Spring 2020 will be remembered in world history for the coronavirus. It brought changes and new practices to our ways of working. We found ourselves in a situation where changes to how we work were inevitable and new tools had to be implemented rapidly. 

Throughout the spring, both media and social media have mostly glorified the greatness, productivity, and efficiency of working remotely. Often its importance as a key for individual well-being has been emphasized. Is this the truth or has some kind of collective delusion been formed?

The reality is very different and even complex. Situations vary and opportunities for working remotely are very different. Do most of us need social contact? Yes, and face to face no less! 🙂 Working remotely is a huge asset when on the right scale – if an exclusive opportunity, it leads to disaster. 

I came across an interesting poll on LinkedIn. The options were 

a) I want to work both remotely and at the office 

b) I want to only work at the office 

c) I want to only work remotely 

Only 4% chose working entirely from home, while 17% chose working only at the office. The combination of working both remotely and at the office, garnered 79% support. The results of this unofficial poll correlate with several, previous, international studies that have shown that 1-2 days per week of working remotely increases productivity, satisfaction, and well-being. By the way, it is also interesting to note where people are working remotely. All those working remotely say they worked from home. A quarter of those also worked at a cottage or abroad, a fifth also on public transport and a sixth also in public coffee shops. Based on this, working remotely is, generally speaking, working from home.

Conversations with numerous clients have led to an interesting observation. Jobs requiring routines and long-term, continuous concentration agree particularly well with working remotely, provided that agreed tasks and issues are completed according to common operating practices and processes. For example, in one organization, accounting has been completed in record time each month. Similarly, many projects have advanced effectively and development to-do lists have been shortened efficiently. A large product development organization has asked each person weekly for an estimate of the week’s productivity compared to a standard week at the office. Results have fluctuated between 90 and 93%. Simultaneously, the continuous development of operations, activities outside individual key areas of responsibilities, the development of common issues, creativity, etc. have made almost no progress. This is probably no wonder as these, if any, require a lot of random encounters, collaboration, sense of community, and the transfer of tacit knowledge.

Undeniably, many organizations have seen a huge digital leap this spring and that’s great! At the same time, it is worth remembering the old saying that technology is a great servant but a bad master. Teams, Zooms, Slacks, Meets & others are excellent tools. However, no matter how well you utilize digital platforms and tools, they will never be a substitute for face-to-face encounters and personal interaction, nor should they remain the primary way of doing things in organizations or communities. Why? I would like to bring up three points here: 

1. Sense of community and basic security

Humans are created and meant to be part of a group and a community, so to live with others. When thinking about the basic needs of a human, after prerequisites for life, comes the need to belong and for sociality. We want to belong somewhere. This is a psychological, mental, and hormonal issue. How important it is to experience that I am cared about as a person. I am important.

One study shows that under normal circumstances, we laugh an average of 18 times a day. Ninety-seven percent of the times we laugh are when we are with other people. What makes this particularly interesting is that 80% of the things we laugh at are not even amusing in themselves. We laugh because others are also laughing, just like we yawn when others yawn. This not only affects the secretion of endorphins and dopamine in our body and the ensuing feeling of well-being, but it also binds us together more firmly. 

There is also the very moment when we have completed a big project, won a big deal, solved a problem, or achieved some other success together. Happy gazes meet, high-fives & fist bumps occur, there are hugs, shouts, or other celebrations. All these can actually fully take place only if we are together. Oxytocin and serotonin production increase and binds us together and make us stronger.  

We all probably agree that laughing and succeeding by ourselves can never compare to succeeding and having fun with others! To some degree, we can also create a sense of community and experience the previous examples through digital means. However, it is not on the same level. And no wonder. Less than 20% of communication is verbal. It is impossible to communicate 100% without meeting physically (and mentally).

Of course, it is possible that an individual’s need to belong can be filled outside of work. However, the impact of this on the organization can be detrimental and high risk. The most significant binding factors in the workplace are the work community and culture. If these are not built, individuals’ commitment to their own organization will also decrease and even the best employees can easily be persuaded to go work elsewhere if there is the possibility of slightly more interesting work, slightly better salary… If this is the case, even the best strategy is of no help.

2. Exacerbation of life and home problems

Working conditions of people working remotely vary greatly. The luckiest have soundproofed home offices or no other distractions present during the day. At the other extreme, some work in a small apartment at the kitchen table with a few children spinning around (while supervising distance learning) sitting beside a spouse on a video conference. 

Spring 2020 has also shown its downside. Police home visits have increased significantly – so much that the difference between weekends and weekdays is minimal. Never before have I had so many discussions with supervisors about alcohol or other substance abuse problems or suspected substance abuse problems. It is easy to ignore this as a marginal problem, but in fact, 25-30% of Finnish children have suffered from parental alcohol use.

Problems also come without alcohol and drugs. A feeling of inadequacy easily grows with pressure to be present at home and work simultaneously. Separating work from personal life is not so simple for everyone. In turn, this significantly increases stress levels. It gets even worse if individual goals, priorities, and work responsibilities are not clearly defined and a person doesn’t know what is really expected of them. 

3. Learning and development of the organization

Short conversations when grabbing a cup of coffee, or running into one another on the way to the restroom or a meeting, not only increase the feeling of belonging but these encounters generate a lot of ideas. In addition to simply catching up with each other, important information about issues is quickly exchanged. Tacit information, as well as information relating to a particular project, transfers unnoticed when a discussion between two colleagues is overheard. Regardless of the collaboration tools used, the situations mentioned above are missing, inevitably leading to a decline in collaborative learning and tacit knowledge not being shared in the same way as when work takes place in the same physical location and space. This does not mean that digital platforms and tools do not also enhance communication, transfer tacit knowledge, and skills development. But they do not work as primary ways of operating.

Experience has also shown that when we don’t meet face to face, it is difficult to guarantee the transfer of information and that everyone is on the same page and sees that whole picture. If a person does not know, they assume…

How do you successfully build a new culture?

The growth of working remotely is here to stay and that’s great! It makes coordinating different life and work situations possible, but it isn’t possible without clear operating practices, structures, and procedures. In the long term, this will be successful only if it is possible to work remotely efficiently and productively according to the big picture. In this case, the primary perspective cannot be each individual separately. I stress that this aspect cannot be ignored either! If the decisions about working hours and different ways of working are left to each individual, there is a high risk that, for example, a team will practically never meet face to face. Someone is always missing. Agreeing that everyone is present on certain days makes sense. This makes planning much easier. Below is a list of tips for working remotely successfully. 

  1. Clarify the priorities and objectives and ensure that everyone shares the same situational awareness.
  2. Clarify ways of working, game rules, and structure. Only this really allows flexibility.
  3. Figure out what really can be accomplished while working remotely in each area of responsibility and role
  4. Personal goals must be clear. Agree on how work will be monitored and evaluated.
  5. Ensure that a sense of community is preserved, 1-1 discussions, virtual coffee time, etc.
  6. Create new practices for sharing and transferring information and knowledge. Info, meetings, etc.
  7. Turn on video during remote meetings!
  8. Leadership must be taken to the next level. Controlling as a way of leading works even worse than at the office!
  9. The interest of the community is always more important than the interest of the individual.
  10. Continuous performance evaluation

It is undeniable that an organization, which offers diverse ways of working and creates a culture that supports it, where a sense of community and working together is maintained, creates a competitive advantage that is not easily copied. This means low organizational structures with smaller, efficient units that need to be able to work both together and separately. This makes it possible to utilize experts from different geographic areas. What an opportunity for organizations everywhere! At its best, knowledge work can be done from anywhere. In addition, globally, this saves a lot of time and the environment. Future homes should be designed to better support working remotely. Particular attention should be paid to this, especially in smaller municipalities and companies far from the capital region.

All of this requires tremendous developmental steps in leadership and more broadly in organizational culture, structures, self-direction, practices, rules of the game, etc. I am at your service on your way to be a top organization of the future!

Pekko Nieminen

The author is an experienced management coach and developer of organizational culture, whose professional passion is to create a lasting competitive advantage for organizations through organizational culture.