In March of 2020, a trend that was already partially underway rapidly accelerated with the arrival of the COVID 19 virus. Work from home on Friday’s, and maybe on Monday’s became a work from home necessity five days a week.
I remember my last business trip prior to the onset of the pandemic. I was the president of Retail at TD Ameritrade and we had just signed an agreement to sell the company to Charles Schwab.
The trip was to Omaha, Nebraska to meet with my new Charles Schwab colleagues. Little did I know that would be my last business trip until the pandemic started to abate almost eighteen months later. Like the rest of the country, I would need to adjust to working from home.
Suddenly our leadership team had to pivot. We now needed to focus on how to effectively lead a large, complex, multi-faceted organization with millions of clients, millions of daily trades and investments, and thousands of associates. It was not easy. We had to quickly address remote technology, recruiting, training, communicating, and introduce new ways to maintain an engaged remote workforce. It wasn’t easy, but after a short time, we began to hit our stride.
During this time the stock market was rising rapidly, and a new phenomenon called meme stock trading in names such as GameStop, AMC, Bed Bath and Beyond, and Robinhood drove massive trading volumes. Against that backdrop, the company needed to hire thousands of new associates to keep up with the onslaught of phone calls, trades, back-office paperwork, and other forms of volume related activity.
Over the next few months, during a global pandemic our team recruited, trained, licensed, and onboarded thousands of new associates, all virtually allowing us to better handle the increased client activity levels. It was truly a remarkable achievement.
Over time, I noticed a worrisome trend. Our still relatively new virtual remote associates began to run a noticeably higher attrition rate than associates who had been with the company at the start of the pandemic. I was curious what was driving this trend so I asked the HR team to look at the exit interview and exit survey data to see what we might learn.
The data was alarming, but in retrospect not surprising. These virtually hired associates gave us some great insights about their experience. They told us that at best they had a very loose, or virtually (no pun intended) no connection or commitment to the company. Their employment was much more of a transaction than a relationship.
Try as we might to engage these virtual associates, not a single one of them had never stepped foot in one of our facilities or met their manager or company leadership face to face. They never had the opportunity to have lunch with their teammates or go out after work and socialize as a team. In essence, they did not have a relationship with their teams, their leadership, or the company. It should be no surprise then that when another company came calling and offered more money, or a better schedule to sit in their basement and provide similar kinds of customer service in substantially the same role, the decision was easy. Their lack of a physical distance to the company and its associates had created distance from the company’s culture.
A company’s culture is the glue that holds organizations together. As Noah Rabinowitz, senior partner and global head of Hay Group’s Leadership Development Practices said “Culture is the X-factor. It’s the invisible glue that holds an organization together and ultimately makes the difference between whether an organization is able to succeed in the market or not.”
If today’s quasi virtual work environment is to persist, leaders must find ways to attach their remote associates to their company’s culture. Otherwise, this trend will become a fad which will completely disappear over the coming years.