.
Yet employees don’t seem deterred. In both 2020 and 2022, 97% of Buffer’s respondents said they recommend remote work. Strikingly, a survey by QuantumSpace found remote and hybrid workers were more likely to rate their company culture favorably than in-office workers. They were also more likely to say the culture had improved during the pandemic rather than declined.
Not coincidentally, surveys by Future Forum, a research consortium founded by Slack, have found that hybrid and remote workers report having an employee experience with less stress and stronger work-life balance, flexibility, and satisfaction with their work environment compared to in-office workers. Could people be conflating their personal satisfaction with culture?
Abstract concepts like collaboration, culture, and belonging are not necessarily defined the same by everyone. Gallup, for example, found in August 2020 that about 60% of employees, whether virtual or in-person, ” . . . cannot fully agree that they know what their company stands for,” though remote employees are 7% less likely ” . . . to see their connection to the mission of the company.”
What does that even mean!? Ask people what their nation, religion, or family stands for, and you’d get diverse answers. Our search for broad, causal links between remote work and culture isn’t turning up obvious answers.
Some blind spots
My critiques don’t mean the researchers did poor work—on the contrary, they’re quite informative. Rather, the issue is that if we study remote work through too shallow a lens, we’ll struggle to see the differences that matter: the people themselves.
First off, remote work studies don’t compare the differences between individual organizations. Some companies have done an excellent job of facilitating remote culture. Others have implemented dystopian surveillance systems out of fear of lost productivity (when, in fact, remote workers tend to be more productive). One company only paid employees for the minutes when its software could detect “active work,” as the New York Times reports.
Now, those employees spend chunks of life pretending to look busy rather than doing the most important task for that moment. If we reduce people’s value to meaningless keystrokes—inside or outside of an office—yes, culture will suffer.
Second, the studies don’t consider how location and context affect perceptions of remote work. If, during COVID-19, someone was locked down in a Los Angeles or New York City apartment with three roommates, they had a different experience from a woman living alone in a small town with a home office and green space. Likewise, if someone worked from a coworking space, they may have experienced connection and belonging that the home office worker lacked.
Indeed, researchers from Cambridge and UCLA found that during the pandemic, people living in bigger households suffered less loneliness and experienced more happiness. Maybe a sense of belonging doesn’t come from coworkers. Over the past 100,000 years, human beings found many ways to belong without working for corporations.
Third, we don’t know much about the employees themselves. Are the remote workers more senior employees or more likely to receive better compensation? Do they have the resources and access to a safe, quiet home office that allows them to be productive without disruptions from family or roommates? That would explain why they’re generally happier with work. Are the in-office or hybrid employees going into the office by choice, or are they obligated? People who worked from home during COVID-19 then lost that autonomy aren’t going to be happy about it, as Apple is currently demonstrating. No matter how beneficial it is to spend time together, forcing it upon workers will sour the culture.
Remote work is challenging organizations to question what culture is, how it’s made, and who choses it. Just because thought leaders like Elon Musk, Jamie Dimon, and Gladwell see culture and collaboration at the Pushkin offices, that doesn’t mean they can’t exist outside an office.
When employees choose
The research leaves some employers looking like bureaucracies clinging to the belief they can engineer culture by decree. They have underestimated the extent to which talented, self-aware professionals might organize their own culture, regardless of where they work.
I witnessed this in the development team here at Safeguard Global. We decided to experiment with “Work in Any Way,” a cultural pillar that is basically remote work on steroids. In 2021, our chief technology officer Duri Chitayat began hiring the best people wherever they were in the world and let teams work when and how they wanted, using the tools of their choice.
A year later, our dev team had grown from about 40 employees to 130, with representation in 14 countries. They had increased monthly product releases by 10x and had an 84% faster average time to market. Some teams worked asynchronously, some worked a shared schedule, and some had four-day workweeks. One of the most productive teams is still led by a Kazakhstan-born, Poland-raised engineer in the U.K. with teammates in Hong Kong, Brazil, Albania, and Nigeria.
Not immune from corporate norms, dev team members sometimes underestimated their freedoms. Memorably, one developer came to me saying they wanted to quit. Why, I asked. Because they just had a second baby and wouldn’t have time to work and be as much a part of their children’s day-to-day lives as they wanted. But why leave, I asked again. It’s a full-time role, they said. Well, work part time or become a contractor, I suggested. I don’t want to lose your talent. You don’t have to quit if you like working here.
This employee could have worked six months a year and spent the other six raising a family. I wanted whatever was in their “best interest.” Who would know better than they?
The proxy signals
These initial studies and experiences pointed me toward a hypothesis: remote work is a proxy signal for autonomy and flexibility. Maybe remote teams that struggle aren’t provided the autonomy to choose their tools or a schedule that makes sense. And as a result, the engineer in Hong Kong forced to join video calls at 3 a.m. is not going to feel good about culture, communication, and collaboration. But let’s not mistake micromanagement for location-based culture.
It should surprise no one, Gladwell especially, that remote work has won over knowledge workers. Rather, it should surprise us that leaders believe they know the secrets of culture, and that these secrets only apply in offices.
People will live up to the power you invest in them, wherever they happen to be. And the option of remote or hybrid work often improves perceptions of culture by giving employees the flexibility to work in any way—when, where, and how they want.
Bjorn Reynolds is the CEO of Safeguard Global, a management platform offering payroll and HR outsourcing solutions.