IBM thinks telecommuting has a culture problem.
Earlier this year, the one-time trailblazer of remote work followed in the footsteps of former Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer and started recalling its vast telecommuting staff. The reason? Big Blue wants to improve its office culture by having staff work “shoulder to shoulder”.
The shift comes after 19 consecutive quarters of declining sales, and could be interpreted as something of a panic move for a company that for a decade actively encouraged its workforce to stay home.
Whatever the motivation, it’s a narrow understanding of workplace culture to think that telecommuting and corporate culture can’t support each other, that a positive environment is dependent on the physical proximity of employees. And it flies in the face of MIT research that suggests remotely located teams can out-perform their co-located peers, if the right technology and conditions are in place.
Culture is measured in morale and productivity, and is manifest in open communication between employees–you can create all that online, especially if you begin with the right virtual orientation.
Telecommuting and Corporate Culture: A Desirable Perk Boosts Culture
Workplace culture is a tough thing to define. It may be best understood by its symptoms. Things like high morale, high productivity, and low staff turnover are the real bottom line goals you’d most likely have in mind when seeking a “good culture.” If that’s true to any extent, then telecommuting is very good at creating the right workplace culture.
Recent research says telecommuters:
- Are 35-40% more productive, according to Best Buy, British Telecom, and Dow Chemical
- Work an extra five hours per week than their office-bound colleagues
- Are less likely to leave, according to 95% of surveyed businesses
- Are so envied that 36% of workers would prefer working from home over getting a raise
- Take fewer sick days, according to the American Management Association
If you prefer your workplace culture measured by employee adoption of specific language, workflows, or attitudes, telecommuting can replicate the most heralded orientation programs in the world. Even Google’s celebrated Noogler (new + Googler) onboarding program, which currently only exists on-site, could be transferred to a virtual setting.
Onboarding the Google Way
Every Noogler gets a mentor. They attend live lectures from senior engineers. They get a two-week starter project. They join a class, “The Life of an Engineer.” They are handed a company-wide glossary to teach them the language of their new employer.
It’s all part of Google’s elaborately devised introduction to the company culture. It treats each Noogler as a part of the wider Google world, and focuses on big picture, company-wide values rather than getting buried right away in the nitty-gritty of each individual team’s day-to-day work.
Well, each of those onboarding elements can be reproduced online, assuming these cultural touchstones are the reason Google is the highest rated place to work in the U.S. The live lectures and classes can be presented via an interactive group video call, or through a live stream. The glossary of unique terms is easily shared as a link or a file in the instant messaging feature of every modern video chat app. And virtual mentor programs using video calling are already being put to use in the business community.
That checks off the formal ways that Google makes sure new employees are integrated into its culture. However, telecommuting can also recreate the incidental, unscheduled elements of teamwork that companies like IBM and Yahoo! find so desirable. Culture is a shared experience, and it is driven by basic, open communication.
Culture Is Communication
The top 100 U.S. companies offering substantial telecommuting opportunities includes some heavy hitters. Amazon, UnitedHealth, Hilton, American Express, Wells Fargo, Xerox, and the U.S. State Department all employ remote staff, often citing the option as a perk.
One of those companies, Xerox, has gone so far as to stage virtual office holiday parties (including Halloween and Thanksgiving celebrations) over video conference to aid team bonding among its remote staff.
Such an experience would be a great way to introduce new staff members to the company, perhaps over a week of themed DIY lunches mixed in with normal work. For a few hours each lunchtime, a rotating cast of department heads, colleagues, and company veterans could join the new arrivals for some informal downtime, opening future lines of communication. Similar virtual lunches via video chat have been trialed in the past with some success.
The key to this, though, is simple communication. Culture is the shared aspect of work, the forum where otherwise unconnected people come together to collaborate. That communication is initially based on the practical need to share information, and can build from there to free-flowing conversation based on trust and common experience. Creating a positive culture, in this sense, means allowing that communication to develop and become enjoyable. In a technical setting like telecommuting, the water coolers and office corridors can be replaced with internal instant messaging and video calling platforms, or open chat rooms that employees can access always from a corner of their working screens.
You don’t need to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with someone to ask them about their weekend, or get their opinion on an idea. We already do that online all the time using social media. Offer employees a way to get chatting and they’ll create their own working culture. The right kind of virtual orientation just helps get things started.