State of the Hybrid Workplace: Considerations for 2023
We're approaching the three-year mark since the pandemic flipped the white-collar workplace on its head. 2020 saw a sudden shift to remote work that left many organizations racing to adopt the tools and technologies to keep employees productive and engaged. 2021 promised a return to normalcy, but ended with many interrupted — or abandoned — return-to-office plans as new COVID-19 variants surged and employees fought back.
2022 can best be categorized as the year where no one workforce model reigned supreme. WFH Research found that in the summer and fall of 2022, 57% of employees in the U.S. were on-site full-time, another 29% were in a hybrid arrangement and 14% were fully remote.
Flexibility is also becoming an important selling point for companies looking to recruit talent. According to a poll from Gallup, nine in 10 employees prefer some degree of long-term remote flexibility going forward and nearly eight in 10 expect it from their employer going forward.
Going into 2023, there are several key issues that employee experience leaders will likely need to address.
A Microsoft study last fall found 85% of leaders lacked confidence that their remote employees were being productive. Furthermore, 49% of hybrid work managers stated they struggled to trust employees to do their best work, compared to only 36% of in-person managers.
This is despite the fact that data suggests otherwise. The Fall 2022 Pulse Report from Future Forum found that workers with schedule flexibility reported 29% higher productivity scores than those without.
Add to this the fact that the number of overlapping meetings (being double-booked) increased by 46% per person in the past year, and in an average week, 42% of participants also multitask during meetings by actively sending an email or ping — not including other tasks like reading incoming emails and pings, working in non-meeting files or web activity.
Distrust of employees has led to a rise of productivity tracking software. While employee monitoring tools existed before COVID-19, the pandemic significantly drove up demand. This includes the use of artificial intelligence to nudge or course-correct lagging employees.
“Activity tracking isn’t very different from the old ‘butts in seats’ method of tracking people’s attendance in the office and it wasn’t effective,” he said. “My recommendation is to throw out antiquated performance management systems, get a lot better at goal setting, and routinely discuss progress toward actual performance outcomes."
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Scheduling for Hybrid Workers
Hybrid workers vary widely in how often they work from the office, which creates scheduling complexities when it comes to collaboration. Gallup found that 88% of hybrid workers prefer three days or fewer on-site. Some of the most common employee attendance policies for hybrid workplaces include specifying specific days of the week employees must work on-site or setting a minimum number of days each week or month.
Wigert said the optimal amount of on-site days a week greatly depends on the type of work an employee is engaged in: those in more collaborative roles tend to benefit from more in-person days than those working highly independent jobs.
As a result, he said, work schedules are best set at the team level. According to his research, employees are most engaged when teams collaboratively set their hybrid schedule and policies, but only 13% say their employees do it this way.
However, Danielle Cuffie, a director at ManpowerGroup, pointed to scenarios where instituting more general requirements could prove useful.
“In some companies, particularly smaller ones, a company-wide policy may make sense.” Cuffie said. “This will avoid the potential perception that other employees may have a ‘better’ schedule than others.”
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Synchronous or Asynchronous Collaboration?
Hybrid work is also causing many companies to reevaluate how much time employees need to spend collaborating in real-time. Sheela Subramanian, vice president at Slack and co-founder of the Future Forum, believes that meetings and other forms of synchronous collaboration may play a smaller role down the line.
“Moving forward, employees will finally spend less time in live status meetings and lean into digital tools to move projects forward, connect across the company, and share key updates with their teams,” she said.
Both Wigert and Cuffie noted that it’s most important for team leaders to start with a full understanding of what types of work need to be done and what they’re looking to achieve, and from there, set clear expectations and goals on attendance and meetings.
“Make sure that synchronous team time is also used to intentionally reinforce team culture,” Cuffie added.
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Ensuring Employee Equity
While many engagement initiatives focus on leveraging technology and other tools to ensure remote employees feel equitable to their in-person colleagues, those who split their time between home and the office may also feel disconnected at times.
Wigert pointed to three key areas that leaders will need to address in relation to hybrid workers: resource equity, collaboration equity and career equity.
Those working in a hybrid arrangement need to have the same type of hardware and tools available in the office and at home to make sure productivity doesn’t suffer in one setting.
Companies are also now contending with how to retrofit meeting rooms and other office space as fully in-person meetings become less common. One Gartner study predicted that by 2024, in-person meetings will drop from 60% of enterprise meetings to 25%, driven by remote work and changing workforce demographics.
Many companies have turned to new meeting room technologies to ensure that both virtual and in-person participants feel empowered to speak and on equal footing. While Wigert said it’s certainly fine to experiment with these kinds of tools, it’s too early to determine which will truly be effective.
However, Wigert said he believes one of the biggest challenges of hybrid work is ensuring that employees are still getting the development and coaching they need in the absence of in-person interactions.
“You can measure certain kinds of equity, but there’s so much informal and semi-formal mentorship that happens in the office that you can’t put on a scorecard,” he said.
Cuffie stressed the importance of intentional investment in virtual learning, mentoring and collaboration opportunities.
“That being said, if the workforce is hybrid, consider scheduling training, development, and, occasionally, social activities in person,” she added. “This is an opportunity for workers on different schedules to interact in real time.”
Maximizing Office Time
Despite the popularity of remote work and schedule flexibility, many employees are still eager for some amount of office time. Seventy-four percent of desk workers surveyed in Future Forum’s Pulse latest report said the main reason to go into the office is to collaborate with coworkers and build camaraderie.
“As a result, we’re going to start to see more companies devoting their in-person time to building trust and connection, and will be designing the office to reflect that new intention,” said Subramanian.
According to the Microsoft study, Gen Z and millennial employees are particularly looking to connect with senior leadership and their direct managers in person. Gen Z is also motivated by working in person to see their work friends.
A New Strategy for Uncertain Times
With difficult economic conditions on the horizon, Wigert said now is a good time for organizations to both recognize their progress in enabling hybrid work and set a solid strategy for the coming year.
“Heading into uncertainty, it’s important to have a clear vision,” Wigert said. “If you can do that, you’ll find your way. But if we overreact or be brash, we leave people hanging in limbo. Now is not the time to be breaking trust.”