In a world of remote work, will control replace culture?

In a world of remote work, will control replace culture?
Image courtesy of Cosmic Centaurs

Marilyn Zakhour, founder and chief executive officer of UAE-based Cosmic Centaurs

At the height of the pandemic, I started a company called Cosmic Centaurs to help organisations and individuals adapt to the new realities of work and education. We spend a lot of time studying the impact of the profound changes to the workplace that were accelerated by the global pandemic. We frequently discuss the rapid rate of digital transformation, collaboration and remote work, the need to continuously retrain and upskill teams as well as how humans can use technology to enhance their lives.

During one of these conversations it occurred to me that my grandmother, Jamal, had been a remote worker in the early 1990s. Originally a stay-at-home mum, she decided that she needed to find a way to financially contribute when my family emigrated to Canada. So, Jamal became a seamstress, turning precut fabric into garments each week. I vividly remember massive shipments of bright yellow GAP sweaters arriving to our home and I am fairly certain she had no idea who she was producing for, save for the name on the label which she carefully sewed inside each garment. Someone in a warehouse somewhere would control the number of items that were up to standard, and my grandmother would get paid by the unit.

Undoubtedly, the retailer probably didn’t know of my grandmother’s existence. She never received a welcome email or took part in a company town hall.  “Company Culture” was a foreign concept, the only thing she knew was “control”.

The pandemic has brought the collective realisation that remote work can be hyper productive. Companies that had once completely rejected the idea have suddenly become vocal advocates. 

Increasingly, more of us will be asked to work from home, hired into companies without ever visiting their offices, or meeting our colleagues in person. Our work will be divided into small, precise, bite-sized, series of inputs and outputs. We will be judged solely on the quality of our outputs, much like my grandmother and her yellow sweaters.

In that world, people whose contribution is more intangible may find it harder to demonstrate their value. Doers may be favoured over dreamers.

When efficiency becomes the strategy, where do culture and brand fit?

On the bright side, examples of successful and happy remote-only companies do exist. Companies like Git-Lab, Zapier and Automattic (the company behind WordPress) have been location-independent since inception.

These companies offer appealing benefits such as unlimited vacation days, home office or co-working space allowances, flexible work hours and more. They are actively focused on promoting diversity and learning and are generally quite successful companies. By way of example, in September 2019, GitLab was valued at $2.7 billion ahead of an initial public offering (IPO) set for November 2020. That’s $2 million per employee.

Of course, there are some obvious commonalities between these all-remote companies. First, they are all American companies, dominated by Anglo-Saxon cultures that are highly  individualistic, making it easier to design organisations that rely on individual contributions. They are also all software companies, meaning their input is already “subdivided” into lines of code. In fact, Git-lab’s product is a software that enables hundreds of other companies to also operate remotely.

While most employees enjoy working for these types of companies, a quick scan of their Glassdoor reviews reveal some patterns:

  • Vague career paths: no real room to grow or clarity on how to evolve.
  • Micromanagement: managers define people’s work down to the task level.
  • A focus on output quantity: the value of employees is based on the volume of tasks delivered

Simply put, these employees don’t feel “seen”. They are hired to be a cog in the system. Cogs don’t get promoted.

These companies also have one more thing in common. They lack a real brand and culture. While they all have logos, taglines, a shared purpose everyone can rally around, their clients don’t use their product or pay a premium for them because of their brand. They are selected entirely for their feature set and pricing, unlike say, choosing Spotify over other streaming platforms. If you read their careers pages without knowing whose website you’re on, you could easily confuse one for the other.

And so, we are left to wonder if our shift to remote work, to a more efficient world, where we are measured only against our output, will ultimately lead to the death of brands and culture. Or, will brands and culture be our best defence against a dehumanised corporate world.

How do we keep our companies humane?

As humans, we are drawn to the social constructs we have created overtime. The workplace is no exception, and as organisations in the UAE begin working from physical office spaces, many will return more skeptical, questioning its sanctity and arguing against its necessity. The return to the office will also be somewhat anti-climactic. No high fiving, no handshakes, masks hiding people’s reactions and safety measures hindering our ability to take advantage of the co-location.

Ultimately, it is the role of managers and leaders, to put culture and brand back at the centre of how we work. Hybrid remote work models and rotational shifts will become commonplace, with a few companies like Twitter choosing to stay remote for the remainder of this year. Therefore, it is especially important to preserve brand and culture for employees who will never set foot in the office or for startups operating out of co-working spaces just a few days out of the week.

To keep these companies humane, I am a believer in the primitive tools of community building: storytelling, rituals, ceremonies, shared values, costumes, and good old synchronised dancing. We can use these tools to build collaborative, connected cultures, both in-person, and online.

As a student of History, I truly believe that the species capable of inventing the concepts of countries, money, and companies and encouraging hundreds of thousands of people  to rally behind them is perfectly capable of finding new ways of building communities and alignment over Zoom calls.

There are some simple things one can do. Branded conference call backgrounds, company merchandise shipped to every new comer, “Thank God it’s Thursday” Zoom calls, plants sent to team members to keep them company and reconnect them with this idea that we are growing something together, support groups among employees who live in the same neighborhood regardless of their role, or even a day where people can come to work or Zoom dressed up in their favourite superhero costume.

And if you are skeptical about this, go ahead and google “fancy dress video parties”.

Thank you

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