Call me a heretic, but I don’t think remote work is the wave of the future — not to the extent that breathless prognosticators are predicting. While there are exceptions to every rule, I’m convinced working from home will, and should, continue to be the exception in how we go about business.
Oh, sure, there’s a place for remote work, better enabled each day by innovative technology. But working together in one place, the way it used to be, is the way it should be. And the way it will be — at least for the most successful companies.
My firm has quietly operated based on this principle for some time, but it was further reinforced the other day when I heard about the CEO of a 100-person company that drank the Kool-Aid and took his operation fully remote. He is now having big regrets. He says there’s no longer any way for him to get an effective “pulse” on the culture. That the feedback loops on which he used to rely are hamstrung. That a vocal and influential minority is effectively holding the company hostage from any talk about returning to the office. Despite saving the money that used to go to leasing space, the company’s margins are suffering, too. And he feels powerless to put things back where they should be.
I suspect tales like these are just the tip of the iceberg, given how fashionable it has been lately to conjecture about how much the lockdown forever changed our work life. The “forever” part is not much in dispute, but I think the degree to which some rather consequential changes are being embraced is misguided, because one thing you can’t change is human nature.
Here are five things about human nature that make it advisable to come back together whenever and wherever we can.
1. People are social
Two years ago, some in the travel industry were wringing their hands, fearing that in-person conventions would forever dry up. That was never going to happen. Ours wasn’t the first pandemic, and all one had to do to see how things were going to play out was look at how previous contagions ended. Within a few years things had returned to normal. People need people — even the introverts among us like being around others (as long as the rules of engagement are well-defined).
2. People are sensory
The world feels flat when the extent of our human interaction consists of two-dimensional images on a 19-inch screen. There’s no use for peripheral vision. No hugs, handshakes or pats on the back. No comparing notes over a shared meal. No body language or heavy sighs by which we pick up so much meaning in human interaction. Sure, working remotely can make us more productive (at times). But making so much of who we are inaccessible comes with a cost.
3. People collaborate
“Collaborate” originates from Latin and refers to working together with others. Remote work happens, by definition, without others, and videoconferences are lousy counterfeits. We throw the term “corporate culture” around without realizing that “corporate” literally refers to being “united in one body.” In my firm, one of our conference rooms came to be nicknamed the “Co-Lab” because people so often gathered there to collaborate on experiments. Working together increased both their effectiveness and their esprit de corps — “the spirit of the body.”
4. People are loyal
We humans are naturally loyal to our families, clans and tribes. A company is a type of clan in which people, to one degree or another, cultivate a sense of loyalty through proximity and mutual purpose. It’s neither perfect nor permanent, but you can’t remove proximity from the equation without weakening the ties that bind. All other things being equal, who’s more likely to get promoted: the person who has face-to-face meetings and impromptu hallway conversations with the rest of the team, or the one who’s out of sight and out of mind?
5. People get distracted
When I have a deadline barreling down on me, hiding out in my home office does help me get stuff done. But there are times when the work ebbs more than flows and if I’m at home during those times it’s easy to get, to put it gently, unfocused.
My first professional job was remote, and in those pre-Internet days I couldn’t even go online to sharpen my skills or do additional research when I didn’t have enough to do. To ensure I wasn’t unproductive, I ended up reading more than a dozen marketing books that year, figuring that at least I was investing in professional development. But I had to work at working. In the office, there’s always something more to do.
Healthy corporate cultures are built around common beliefs, united sympathies and communal practices, all of which are best fostered in a shared environment and all of which suffer at a distance. While my company’s culture was strong enough to withstand extended time apart during the lockdown, we regathered as soon as possible to foster the connections so critical to our success. Some members of our team continue to work remotely, but only because we value them so much that we didn’t want to lose them when life took them elsewhere; we (and they) work diligently to ensure they can be here in person whenever possible.
Remote work is terrific when you have a head cold, get snowed in or need uninterrupted time to focus. But business, like all of life, is about relationships, and relationships are about being together.
Steve McKee is the co-founder of McKee Wallwork + Co., a marketing advisory firm that specializes in turning around stalled, stuck, and stale companies. McKee is the author of When Growth Stalls and Power Branding.