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‘Interpersonal’ relationships will decide if place matters in the future of work

The ever-present question: Will place matter to companies in 2021 and beyond? If you follow the money, no — but if it's your heart in charge, maybe it does.

Remote work. (Photo by Flickr user Daniel Foster, used via a Creative Commons license)

With the explosion of remote work during the pandemic, has frequently posed the questions of whether place still matters and how workplace culture can be affected by the absence of a shared space.

For many organizational leaders, remote work on paper seems like a no-brainer, if productivity is the same and overhead is down because companies don’t have to pay rent at private offices or coworking spaces.

But the flipside of that coin is the things that don’t show up on a spreadsheet.

“I think remote work and the carrying costs associated with corporate real estate holdings is more prohibitive vs. less prohibitive,” said Derek Siler, solution architect at Flexential, speaking on a panel Philly Tech Week 2021 presented by Comcast’s Introduced by conference. “It’s really going to come down to something interpersonal, in terms of how do workers feel about working remotely vs. in a true team environment in that classic sense of the word where they’re literally surrounded by their peers.”

Some like Baltimore’s Think|Stack, which had a faction of remote workers before COVID, found that those employees enjoyed the transition to the whole company going remote the most because it evened the playing field.

“Previously, [remote workers] may miss out on some of the water cooler conversations or those ad hoc collaborative sessions,” said Think|Stack COO Andrea DiGiacomo. “Now we’re all remote. We all have to call each other.”

Siler projects that preference will break down intergenerationally, with older folks preferring in person and younger being more comfortable with remote work.

However, if there is one issue with being fully remote DiGiacomo has found, it’s onboarding and training new members to a team — especially the younger ones. Those “hey, quick question” moments with a junior team member aren’t there, and it’s required a more intentional approach to integrating people and cultivating workplace culture and positive rapport.

“It’s very intimidating in a lot of ways to be brand new [at a company] in a virtual world when you’re used to being in person,” DiGiacomo said.

“It’s really hard to start a career when all your professional networks are Zoom boxes,” agreed Kevin Benedicto of law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius’ San Francisco office.

As the workforce trends increasingly toward remote work, that culture question gets bigger and bigger. Benedicto doesn’t believe the hybrid model quite solves it.

“If you do optional two days, it’s like less than the sum of its parts,” Benedicto said. “The only people coming in are the new hires who want this connection. They won’t have that mid-level or senior person to grab coffee with. Just because you add two or three days [in office] doesn’t mean you solve 50% of the problem, [as if] it’s going to be exactly like it used to be on those two days. It’s a more complicated question.”

The issue of place doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all solution. On one hand, there are the benefits of a widening talent pool, with cut costs and a diversification of tech hubs in the United States. On the other, workplace culture is difficult to maintain and those new hires are having difficulty integrating into a new culture. The only certainty is that it’s a new frontier for work, life and everything in between.

Watch these experts’ full conversation here:

Donte Kirby is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation.
Companies: Morgan Lewis
Series: How to Work Remotely

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