Concerns have been raised around the creation and maintenance of company culture and collaboration. For example, Andi Owen, chief executive of Herman Miller Inc., says, “That unplanned kind of interaction that contributes so much to how we build relationships with people and how we build culture — those things are what are missing.”
A range of financial firms, in particular, are also sceptical about the feasibility of establishing high-performing, collaborative teams in a remote working environment. Ronald J. Kruszewski, chief executive of Stifel Financial Corp, says, “I am concerned that we would somehow believe that we can basically take kids from college, put them in front of Zoom, and think that three years from now they’ll be every bit as productive as they would have had they had the personal interaction” of work in offices.
David Solomon, CEO of Goldman Sachs, and Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan, are also on record questioning the effectiveness of trying to establish and maintain innovative, collaborative, fundamentally apprenticeship-style cultures remotely. These cultures, they say, require both the team spirit built via working closely together and the ready availability of mentorship and guidance, each of which is more spontaneous and natural ‘in the office’.
Relatedly, creativity and innovation appear frequently to have suffered in remote working environments. “What I worry about the most is innovation. Innovation is hard to schedule —it’s impossible to schedule,” says Ellen Kullman, CEO of Carbon Inc. Microsoft’s 15-country study appears to confirm these fears, finding the proportion of leaders who thought their companies were innovative with their products and services declined from 56% in 2019 to 40% in 2020. An October 2020 survey by Lucid revealed that one in four remote managers say remote work has made their teams less creative overall, while one in four remote workers admit to spending at least half of a typical virtual brainstorming meeting distracted: many staff struggle without the social pressure and live intensity of in-person meetings.
It is possible that creativity is being stunted further by actual changes in brain function due to a lack of variety and stimulation. “What’s very clear in the literature is that environmental enrichment — being outside of your home, bumping into people, commuting, all of these changes that we are collectively being deprived of — is very associated with synaptic plasticity,” says Tina Franklin, a neuroscientist at Georgia Tech, a research university.
There are multiple current or emerging opportunities for companies to mitigate these effects, including the following:
Mixed working models, i.e. part-time remote working but part-time ‘in the office’, to ensure that employees directly receive the required ‘dose’ of collaborative experience. We describe and explain nine such potential working models in a prior article and identify some new approaches already being taken by companies below.
Introducing or reinforcing environmental enrichment in their remote working models — for example, through virtual office spaces such as Branch or Gather, which draw on multiplayer gaming culture, using spatial technology, animations and productivity tools to create a ‘metaverse’ dedicated to work.
Keeping up to date with the latest remote working technology more broadly. Bloom, Davis and Zhestkova in their 2020 paper2 identify a rapid increase in patents explicitly mentioning home or remote work immediately following the onset of the pandemic. Companies need to keep on top of this innovation and move much more quickly than they would in a traditional corporate IT roll-out programme.
Reinvesting in learning and skills development. HP’s October survey found that nearly six in 10 respondents reported currently learning a new skill while working remotely ― employers need to harness this energy and direct it towards the types of skills that promote creativity and innovation for professional purposes.
Again, each company must invest the time and effort required to identify where problems are most likely to occur and the specific circumstances faced by individual functions, peer groups and employees. They must adopt solutions that directly address these problems, recognising that a uniform approach across the organisation is unlikely to work well.