Are teleworkers really connected to the corporate culture?

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder”, as the saying goes. Or is it rather “out of sight, out of mind”? Long periods of forced remote work have demonstrated that, for any group of employees, both can sometimes be true.

Working from home during the pandemic has loosened UK professionals’ ties to the consultancies or law or accountancy firms that employed them, the Financial Times recently reported. The lifting of the lockdown then encouraged job switching, as candidates could now connect with potential employers face-to-face.

These are the two sides of the “out of sight, out of mind” coin: head, the isolation of remote work reduces loyalty to your current employer; right, the revival of face-to-face encounters encourages you to form an attachment with a new one.

In the “absence makes the heart grow fonder” camp, however, is the work of the Financial Services Culture Council. Its 2020 assessment of thousands of UK bank workers detected improvements in feedback, honesty from leadership and well-being scores. These scores fell slightly this year, but remained more positive than in 2019. Jenny Robinson, senior behavioral specialist at the FSCB, suggests that people might have felt “more able to use their judgment and autonomy” when they were working remotely.

Then there’s a study by the Oliver Wyman Forum which found that the desire for more flexibility and a better work-life balance, rather than the thirst to return to the office, were the most important reasons for quitting or wanting to quit a job, after the quest for more money.

The sweet spot is hard to reach. Undermanaged remote staff can feel neglected, leading to bad consequences ranging from job dissatisfaction to burnout and fraud.

Another poll this year by the Chartered Institute of Internal Auditors highlighted the risk of a “post-pandemic organizational culture crisis”. “How do employees maintain their strong attachment to the company, continue to live the shared purpose, values ​​and sense of community within their organization, and maintain expected behaviors in the absence of old office-centric in-person interactions? asked Heli Mooney, head of internal audit at airline Ryanair.

Whether the office repels or attracts depends on where you are in the hierarchy. Robinson identifies two “bumps” – representing senior managers and junior employees or newcomers. They are more eager to return to the office than the staff in between. “How much of a part of a person does a person feel if their onboarding was a keyboard transfer in a parking lot?” one executive responded to the FSCB when asked what it meant to belong to a company that has “no unifying cultural experiences”.

As the FSCB points out, there is a difference between connectivity, which technology has enabled during lockdown, and collaboration, which can be more difficult. Processes that engage new or junior staff, such as on-site learning by experienced staff, are difficult to replicate online. This is one of the reasons why investment banks, which place great importance on these methods, have conducted “back to the office” campaigns.

Organizational cultures are certainly reshaped by the shock of the coronavirus and its consequences. That this creates labor market spillovers comes as no surprise to Kevin Rockmann, a management professor at George Mason University in Virginia. All those who were satisfied with their work before the pandemic will not be satisfied afterwards.

Rockmann and Michael Pratt of Boston College studied the unintended consequences of distributed work in an anonymous technology company in a 2015 article for the journal Academy of Management Discoveries titled “Contagious Offsite Work and the Lonely Office.” One of the main conclusions was that once a part of the workers decided to operate remotely, the quality of work in the office was diminished. Staff found themselves “alone in a crowd, surrounded by people, but without any meaningful social contact in the on-site office” and eventually opted to work offsite.

This feeling will be familiar to anyone who has returned to the workplace to find that the people they want to meet have chosen that day to work from home.

As employers seek to reverse the tide toward remote work, Rockmann says they and employees, like their counterparts in 2015, may have to make choices. “It’s going to lead to some upheaval,” he says. It’s fine to experiment, he adds, but ultimately companies “have to put their flag in the ground” and make working arrangements clear, so staff can choose to stay or quit. “A lazy solution is to move to an intermediate model and try to make everyone happy: the average level of dissatisfaction [with that approach] will be high.

Of course, employers, and even staff, may feel “homesick” for a cultural and managerial ideal that never really existed before the pandemic, says Robinson of the FSCB. But, as the crisis subsides, they will also realize that loyalty and corporate culture are less about where work is done and more about how it is done, celebrated, rewarded and supervised. .

Andrew Hill is the editor of the FT