OK – this is an interesting and somewhat touchy subject. I’m going to tackle it anyway. There is a lot of buzz right now about remote work. During COVID-19, we learned that it’s possible for many people to work from home (or elsewhere) and be reasonably productive. In some instances, employees were more productive than when they were at their place of employment – and there are other examples of where this was not the case. Now that society is gradually returning to a state of normalcy there is much discussion about employees who want to continue working remotely. Many large companies are reducing their office footprint and even offering remote work as a perk. I have some concerns about this trend.
We have had a rather unique experience with remote work over the past 50+ years. Our organization has multiple business units that are engaged in the development, acquisition, and management of apartment communities – an operation that now spans 20 states and growing. Development Directors and Development Managers are scattered across different locations by design. They need to be on the ground in the regions where they are researching and identifying development sites. Ditto for Regional Managers in our property management unit. Our headquarters team works from our corporate office though there are a handful of team members who work in a hybrid fashion due to the nature of their positions. Now, here’s where it gets more challenging. At any given time, we have 90 to 100 apartment communities that we manage throughout the country. These properties could be small with only two team members, or they could be very large with as many as 12 to 14 team members. They are all “remote” relative to our headquarters operations.
Several years ago, we became much more intentional about our culture and have worked tirelessly to build an environment where we empower people to thrive. This entails a set of core values, collaboration, celebrating success, and holding each other accountable. The corporate office culture is very strong and is usually hitting on all cylinders. Getting a two-person team in Kentucky or Wisconsin to integrate with our overall corporate culture has been a tougher mountain to climb. Our properties typically have developed their own cultures which we support and attempt to mirror with the overall culture. Video conferencing is helpful but not the end all – and we have been video conferencing for many years – long before COVID. We do everything we can to weave our culture throughout the various business units and properties, but some days it’s two steps forward and three steps back.
This brings me to the issue at hand and my biggest concern about remote work. How do companies maintain their culture (assuming they have an intentional and positive culture in the first place) when many if not all their employees are working remotely? I fully understand the desire by many who wish to work from home. There are childcare issues, skyrocketing gas prices, the prohibitive cost of living in some parts of the country, long commutes, etc. And yet, the question still remains – how does a company build a strong culture when a team is not physically together?
We have recently had a few members of our team depart because they went to companies that offered remote work (and a significant boost in pay). I am very concerned for them. They met each other in the first place because they physically were together in our corporate office. Working remotely, how are they going to differentiate themselves going forward? How will they fare over the long haul without the kind of social interaction they would experience in an office? When the day comes that their company needs to layoff employees will they be more vulnerable because they are essentially faceless cogs in the corporate wheel? And how will they stand out to gain future promotions in this faceless environment they have chosen?
Remote work is not a panacea from the perspective of both employer and employee. A company that chooses to go in this direction needs to have a serious plan in place to maintain and strengthen its culture in this new dimension. Most companies are simply reacting to the marketplace rather than adapting in a thoughtful way that will have long-term benefits for all parties. Entrepreneurs will be well served to be very cautious and strategic as they create remote-work policies.
This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.