How to Transition Back to the “Water Cooler” Culture?

This year, summer ushers in something a bit more than sundowners and a well-deserved vacation: gradual ease into normalization and returning to the office. Several companies plan to return to the offices (partially or fully) as of September. Conferences and festivals are preparing for their debuts. BigTech companies seem to have different approaches, but this is what’s coming sooner or later. The question is, are we ready to go back? Or more precisely are we ready to build a “new normal”? 

Digital natives with a willingness to work from anywhere in the world, combined with the new generation of social media jobs (youtubers, influencers, etc.) that allow flexible working conditions have already prepared us for a non-office-centric working culture. However, the unexpected lockdowns forced even the most old-school companies to enable remote working overnight, and (prepared or not prepared) remote working became the new norm. 

Statistics reveal that 56% of companies globally allow remote work, and 16% of companies work one hundred percent remotely. In Luxembourg, according to a Statec study, 69% of the employees have switched to remote work due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis. Out of this percentage, almost half have completed all their tasks from home, while 21% alternated between home and company office. 31% of respondents said they had continued to go to work. 

Even the most control loving executives have seen the economic value in remote working: there is a significant cost decrease and employees seem to work more efficiently and longer hours due to lack of office chit-chat, commute, and work/life separation. In addition, allowing home office enables companies to reach their sustainability goals too; according to Greenpeace research, the home office approach can spare over 5 MIO ton CO2 due to lack of office commute.

Nevertheless, due to many reasons, including lack of control and oversight, communication frictions, insufficient home office infrastructures, or security vulnerabilities, some employers started preparing for a partial or complete return until the end of the year. Although remote working seems to be the new norm, in verticals such as the financial sector, where sensitive data is at stake, going back appears to be the only choice to prevent the data and cybersecurity breaches that seem to have increased in the last year. Some even predict a total return to the five-day office norms within two years. In Luxembourg, due to the specific situation of cross-border workers, fully working from home is probably not a sustainable situation, as it could impact locally the economy.  

 The employees might need to go back, but are they really willing to? After interviewing around 1,500 professionals, Harvard Business School found out that 81% of the workforce either don’t want to go back to the office or would prefer a hybrid schedule going forward. According to the research results, 1-in-3 felt both their overall performance and quality of work were better than the year prior, and 1-in-3 could better focus on work from home. The majority of the concern for going back to the office seems to arise from the fear of facing non-vaccinated colleagues and the increased life quality during the home office term.

Source: Harvard Business School Online

A survey conducted by LiveCareer in the US reveals that 30% of remote workers are ready to leave their jobs if the option to work remotely was taken away from them. The same survey indicates that although home distractions, motivation, communication, collaboration, loneliness, unplugging, and lack of creativity constituted a challenge during remote work periods; the flexibility, improved work-life balance, the feeling of safety, increased productivity and the possibility to acquire new career related skills made this way of working more attractive for them. 

Although in 2020, the initial reaction was to keep the remote culture for longer terms, after experiencing it for more than a year, some employees seem to have had enough of it. Turning our heads to the trendsetter employees, BigTech companies, they seem to have different approaches when it comes to remote working: Google is opening its offices soon but expects 20% of its employees to work from home, some for a longer period each year  (four weeks) and some permanently. Amazon plans to gradually end the remote work, depending on the regional availabilities, and eventually “return to an office-centric culture as baseline.” Twitter, the rebel on the block, has been encouraging a permanent remote working culture for some time now, and the same courtesy has been extended to Square employees recently. Facebook is on the same page and even predicts to have a 50% rate of remote working in the next couple of years.

Looking at the reactions, Wall Street players and banks are not embracing the remote working culture as the tech companies do. In a recent statement, Goldman Sachs CEO said the remote-work culture is an “aberration” that needs to be corrected “as quickly as possible.” He seems to believe that the nature of business within the financial sector clashes with the work-from-home model. Jamie Dimon, the CEO of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., appears to confirm this point as well. Referring to the juniors, he raised his concerns by raising the critical question, “How do you build a culture and character? How are you going to learn properly?” 

The Right Answer

If you were experiencing a build-up until this point and expected us to sort this question out for you, you are at the wrong place. There is no standard right answer when it comes to home office decisions. The decision will depend on the characters and needs of your employees, costs, infrastructures, and workspace capabilities. Although a hybrid culture is recommended to benefit from the advantages of both worlds, it will be tricky to set a one size fits all solution due to work and employee characteristics, tax and social security regulations. What is certain is that it is not possible to limit employees using old excuses anymore. In the near future, remote working is likely to become a complementary part of employee benefit packages and working contracts.

All in all, regardless of whether the employers will enable full or partial/hybrid remote working options (e.g., enforcing work-from-home days every week or enabling during traveling, several weeks per year), it looks like they need to invest in tools that ensure safe, frictionless communication and collaboration between teams just in case. However, considering the current state of the world, assuming that setting up a Zoom account would suffice would be pretty wrong. As crucial as critical infrastructures, employers are expected to invest in the remote working culture and ease the transition into distant, hybrid, or office-centric working cultures.

What is certain? The following months will be crucial for employers in shaping the (remote or not-so-remote) working cultures. With some employees eager to go back to the water cooler and some ready to quit if they do, employers are in a real dilemma to balance productivity, costs, and collaboration. Not enabling the requested and needing working culture will result in the loss of valuable talent and know-how.

Next Steps

  • Ask and Evaluate: If you are not sure which way is the right way for you (or even if you are very confident like the Wall Street CEOs), asking your employees would be crucial when defining your working culture. Ask your employees and evaluate the situation on a department and even personal basis since different needs come from different personalities and working styles.
  • Number Crunching: Instead of hiding behind classical excuses, analyze the cost and gains of the remote working period using data. How much of your recurring costs have been spared? What was the impact on your carbon footprint? Were you able to reach your KPIs? 
  • Competitor Overview: Do not forget to include the competitor landscape and their practices as a data point in the analysis.
  • Adapt: Whether it’s about the business models or the company culture, adaptability is the key. It doesn’t matter how things have been done in this company for the past sixty years. What matters is that times are changing, and to keep up, you need to remain adaptable with your working culture (much like your products and services).

How to Make the Most of Remote Working?

  • Create Home Office Structures: Create manuals and plans before all your employees start knocking on your HR department’s or your door. Invest in the right IT, cloud, collaboration, and communication infrastructure before it comes to another pandemic or disaster so that you are ready. Come up with new KPI and output structures.
  • Invest in your employee’s home office infrastructures: Regardless of whether you enable weekly or annual home office days, make sure that your employees have the proper hardware and ergonomic equipment to work from home. This will not ensure employee happiness along with productivity. Create stretch breaks or offer home office work-out coach support to your employees 
  • Make remote working a part of your compensation package: Some companies already offer home office and remote working possibilities, along with co-working space memberships in their compensation packages. If you are not ready to give up your office-centric culture, be prepared to negotiate alternative deals to keep employee retention high.
  • No-call days: Remote calls can feel more intense than in person meetings. Ensure no-call days per week to boost productivity, creativity and to get things done without interruptions and distractions.

How to Transition Back to the Office?

  • Ease it in: Do not rush to go back to the office. Try to ease the office return with a hybrid set-up for a while, do testing runs and evaluate the results. Do not bring everyone at once, but gradually increase the number of employees, starting with those who actually do want to return.
  • Move according to the plan: Create an action plan involving as many stakeholders as possible and move according to the plan (office time and core working hours, maximum number of people allowed in rooms, room airing instructions, alternative workspaces and times, no-call days). Draft a manual including the new office norms and distribute it to employees; give them time to understand, digest and contribute. 

Source: Harvard Business School Online

  • Use external help: Use external coaches when needed to support your plan, create new habits and invest in employee well-being. A significant portion of remote workers started developing unhealthy or bad habits. According to HBS research, 34% of employees felt burnt out, %10 caught COVID, and %17 lost someone to COVID. 69% feel worried about the world. Provide therapists, rehabilitation, or personal coach support when needed as some individuals suffered more (mentally or physically) during the pandemic, and some employees are likely to have a more challenging time going back. 
  • Social distancing: Even sometime after everyone is fully vaccinated, your employees might suffer from the pandemic trauma and might need some distance. Make sure to arrange your workspace and meeting rooms according to social distancing and including all necessary personal hygiene tools.  Offer stress-free zones to decrease anxiety levels in the office.
  • Motivation: To keep the motivation level afloat, organize team-building activities and after-work events to re-create the bond and affirm your unique culture. 
  • Plan B: Start working on a Plan B in case there is another unforeseeable global health crisis and/or lockdown.
  • Create a fun work environment: “Going to work” is much more than having a desk, it is about social connection, exchange with colleagues, team building and company culture. 



by S. Elif Kocaoglu Ulbrich


The LHoFT Foundation

The LHoFT Foundation is a not-for-profit initiative supported by the public & private sector to drive innovation for, and digitialisation of Luxembourg’s financial services industry. The LHoFT is the national platform and central hub for Fintech, working to connect the domestic and international community to solve challenges and address opportunities that will ensure the Financial Industry’s continued competitiveness.

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