The workplace has changed dramatically. It's up to leaders to make the most of it.
According to a February 2022 Gallup study of over 12,000 U.S. employees, about four in 10 workers are currently either hybrid (working remotely part of the week) or working entirely from home. What's more, regardless of their current situation, nearly seven in 10 workers say they would prefer to be fully remote or hybrid.
Furthermore, about eight in 10 "remote-capable employees" -- whose job can be done remotely at least part of the time -- are currently hybrid or fully remote. A staggering nine in 10 of these remote-capable workers want to be fully remote or hybrid.
In response to this desire for remote work flexibility, employers are making long-term plans for what their future offices and workweeks will look like.
Our latest forecasts overwhelmingly indicate that hybrid work schedules will become the new norm for most offices.
Not surprisingly, some leaders are worried. No doubt the challenges are real. In many ways, organizations have had to reinvent their workplaces on the fly. The hope, for some at least, was that this was all temporary.
It's now clear that leaders must embrace the benefits and opportunities of a hybrid work world -- larger pools of talent, the ability to retain workers through life changes, and even more productive employees who get to create a work life that suits them best.
But there's a danger in making hybrid work only about office hours and scheduling. It also has to be about purposeful design -- creating a flexible work arrangement that fosters a distinctive culture, effective team collaboration and meaningful relationships. Nevertheless, managing hybrid work doesn't need to be complex.
Below are the four essential dynamics of hybrid work that you need to keep in mind when developing your workplace's future.
Dynamic 1: Engagement + Wellbeing
How does employee engagement change from in-office to remote?
Employee engagement remains an essential driver of employee performance, on-site or remote. And yet, Gallup research reveals that it's not enough to be engaged; we need high wellbeing as well.
Many founders and CEOs have been experiencing what Adam Grant calls "languishing." For example, Monzo founder Tom Blomfield resigned last year due to stress, burnout and poor mental wellbeing. Who is more engaged than the founder and CEO of a company? It's no longer enough to just be engaged at work. We need more.
Here's what the data are telling us: Engagement and wellbeing are working differently in remote situations. Gallup's February 2022 study indicates that engagement is highest for those who are hybrid or fully remote. Engagement is lowest for fully on-site workers whose job responsibilities can be at least partially performed remotely (i.e., remote-capable workers).
In contrast, fully remote workers are experiencing less burnout than all other remote-capable employees, while fully on-site workers have the highest burnout. As offices transition to hybrid arrangements and challenges associated with managing schedules arise, it will be important to monitor employee burnout. Flexible work arrangements and extreme employee autonomy can quickly morph into a 24/7 work experience that becomes difficult to turn off outside of normal business hours.
Custom graphic. Among workers who are fully remote, 27% feel burned out at work and 37% are engaged. Among those who are sometimes remote, 30% are burned out and 37% are engaged. And among those who never work remotely, 35% are burned out and 30% are engaged.
Gallup data suggest that a lot depends on the role. Not all roles experience engagement and wellbeing in the same way. For instance, according to 2019 Gallup Panel data collected before the pandemic, financial advisers and real estate agents saw a more extreme bump in engagement along with a rise in burnout when they worked from home more often.
Custom graphic. Among those working as financial advisers or insurance or real estate agents, people who work remotely full time are more engaged and more burned out. 65% who work remotely full time are engaged and 27% are burned out, compared with 56% engaged and 23% burned out among those who work remotely sometimes. And for those who rarely or never work remotely, 34% are engaged and 18% burned out.
On the other hand, accountants did not experience any bump in engagement from remote or hybrid work, and yet they still experienced increased burnout.
Custom graphic. Among accountants and CPAs who work fully remote, 48% are engaged and 30% are burned out. Those who work partly remote show 48% engaged and 24% burned out, while those who work almost fully on-site are 49% engaged and 22% burned out.
Some roles, such as administrative assistants, showed both decreased engagement and increased burnout when working remotely.
Tracking how roles are affected by a return to the office or long-term hybrid work will be essential going forward. It's important to make sure your employees are seeing a net-positive benefit of hybrid work and not just the negatives.
Getting both wellbeing and engagement right is worth the effort.
As the pandemic revealed, wellbeing is about much more than physical health. Financial stress, social isolation and disconnection from one's community all take their toll on our ability to live happy, productive lives. Gallup has identified five elements of wellbeing that contribute to a thriving life: career, social, financial, community and physical wellbeing.
Compared with employees who have high engagement but low wellbeing, those who are engaged and have high wellbeing in at least four of the five elements are 30% more likely not to miss any workdays because of poor health in any given month. They also miss 70% fewer workdays because of poor health over the course of a year. In addition, employees who are engaged and have high wellbeing are:
- 27% more likely to report excellent performance in their role
- 45% more likely to report high levels of adaptability in the presence of change
- 37% more likely to report always recovering fully after an illness, injury or hardship
- 59% less likely to look for a job with a different organization in the next 12 months
In addition, specific engagement elements can create greater resilience. Gallup has identified which employee engagement items best differentiate resilient business unit cultures from others during times of disruption:
- clear expectations
- the right materials and equipment
- opportunities for employees to do what they do best
- connection to the mission or purpose of the organization
- coworkers committed to quality work
When individuals strongly agree that all five of these resilience factors are in place, they are 31% more likely than average to say they are always able to bounce back from illness or hardship, three times more likely than average to strongly agree their organization has the right tools and processes to respond quickly to business needs, and 2.5 times more likely than average to strongly agree their organization has the right mindset to respond quickly to business needs. Essentially, they believe both they and their organization can bounce back and be agile in the face of great change and hardship.
Action Items for Leaders
- Add employee wellbeing to your leadership dashboard. Understand the interplay between wellbeing and engagement, and identify high-risk roles or business units.
- Ask your direct reports how they are doing, and care about the answer. Really listen.
- Ask your team regularly how they are managing work and life -- not for balance, but for what is right for them.
Dynamic 2: Fairness + Inclusion
Who wins and who loses in a hybrid workplace?
The pandemic created new kinds of equality, in some ways. When even the CEO was on a Zoom call from his house, with kids and dogs in the background, it changed the dynamic of meetings. Some people have noted that video meetings are more inclusive and that people are more likely to speak up on video or in a sidebar chat than they are in in-person meetings.
Based on feedback from our clients, many remote workers who once felt left out have grown closer to their team during the pandemic. Suddenly, their experience and comfort with the remote work lifestyle seemed valued and appreciated in a new way.
On the other hand, the pandemic also exposed differences. Many employees could not work from home. Leaders recognized that these people were essential to providing front-line services, which put them at greater risk. They needed extra support, attention and recognition.
As we move toward a hybrid work future, leaders have to consider how to make differences in work styles feel fair to everyone. For example, as employers offer more work options, certain groups are more likely to take advantage of them. But are there hidden costs to flexibility? For example, if key decisions are made in hallway conversations at work, some employees may be left out by default. Or, if working mothers take advantage of time or location flexibility, does this harm their ability to advance in the organization?
Gallup's 2020-2021 data show that during the pandemic, the more someone worked from home, the less likely they were to say they were getting weekly feedback from their manager. In essence, the more you are out of sight, the more likely you are out of mind.
Custom graphic. Among those who are fully remote, 42% say they get weekly feedback from their manager. People who are sometimes remote show 52% weekly feedback, while those who are never remote show 55%.
At heart, these are questions of inclusion -- making everyone feel appreciated for their uniqueness while simultaneously making everyone feel like they belong in the group. Leaders must pay attention to subtle ways that new hybrid or flexible policies can ostracize certain employees.
Action Items for Leaders
- Audit your perks, benefits and hybrid policies for equity and inclusion. Include surveys and focus groups to understand who's taking advantage of what perks, and why. Consider who's being left out.
- Intentionally plan on having regular conversations with each of your direct reports.
- Include your direct reports in important decisions.
Leaders must pay attention to subtle ways that new hybrid or flexible policies can ostracize certain employees.
Dynamic 3: Trust + Productivity
What do we really mean by productivity?
The pandemic has exposed how much of corporate productivity was measured by presenteeism. If I see you at a desk and you look busy, you're being productive. If I can't see you, and I can't see if you're busy, you're not being productive.
We all instinctively knew that this was not a good measure of true productivity. Simply showing up and filling a seat never added up to exceptional outcomes. And increased monitoring of employees never added up to greater employee responsibility and ownership of their work.
The pandemic has put all of our bad practices to the test. And, surprisingly, a lot of managers discovered that employees were as or more productive working from home than in the office. Conversations, now via video or phone, were more intentional and focused -- perhaps even less intimidating. Gallup data show that employee engagement soared at the start of the pandemic, likely due to increased communication, support and care shown by managers and leaders. How could so many workers have improved their engagement and performance when so many people predicted that teams would struggle with productivity?
The path to performance excellence is built on trust and relationships, not increased monitoring or arbitrary metrics of busyness. Employee engagement captures the intrinsic motivation of workers when they feel supported and connected to their team. Great managers generate trust through relationships; they unlock intrinsic motivation that drives productivity to new levels.
Moreover, with true accountability comes brave and honest feedback, which is enhanced through trusting relationships. As we move toward a hybrid workplace, these truths are not just good advice -- they are essential to effective work. How do I lead people when I can't see them? How do I trust people when I'm not watching them? How do I know my team members will meet their commitments? How can I offer greater flexibility without losing control of expectations?
Action Items for Leaders
- Reengineer your performance management systems for a new era. Build your strategy around people by training your managers to be true developmental performance coaches.
- Connect individual development plans to competencies that help inspire trust among managers and their people.
- Coach leaders to find more value in productivity metrics and behaviors than in busyness metrics.
Dynamic 4: Relationships + Culture
How do we craft a distinctive organizational identity that transcends distance?
Many companies are worried about the erosion of working relationships, leading to the corrosion of their hard-won workplace culture. If you aren't working with someone directly, it's quite easy to not see them for long periods. This may be a reason that many leaders wish to see everyone back in the office: They recognize that relationships are the lifeblood of their organization. Is a remote or hybrid team really a team? Where's the camaraderie, the bonding, the warmth?
Before the pandemic, many rang the alarm on pervasive loneliness in modern society. Work, at least, was one of the few places where people socialized. But as more organizations move to remote or hybrid work, that risk of loneliness is likely going to become only more acute.
Managers need to approach the shift to a hybrid team as its own project. In many ways, a hybrid team is a new team. Consider drafting a new team charter. Discuss as a team what makes an effective meeting -- and how remote members can feel included. Consider etiquette rules and video policies. If employees are coming into the office at different times, how can they increase the possibility of seeing each other?
Certain tasks, like collaboration and brainstorming, can work better in the office; individual work often works better at home (if there are few distractions there). Workers who must be on-site still have commute times; remote workers may have more flexibility.
Most teams have been muddling through these details for over a year, but it's time to bring these conversations out into the open and create some shared expectations.
Action Items for Leaders
- Offer tools for managers to lead a team reset or create a new team charter. By including everyone in expectation-setting upfront, it becomes much easier to implement policies consistently. Five items related to Gallup's Q12 employee engagement survey provide a great place to start:
- How does our mission provide value to the organization -- and the world?
- What is expected of us?
- What do I do best, and how can I do it every day?
- What does quality mean for our team?
- What resources do we need to be successful?
- Have all team members define these things for themselves and then share them with the group. Have the team identify barriers and challenges and then come up with ways to address these items. Schedule time to regularly review and update this charter.
- Design meetings with both in-person and remote team members in mind.
- Create ground rules for hybrid meetings with your team.
We Are Inventing the Future of Hybrid Work
Make no mistake: This is an exciting time to rethink the way work gets done. Gallup's findings suggest that in the near future, a large portion of the workforce will be experiencing a hybrid office. It's a generational transformation -- and a massive experiment that cuts to the heart of the meaning of work.
How will we navigate these new, potentially treacherous, waters? By remembering that humans are still humans, with the same psychological needs as they've always had. Discovering how those needs can be met, by managers and employers, in a new age will require an experimental mindset, an openness to change and a keen focus on the fundamental drivers of human performance.