Will working from home damage brand culture?

By Lesley Gulliver, managing director of The Engine Room.

Having spoken about the benefits of working from home for years – before always finding a reason why this simply wasn’t possible – personally, Covid-19 forced a behaviour change that was long overdue. And a quick scroll through social media feeds shows just how many people have likewise benefited from the shift.

It’s therefore unsurprising that remote working looks here to stay, with research from the Institute of Directors suggesting that 74% of businesses intend to maintain permanent home working policies moving forward. However, the IoD’s director of policy, Roger Barker, is also reported to have stressed that: “Working from home doesn’t work for everyone, and directors must be alive to the downsides.”

This is a crucial point.

The mass move to home working proved that businesses didn’t grind to a halt without a physical bricks and mortar presence. Productivity didn’t fall off a cliff. Employees didn’t suddenly go rogue. But it hasn’t been without its challenges.

What about the ‘softer’ stuff?

In the earlier years of our careers particularly, we learn not just from education and formal training, but observation too. We listen in on conversations, soak up the behaviour of others, witness responses, benefit from context, and make mistakes. It’s all part of finding our feet.

So, while we can take steps to encourage this same dialogue when working disparately, experiential learning is undoubtedly jeopardised and the number of informal ‘coffee machine chats’ will have unequivocally fallen. The times when we’d typically pick the brains of a colleague, allay fears, share an idea or even overcome a feeling of embarrassment, don’t really exist anymore – not as naturally, anyway.

This is worrying for many segments of the workforce, not least young people.

Research conducted by Engine Insight discovered that Gen Z and millennial workers are suffering the most from this new world of work, with Mind also finding that the mental health of young people has been particularly affected during lockdown.

I think, had I been in the earlier phases of my career when the mass move to remote working occurred, I’d have felt lost.

From structuring my day and remaining productive, to overcoming the feelings of self-doubt associated with doing a good job, I’d have been overwhelmed, not to mention isolated.

This isn’t just an experience or seniority debate though, nor is it solely linked to the confidence we have in our roles. Some of it is simply about what drives us in the world of work. What we relate to.  What makes us feel safe, content and stimulated.

And so many of these needs are satisfied by an organisation’s culture.

This isn’t to say that remote working has completely eroded culture – on the contrary, we’ve seen some fantastic examples of brands digging deep and demonstrating real authenticity when it comes to their sense of purpose, principles and personality. And these three Ps are often what attract people to want to work for a business in the first place.

But the three Ps are usually reinforced in so many ways, from the social interactions we have, to the way we make decisions and even the surroundings we enjoy in the workplace. So many of these elements – which ordinarily move us all forward in a cohesive direction – are missing when we’re apart, which makes it hard for individuals to keep a collective culture front of mind and alive.

Hard, but not impossible, providing leaders are alert.

If someone is asked to work from home for an extended period of time, will their loyalty to a company fade? Yes, maybe. If their home office becomes their permanent workplace, will they begin to seek different things from an employer? That’s likely too.

These aren’t the only reasons why a ‘hybrid’ approach is crucial to the future of work. But this could be a turning point for company culture – not to mention a true test of a brand’s authenticity.

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