In times of crisis we reach for nostalgia, looking back to periods when the world seemed a better place. In recent months a new wave of workplace nostalgia has crept into our psyche. Even the most humdrum aspects of life in the office have taken on positive qualities as we reminisce from our isolated home workstations. The stressful daily commute now seems like the ideal opportunity for a bit of ‘me time’. Catching the early morning train for a short client meeting on the other side of country now sounds like a delicious day out. We even miss the routine office birthday celebrations as yet another employee cuts a Colin the Caterpillar cake.
The fact of the matter is that building and sustaining corporate culture is much easier in a physical environment, where the more mundane activities and functional tasks we have to fulfil are balanced by the emotional benefits of bonding with workmates, celebrating together, learning from others and chance encounters that change our careers. Working remotely has thrown us off-balance into a monotonous routine, and all work and no play makes us susceptible to a ‘culture by default’ defined by the dull yet equally pernicious cousin of burnout – ‘boreout’.
It is possible to replicate some of the office rituals in a remote working world. The fake commute, in which people replace the daily transition with some other beneficial activity like cycling or running, has an increasing number of advocates, as does the walking meeting once popularised by Steve Jobs. Here at The Argyll Club we bid farewell to a departing member of staff with a personalised video, and the Swedish tradition of Fika, where colleagues take breaks together at set times of the day and speak about non-work-related topics, is equally straightforward online. However, some rituals are very difficult to replicate or cannot be replaced at all. Google’s ‘Noogler’ beanie hat, complete with propeller, which has to be worn by new recruits in the office, cannot have the same bonding effect if starters are dispersed across the country and on-boarded via video conference. And AirBnb’s tradition of sending off leavers with an ‘insanely long’ human tunnel in their main lobby (which the departing staff would run through amid confetti bombs and shouts of encouragement) is dead in the water.
The threat is that if we don’t find a way of bringing energy and a sense of creativity, innovation and belonging into remote work, we risk de-valuing if not destroying the unique culture of our organisations. Whether it’s the ritual of office banter, the serendipitous chat or even as small a thing as the curiosities on your teammate’s desks, the power of symbolic objects, habits and routines are not to be underestimated. Their ability to bring people together and provide a sense of purpose and wellbeing are an antidote to demotivation and the risk of losing talent in the post-pandemic world.