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Could working from home kill your small-business culture?

By Ryan Gair
26 October 2022 | 11 minute read
RYAN GAIR K 1 p2qgph

This chief executive isn’t afraid to say he hates the work-from-home culture that has arisen from the pandemic. But what’s so good about working in the office?

The pandemic was disastrous for business. I’m not talking about how the combination of sick people and lockdowns affected the economy — both of which were bad enough on their own — I’m talking about the destruction of small-business culture that started when working from home became the “norm”. 

Productivity plummeted. People missed phone calls and emails; tasks weren’t done as quickly; communication was simply harder because instead of an opportunistic two-minute chat as you’re walking by someone’s desk, every interaction was a scheduled Zoom meeting. It became a habit for people to start a load of washing, then get food without checking in with colleagues — an otherwise natural and regular occurrence on a normal work day in an office. In short, it was a task to get around to a task.

Regaining small-business culture

In corporations, it’s possible to soften a loss of productivity with enough staff to cover various business activities; in a small business, you need everyone to be on board and together to synergise. When the team worked from home, this energy was scattered, and nobody knew what anybody else was doing. I’m not saying people slacked off. We were all doing the best we could given the circumstances, and plenty of our people worked well autonomously. But it was clear that in the depths of COVID, people lost motivation and their mental health suffered, and this was not something Zoom could fix.

It took two business days for our office to snap back to pre-COVID culture. The first couple of days, we had to deal with the awkwardness of seeing each other in person after so many online meetings and emails, but pretty soon, we got back into the groove.

It got me thinking about the advantages of forming an office-based culture. When you are co-located, the peripheral aspects of work make a huge difference.

Collaboration: You can collaborate more easily across teams as well as overhear conversations and contribute spontaneously. Small talk can become big talk and grow into ideas. It’s definitely easier to bounce ideas off one another and build momentum; there’s something about body language and tone that comes off better in person than on the phone or Zoom.

Relationships: You get better output from a tight office environment than working from home because we are all visibly contributing to the success of the business, and that sparks motivation. All this drives culture and relationships; it gets people rolling in the same direction because we’re all on the same page at the same stage — we feel that we are a team.

Routine: The value of having a routine cannot be understated. I don’t necessarily subscribe to the rigidity of Monday to Friday, nine to five, but there’s something comforting about knowing that people are going to be in the office consistently. If a staff member needs to pop out at midday for an appointment or needs to work from home one day because they have a plumber coming, I don’t require them to fill in a leave form — I’m flexible enough to allow for that. But knowing what a typical day is for each of the team makes it easier to co-ordinate activities and provide structure for that culture to thrive. Our salespeople are regularly on the road, but having them come into the office helps to bind the team together.

A difficult conversation

A lot of workplaces now allow staff to work from home or offer a hybrid model. For us, I’m adamant that we retain an office-based culture. Those employees who started with us before the pandemic agreed to work in the office, and I don’t think this post-lockdown period should change that. For future candidates who might ask for a work-from-home or hybrid role, I’m firm on continuing an office-based culture. It’s important to me, it’s important to the business, and I don’t think I want people to work for me who aren’t on board with that.

There’s something about the camaraderie you build, the ability to joke, chat casually and have fun, that helps people develop a rapport with each other that’s so important to enjoying work. Let’s not lose that to work-from-home silos.

Ryan Gair is the chief executive of Rate Money.

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