The massive work-from-home experiment that businesses globally have adopted in response to coronavirus-related travel lockdowns has fueled a great debate on the future of offices: Will the practice become a permanent feature for employees? For Steve Schwarzman, CEO and chairman at Blackstone Group, the answer is not likely.
“This working from home is on one hand very efficient,” he said last week during a Sanford C. Bernstein investor conference. “At one of our meetings, somebody said, ‘Well, why don’t we do this all the time?’ And I said, ‘Well, you know, one reason is you can’t train new people like this.’”
Working from home appears to function well for existing employees, Schwarzman said. The crux is in the difficulty for new employees to absorb a company’s culture without personal interaction, he added.
“[T]o run a great organization, you have to keep hiring people,” he said. “Particularly if you as a business are growing, you need more people. And those people have to learn your culture.”
Culture entails many aspects that require picking up cues from the more experienced, established members of a team on how the company does business, Schwarzman said.
“They have to know not just the mechanics of how you do a piece of work, but how do we think about it?” he said. “How do we think about risk? What do we believe is the right and wrong approach to be doing things from an ethical perspective?”
Communications over video can’t easily replicate those informal and formal discussions a team would have in an office setting, Schwarzman said.
“That’s really hard to do on television,” he said. “[Y]ou have to have people sitting around talking about situations. It’s much more iterative.”
But some human capital experts say while new employee training is indeed a likely snag, it’s not impossible to maintain and build a corporate culture through remote technology.
Onboarding is clearly one of the challenges, says Bob Ryan, executive advisor at Shields Meneley Partners, an executive coaching consultancy, and managing partner at the Sierra Institute, a coalition of chief human resource officers.
“There are things that can’t be done as well virtually, and it’s very difficult to build a culture when people are not together,” he says. “Senior management helps to define the culture of an organization… and that’s hard to understand when you don’t see them day to day.”
Onboarding new employees virtually would be a challenge, Ryan says.
“Important training could be lost unless the new [employee] puts in a concerted effort to meeting all of their peers and stakeholders,” he says. “One of the most important groups that you need to learn from is your peers.”
Onboarding in a virtual environment is indeed “suboptimal,” says Laura Queen, CEO at 29Bison, a human capital consultancy.
“[Video] cannot replace face-to-face human contact,” she says.
But there are many ways that companies can still build and maintain culture via remote technology, and even increase productivity using such tools, Queen says.
“You don’t have to have face-to-face contact all of the time,” she adds.
Corporate culture often entails values, beliefs, and assumptions about the work experience transmitted through language and storytelling, Queen says. It’s possible to find new mechanisms to do that via technology, especially through tools that support learning and assimilation, she says.
One tool her team uses is Nuclino, an internal wiki platform where individuals can share intelligence on particular topics, a concept that also can work on communication systems such as Slack. Queen recently posted information about an arcane defined benefit pension question that sometimes comes up with the firm’s clients, so that other colleagues can tap it as a resource in the future, she says.
Ryan says his team has built a customized, confidential customer relationship management platform to similarly share internal information, specifically in response to the recent work-from-home shift.
Ongoing regular training and development can even be more effective in virtual settings, because many professionals have proven their willingness to participate and shown the ability to focus even better in video meetings, Ryan says. Zoom, Skype, and Microsoft Teams are all effective for such gatherings.
“What I am hearing over and over again is that virtual meetings are going to become a more consistent part of the future,” he says.
A bigger question that companies face is whether their embrace of working from home capabilities will define their identity to the marketplace, Queen says.
“If your viewpoint is that culture can’t be transmitted virtually, then it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” she says. “Long term it may be that [a firm] attracts people who are more willing to work face-to-face and less willing to work in a virtual environment. And that says to people who want a work-from-home opportunity, that [this firm] is not a place for you.”
That may become an important distinction, she adds, because working from home has gotten a big stage to showcase its utility.
“I think the horse has left the barn for knowledge workers with regard to the work-from-home situation,” she says. “There is an expectation that if you’re going to be a credible competitive attractive employer you’re going to have to provide some [level] of remote work [capabilities].”