Call me a heretic, but I don’t think remote work is the wave of the future — not to the extent that breathless tipsters are predicting. Although there are exceptions to every rule, I am convinced that working from home will and should remain the exception in the way we do business.
Oh sure, there’s a place for remote working, made better every day by innovative technology. But working together in the same place, as it was before, is how it should be. And so it will be, at least for the most successful companies.
My business operated quietly on this principle for some time, but it was further reinforced the other day when I heard about the CEO of a 100-person company who drank the Kool-Aid and took his operation completely remotely. He now has big regrets. He says there is no longer any way for him to have an effective “pulse” on the culture. That the feedback loops he relied on were crippled. That a vocal and influential minority effectively holds the company hostage to any discussion of returning to the office. Despite the savings on space rental, the company’s margins are also suffering. And he feels powerless to put things back where they should be.
I suspect stories like these are just the tip of the iceberg, given how fashionable it has been lately to speculate how lockdown has forever changed our working lives. The “forever” part isn’t much in dispute, but I think the extent to which some rather big changes are embraced is flawed, because one thing you can’t change is human nature.
Here are five things about human nature that make it advisable to get together when and where we can.
1. People are social
Two years ago, some in the travel industry were wringing their hands, fearing that in-person conventions would dry up forever. It would never happen. Ours was not the first pandemic, and all one had to do to see how things would unfold was to watch how previous contagions ended. Within a few years, things were back to normal. People need people – even the introverts among us love being with others (as long as the rules of engagement are well defined).
2. People are sensory
The world seems flat when the scope of our human interaction consists of two-dimensional images on a 19-inch screen. Peripheral vision is useless. No hugs, handshakes or pats on the back. No comparison of notes around a shared meal. No body language or heavy sighs through which we capture so much meaning in human interaction. Of course, working remotely can make us more productive (sometimes). But making who we are so inaccessible has a cost.
3. People collaborate
“Collaborate” comes from Latin and refers to working together with others. Remote work occurs, by definition, without others, and videoconferencing are poor counterfeits. We throw around the term “company culture” without realizing that “company” literally refers to being “united as one body”. At my company, one of our conference rooms was nicknamed the “Co-Lab” because people gathered there so often to collaborate on experiments. Working together increased both their efficiency and their esprit de corps – “the spirit of the body”.
4. People are loyal
We humans are naturally loyal to our families, clans and tribes. A company is a type of clan in which people, to one degree or another, cultivate a sense of loyalty through closeness and common purpose. It’s neither perfect nor permanent, but you can’t take closeness out of the equation without weakening the ties that bind. All things being equal, who is more likely to be promoted: the person who has face-to-face meetings and impromptu conversations with the rest of the team, or the one who is out of sight and out of sight? ‘spirit ?
5. People are distracted
When I have a rushing deadline, hiding in my home office helps me get things done. But there are times when work ebbs more than it flows and if I’m home during those times it’s easy to get, to put it mildly, blurry.
My first professional job was remote, and in the pre-internet days, I couldn’t even go online to hone my skills or do additional research when I didn’t have enough to do. To make sure I wasn’t unproductive, I ended up reading over a dozen marketing books that year, thinking that at least I was investing in professional development. But I had to work at work. In the office, there is always something more to do.
Healthy corporate cultures are built around shared beliefs, united sympathies, and common practices, all of which are best fostered in a shared environment and all of which suffer from a distance. While my company culture was strong enough to withstand a long separation during lockdown, we came together as soon as possible to foster the relationships so critical to our success. Some of our team members continue to work remotely, but only because we value them so much that we didn’t want to lose them when life took them elsewhere; we (and they) are working diligently to ensure they can be here in person whenever possible.
Remote work is great when you have a head cold, it’s snowing, or you need uninterrupted time to focus. But business, like all of life, is about relationships, and relationships are about being together.
Steve McKee is the co-founder of McKee Wallwork + Co., a marketing consulting firm specializing in turning around stalled, stalled and outdated businesses. McKee is the author of When growth stagnates and Powerful brand image.