Arthur C. Clarke was, quite possibly, the world’s most interesting man.
He hosted television shows, explored hundreds of meters under the surface of the sea, and invented a jet engine. He also (somewhat notably, one might add), wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey – both the novel and part of Kubrick’s movie script. Interestingly, in 1964, he said this:
“It will be possible… for a man to conduct his business from Tahiti or Bali just as well as he could from London…. Almost any executive skill, any administrative skill, even any physical skill, could be made independent of distance.”
The trouble is, I can say, with near 100% certainty, that when Arthur C. Clarke imagined a future of work without borders, he wasn’t picturing a “digital 9-to-5” with hours-long Zoom calls. Nor was he thinking about time tracking software, the almost constant buzz of Slack notifications, or fixed employee hours.
No, Arthur was a visionary. And if we want to do remote work right, we also have to be visionary about how we approach company culture. Here’s why:
Executives are scared about remote work, but they shouldn’t be
There’s one big barrier to great remote work culture: executives who don’t want to let go of the office.
This is evidenced by the fact the majority of executives want to go back to the office full-time, but, only 17% of their employees agree. That’s a major gap. But it’s also not surprising. Most employees love the flexibility that remote work offers, but their bosses – people who have spent their entire lives managing teams in-person – are worried that the change is going to hurt their company’s culture.
In a way, the executives have a point. Remote work culture is much different than office culture. A viral study from Microsoft in 2021 found collaboration (measured by communication between people), was significantly lower in a remote setting. And, of course, other things are missing from the office. For instance:
- Employees don’t have frequent, face-to-face small-talk
- Teams don’t stay after hours, huddled around a table, pushing through a big project
- There are no after-work trips to the bar
- People aren’t always immediately available or present
The points above are, among many things, activities that don’t exist in most remote work settings.
But here’s the kicker: Many of these office norms shouldn’t exist in the first place and attempting to replicate them remotely doesn’t work.
What most people don’t understand – I feel – is that while remote culture is different, it offers a different set of benefits too. And in many ways, it’s a set of benefits that actually surpasses what you’d get in the office.
Here’s what a good remote work culture looks like
We’ve lived for centuries in the office without really questioning whether our “office norms” were really good things. Is it good – for example – that employees with kids are disadvantaged because they can’t go out after work or stay after hours? Is it good to create a culture that celebrates people staying late? Is it good to force people to work specific hours every day?
The answer, for me (and probably most of you reading this), is no. So, what does good culture look like remotely?
Jack Altman, the CEO of Lattice, recently wrote an essay on this topic. His team has hundreds of employees, and they’ve worked hard on making it work both in the office and remotely. Jack’s main finding is this: Culture is stronger in the office, but more manageable remotely.
For things like cross-team connection or the buzz on working something in person, office culture is stronger. But culture is more equal, and manageable, remotely.
So, a good remote culture is one that embraces the benefits of remote work.
Benefits like location independence, hours flexibility, and asynchronous communication are excellent things. They make people happier, make work more equitable, and enable people to work with talented people regardless of where they live. This looks like:
- Caring about output, not hours worked (no more mandated 9-to-5s)
- Letting your team have autonomy, meaning no time tracking apps
- Building a culture of documentation
- Having an asynchronous-first culture – ie killing as many meetings as you can
- Having in-person team retreats focused on relationship-building
There’s plenty more here, and your approach will depend on your company.
But when you create a culture strategy for your remote team, just remember that you’re not trying to replicate the office: That’s like trying to carve a turkey with chopsticks. Instead, embrace the benefits of remote work.
Because, in the end, remote work isn’t the death of company culture. It’s the savior of it.