Editor's Plate: How Will Remote Work Change Your Company's Culture?

Sept. 8, 2021
Retaining unity will be a challenge when everybody is a remote employee.

Like a lot of people right now, I have given up the office permanently, officially, to become a remote employee. What that means to me and my company will slowly become clear over the coming months. That same story applies to thousands of workers in the food & beverage industry, as well as to the hundreds of companies that employ them.

The National Bureau of Economic Research says 20% of all work in the U.S. after the pandemic will be done by remote employees, up from 5% before the pandemic. Some people think that 20% estimate is low.

Much gets written about work culture and shared company values, and for a magazine like ours that covers all job titles in the food & beverage industry, that means at least three very different constituencies. The plant-floor people will undoubtedly stay put – you can’t run a machine from your basement office – although the vice presidents of engineering, manufacturing or supply chain may be able to take advantage. The R&D/product development people may or may not be able to work from home. Many did over the pandemic, but out of necessity, and the ones we talked to said the experience wasn’t optimal. The suits – executives, sales and marketing – probably can WFH without missing a beat.

But your company will be different. The work will still get done, but teamwork will be more difficult, even with all the web-based tools that came to the fore during the pandemic. The soul of any company is a collective, living breathing thing; how can the soul remain intact when all the body parts have been severed?

I’ve had an office at this company, Putman Media, for 20 years, and I dwelled in an office or a cubical or desk at other companies for more than 40 years. For better or worse, my personality – sometimes cheery, collegial, even boisterous, sometime argumentative – helped to define those bigger offices. Mostly for the better, I hope. But now my character and those of 20 or so other characters – about two-thirds of our office from early 2020 – will be defined by emails, phone calls and an occasional video meeting.

Putman Media has had remote employees for probably all of its 80-some years. But now remote could mean down the street, not just across the country. For all that we’re saving in office space rental, there’s a lot we’re losing, too.

Being a smaller and family-owned and -run company, you could feel the culture. There was always wine in the refrigerator, corned beef (and green beer) on St. Patrick’s Day, for years there were doughnuts every Monday. Employees that bought into that culture became a part of the family. So when anyone else in the “family” asked you to do something not exactly in your job description, that maybe took you past 5 p.m., you did it … like you would for your brother or sister.

When you’re looking at data on a computer screen, it’s too easy to focus on metrics and productivity. Recall how much more you learned over lunch, whether with one person or a small group. Or over drinks after work. And from an unexpected hallway meeting with an employee with tearful eyes.

While there are a lot of married and near-retirement people like me, you probably have some young, single people, too. How will they learn from the more experienced folks? How will they get mentored? Look out for signs of loneliness or mental health issues.

HR people will be more important. I’m sure they’re studying all the research and recommendations. I see articles that suggest restating or maybe defining for the first time the “company values” and finding new ways to reinforce and apply them. When Covid finally does disappear, create activities that bring remote workers together: a company meeting, lunches, a day or evening at the local baseball park.

I actually got a little emotional when I packed the last box from my office. Now I feel like I’m babbling away here, but there’s nobody in the next office or cubicle for me to babble to anymore. It’s the end of an era for me. Maybe it’s my age and having done something the same way for over 40 years that makes me so worried about company culture. But, no matter what department you’re in, know that you’re part of a bigger, living organism, and do you best to remain a contributing part of it.