Are businesses and their employees really ready for hybrid work?
Moving towards hybrid work
In a recent Microsoft survey 70% of surveyed employees expressed that they wanted flexible work options to continue. Additionally, 94% of white-collared survey respondents in a 2021 Deloitte survey acknowledged that they would benefit from workplace flexibility. This preference for flexible work systems was similarly reflected by business leaders, with 66% of surveyed business decision makers considering redesigning physical spaces to accommodate hybrid work environments.
It’s no surprise that the hybrid work model has evolved to become more than a product of necessity borne from the Covid-19 crisis. The traditional cliché of the typical workday was already becoming an increasingly outdated concept prior to the pandemic – In a 2019 study by IWG, 74% of survey respondents believed flexible work to be the new normal. Covid-19 simply fast-tracked the global movement towards flexible hybrid work systems.
Yet the sudden acceleration towards hybrid work also uncovered a host of unanticipated problems that businesses were ill-equipped to manage. Employees soon found the prolonged switch to remote work mentally draining and poorly supported.
While businesses are right in taking their first decisive steps towards going hybrid, they need to understand that the move to hybrid work goes far beyond virtual resources and remote technologies. The move requires logistical excellence and needs to better encompass the specific needs of its employees and managers.
Understanding the gap between employers and employees’ perspectives on hybrid work
In a recent PwC survey, significant gaps were found between employers and employees’ perceptions on ‘the success of a company’s efforts to support remote work’. Remote work has introduced a unique dynamic to most workplace relationships. By bringing the office into employees’ homes, employees have the added task of juggling both work and domestic responsibilities at the same time. Hence, businesses are increasingly expected to play a bigger role in providing technical support and employee welfare – both of which are important resources required by employees to work productively remotely.
Childcare support, for instance, was a significant point of difference between employers and employees. PwC found that ‘While 81% of executives say their company has been successful in extending benefits for childcare, just 45% of employees say the same’. Following the same pattern, there was a 27-point difference between employers and employees on the provision of managerial training for leading teams remotely. This lack of resource support was also featured in Microsoft’s findings which reported that ‘42 percent of employees say they lack essential office supplies at home, and 1 in 10 don’t have an adequate internet connection to do their job’.
81% of executives say their company has been successful in extending benefits for childcare, just 45% of employees say the same‘It’s time to reimagine where and how work will get done’ – PwC, 2021
Businesses have certainly stepped up their expenditure on tech to support their remote workers. In 2020, nearly half of employers in Singapore expressed a willingness to increase technological investments. Yet, even after close to two years of going hybrid, many employees still feel inadequately equipped to face the added pressures and challenges of remote work. It would do well for businesses to remember that resource support extends beyond Zoom Enterprise accounts and online tech tools. An effective hybrid work strategy also anticipates and considers the obstacles faced by employees at home.
Mental Health and Digital Overload
One of the biggest consequences of remote work has been its impact on employees’ mental health. As the line between work and home blur, employees find themselves with less boundaries at work, longer hours, and an overload of digital interactions. Microsoft reported a doubling of online meeting times, an almost 50% rise in afterhour chats and ‘62 percent of calls and meetings (being) unscheduled or conducted ad hoc’. The lack of set schedules inclusive of mealtimes and breaks has led employees to feel exhausted from being ‘on-call’ throughout the day.
52% of employers reported that there was an increase in average employee productivity (PwC). Yet, 1 in 5 global employee survey respondents felt that their employer had little concern for work-life balance (Microsoft) and 49% of employees reported feeling ‘burned out’ (McKinsey). Hence, this suggests that by being held to pre-pandemic expectations under such abnormal circumstances, employees’ mental health and well-being have taken a hit.
Despite the clear preference (and necessity) for hybrid work systems, the social isolation of remote work has emerged as a troubling consequence. According to CoSo Cloud, ‘19% of remote employees reported loneliness as their biggest challenge, with a further 50% feeling disconnected from their employer’ (ICAEW). The pandemic has only magnified the importance of social interaction at the workplace. What might have been previously dismissed as ‘small talk’ at work, has shown to have a much more profound effect on the mental and social state of employees. A survey by Totaljobs found that the loneliness of workers during lockdown impacted their sleep cycles, stress levels, self-esteem and eating habits.
Some businesses have indeed amped up counselling efforts and employee check-ins, in fact many executives have noted employee mental health to be of top concern to them. Yet studies have indicated that employees don’t find existing efforts sufficient. In Aetna International’s study, only ‘25% of employees rated the support they received from their employer for stress as ‘good’. However, nearly double the rate of employers (42%) believed they’re offering plenty of support’ (HRD, Asia). This begs the important question: Are businesses perhaps underestimating the mental and emotional toll of hybrid work? Do businesses need more empathy in their shift to hybrid systems?
Different Employees, Diverse Needs
While businesses might be generally aware of the broad needs of remote workers, many businesses are less well acquainted with the diversity of employee preferences regarding remote work. For instance, while it is widely known that employees want flexible work options to stay, businesses ought to realise that employees’ expectations on workplace benefits have also increased – Forbes reported that employees now want flexibility alongside greater benefits such as professional development and coaching. In other words, a business that is most attuned to its employees needs and preferences is best positioned to attract and retain talent.
Of course employee needs and preferences differ across the board. For example, businesses can take age and the experience of workers into consideration when formulating hybrid work arrangements. PwC found that survey respondents with ‘the least amount of professional experience (0-5 years) are more likely to want to be in the office more often. Thirty percent of them prefer being remote no more than one day a week vs. just 20% of all respondents’. Younger employees starting their climb on the corporate ladder are also likely to feel disadvantaged and anxious over the lack of networking opportunities or in-person mentorship. Microsoft identified the adult Gen Z population (18-25 years old) as ‘more likely to struggle balancing work with life and to feel exhausted after a typical day of work when compared to older generations’. Perhaps, in comparison, more established employees with more social obligations (such as family, childcare etc.) prefer greater flexibility and balance between home and the office.
The adult Gen Z population (18-25 years old) is ‘more likely to struggle balancing work with life and to feel exhausted after a typical day of work when compared to older generations’The next great disruption is hybrid work – Are we ready? – Microsoft, 2021
Of course, these findings do not seek to exclude older, or more seasoned employees who might still greatly value in-person office hours and interactions. The research simply suggests that understanding the diversity of employee perspectives aids businesses in crafting more well-rounded flexible work policies that allow employees to perform at their best.
Employees want hybrid work. However, they also want businesses to provide clearer direction and leadership in mitigating the technical and human difficulties of remote work.
Businesses need to recognise that while hybrid work is the ‘New Normal’, conventional workplace expectations still persist online. Employees become anxious if they feel that their voice, boundaries and fair access to opportunities are being curtailed by remote work. Currently, more needs to be done to assure employees that their companies have adequate support systems for remote workers and strong commitments to workplace fairness, remote or not. Whether its stricter guidelines on hybrid work, or increased managerial accountability, businesses need to synchronise their vision and expectations regarding hybrid work beyond the pandemic with their employees.