I read a letter to “Work Friend” columnist Roxane Gay in The New York Times from a remote employee who was frustrated watching a birthday celebration during a meeting they were participating in virtually. Someone, who was in-person at the meeting, jokingly asked whether they should describe the cake to the remote employee since they couldn’t have any. The remote employee did not find this funny. It sounded like a case of sour grapes to me. A person who made the choice to be a remote employee, and was enjoying the many benefits of remote work, was upset to discover there are some things that you do have to be in-person to experience.
With more workplaces allowing hybrid, and wholly remote, work, there will be many more situations like this. The remote employee in the Times letter asked Gay if she should make a request to her boss that birthday celebrations take place outside of meetings in which remote employees are dialing in. The remote employee appears to feel that everyone who is in-person should adapt to their needs rather than the other way around.
Work culture when it’s at its best acknowledges birthdays and other milestones and achievements—with cake and other treats whenever possible. With such personalization hard to replicate virtually, what is the answer? Similarly, happy hours can occur virtually with everyone staying on the video platform while they make themselves cocktails and then drink those cocktails on camera, but the in-person interaction of sharing drinks at a bar is much different. Do you stop having in-person happy hours and other informal after-work gatherings to ensure remote employees are not left out?
Rather than limiting the enjoyment of in-person employees, you can make it a fringe benefit of going to the office. These gatherings can serve as an incentive to get people back into the office, if not every day, then at least once in a while.
A friendly work culture that emphasizes interpersonal connection is hard to replicate remotely. When a remote employee starts coming into the office, they see what they were missing. I experienced this myself recently when I went into the office in-person for a meeting. It was the first time I had been in-person at the office in months. I found myself happy to see people I never wanted to stop to chat with in the past. If an inveterate introvert felt this way, imagine how your employees would feel being in-person once in a while after working remotely for months or years.
One solution may be to plan in-person celebrations and fun far in advance, rather than having them be last-minute, spontaneous occurrences. That way, remote employees will have the opportunity to plan to be there in-person if they want to be a part of it. You could sent out an invitation for a surprise birthday celebration at an upcoming meeting that will take place in one to two months, or let people know that on the first Wednesday of every month you will be gathering for happy hour with a game of darts at a bar near the office. These casual celebrations and gatherings can continue to be relaxed with advance planning, and you will have made sure everyone who wanted to participate will be able to do so.
Forbes published an article last year on maintaining corporate culture in remote work environments. “One of the most important determinants of relationship is proximity. The people we see most and interact with frequently are the people we tend to get closest to. We experience their ups and downs. We know what’s going on in their life and we can understand where they’re coming from. All of this tends to build empathy and connectedness,” Tracy Brower writes.
In addition to in-person office time and lunches, I have experienced the benefits of in-person time when traveling to conferences with my work group. When on video, there is a combination of pressure of speech and distractedness. When in-person, you have hours, or the course of a whole day, where colleagues are physically next to you during which you can casually share reflections and impromptu chatting.
Brower recommends that leaders communicate a “shared purpose” to create a sense of interconnectedness between co-workers. “Leaders will need to be intentional about articulating purpose, discussing the big picture of the overall goals and ensuring people feel their work is uniquely connected and necessary to the success of the organization,” she writes.
Healthy conflict resolution, another characteristic of positive workplace culture, is also harder in a remote environment. It’s easier for misunderstandings to arise via e-mail or time-limited phone and online meetings. When a colleague is in-person with you, you can walk up to their desk and quickly and casually talk through differences. “With hybrid working, leaders and team members will need to be attuned to potential differences and reinforce the need for healthy disagreement—which is civil and respectful and can move thinking forward. Establishing protocols for disagreement and making room for differences of opinion are good places to start,” Brower writes.
The bottom line is there are many benefits to remote work and many things you can’t do from behind a computer screen hundreds, or thousands, of miles away. Remote workers will have to make peace with those limitations and companies will have to find ways of giving remote employees ways to somewhat compensate—and be there in-person when they choose.
If you have a hybrid workforce, how do you preserve your corporate culture when many are rarely, if ever, in-person with their colleagues?