Wish you were here

Humans are wired to be at the same campfire.

Geoff Wilson

We are seeing a lot of consternation in companies these days around the topic of remote work and so-called “back to the office” movements.  Remote work among knowledge workers has been a viable topic for decades, but really came into its own when “everybody” in a knowledge-work role suddenly had to be remote during the COVID pandemic.

Such a mass adjustment to norms came with a lot of warm, fuzzy feelings about how effective people can be while working remotely with today’s tools.  Indeed, for the first months of the pandemic, the effectiveness of remote work was one of the few areas of general consensus in an otherwise uncertain environment.

But what has followed has been mixed, at best.  It slowly began to surface that “cheating” was happening if not common. Some people took advantage of remote work to work multiple “full-time” jobs.

On the other side, many business functions actually became more productive in a remote environment.  When we consider certain business functions as essentially piecework, we can see a great advantage to sending piecework back into the cottages. A worker charged with auditing accounts isn’t likely to be any more or less effective at such an individual activity while doing it with the same tools remotely. And, they don’t have to commute.

But this post isn’t about cheating, or managing, or outright fraud (which you are if you aren’t telling your multiple employers that you are overcommitted…but I digress).

This post is about culture.

Humans are strange animals.  We are tribal by nature.  We operate in a cognitive fog of trust, and love, and social proof, and mutual support.  We work for the common good in small groups. We become self-involved and selfish in large groups. We care less as social distance increases.

Such is the reality of the human condition.

And, we depend on actual…interpersonal assessments of these social aspects to form culture.  So-called “social cues” are tremendously important to establishing social consistency.

No matter how much we adjust to the amazing tools and technologies intermediating our remote lives–and I for one am fond of telling people I am remotely kicking them under the table, for instance–we can’t replace the whole-bodied experience of being there IRL (that’s “in real life” for you Gen X’ers like me).

Remote culture-building removes almost all of this. It’s reductive to a face on a screen or–worse–a disembodied voice.  It’s fully intermediated by technology.  And, it largely eliminates serendipity.  All of these things, disembodiment (“is he actually listening?”), intermediation (“you’re on mute” and “sorry you’re breaking up”), and lack of serendipity (“this meeting ends in 5 minutes”) can combine to completely distort culture.

All of this is to say two things:  No matter how much you try to engineer culture in a remote environment, you will fail if you are trying to engineer the same culture you would have had in an in-person environment. And, human cultures are fundamentally in-person.

Yes, that’s right, you’d better change your expectations if you are going to “stay remote.”

We are wired to be around a campfire.  We are wired to hunt and gather and dine together and engage in small talk while working in the fields or while stalking dinner.  We are wired to hear and feel and see and…smell each other as humans without some “greater power” interceding or masking our own often already-masked and insecure presences.

Your culture CAN survive being remote. But, the deeper human aspects will erode with a sort of half-life.  I have no idea how truly fast-paced cultures like the large consulting firm I was a member of for years could even survive for a few months in a virtual work environment.  So much of that type of culture is conveyed “in the team room” and the workforce turns over so quickly that culture can be shattered in a matter of months if extreme care isn’t taken.

If your company is slower moving and has less turnover, people will still remember. But remembrances fade.

As somebody who struggles mightily to ensure enough alone time in a life that rarely affords it, I can tell you that being “in-person” is not an all-the-time thing.  But it is a critical aspect of building warm, supportive, team-based cultures. And, warm, supportive, team-based cultures will be very important in a future where most any truly remote-piecework style jobs are likely to be automated.

Human factors–culture–will be the deciding factors for the future of competition. This is true whether managing a workforce or selling the next big deal.

So, what’s a leader to do?

Well, if you are leading a remote workforce, be sure to create more campfires and gatherings to build culture.  These so-called wastes of time can be foundational to building mutual support and acceleration.

If you are leading a hybrid workforce, the mandate is similar:  Be sure your pieceworkers who are off in their cottages get called back to the mothership frequently.

And, if you are leading a team that’s together, be sure you reinforce the benefits and expectations that together should bring.

What do you think? How do you see culture impacted by presence?

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