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Inflexible return-to-office policies are hammering employee experience scores

Future Forum data shows employee experience scores plummeting as ‘RTO’ policies take effect, particularly for those without schedule flexibility

By the team at Slack19th April 2022

The latest Future Forum Pulse, our quarterly survey of more than 10,000 knowledge workers in the US, Australia, France, Germany, Japan and the UK, shows that inflexible return-to-office policies are having a negative effect on employee experience and driving attrition:

  • With 34% of knowledge workers globally back in the office full-time, work-related stress and anxiety hit the worst level since surveying began in summer 2020
  • Non-executive employees are nearly twice as likely as executives to be working from the office five days a week, and report twice as much work-related stress and anxiety
  • Knowledge workers with little to no ability to set their own work hours are 2.6x as likely to look for a new job in the coming year, compared to those with schedule flexibility

                                                 [DOWNLOAD THE REPORT]

Future Forum, a consortium launched by Slack with founding partners Boston Consulting Group, MillerKnoll and MLT to help companies reimagine work in the new digital-first workplace, today released the latest findings from its global Pulse study, which shows that employee experience scores are plummeting for knowledge workers who have been asked to return to the office full-time and for those who do not have the flexibility to set their own work schedules.

More than a third of knowledge workers (34%) are now working from the office five days a week, the greatest share since Future Forum began surveying in June 2020. With this shift, employee sentiment has dropped to near-record lows, including 28% worse scores on work-related stress and anxiety and 17% worse scores on work-life balance (compared to last quarter).

There are signs that employers will pay a price for this discontent: Workers who say that they are unsatisfied with their current level of flexibility – both in where and when they work – are now three times as likely to look for a new job in the coming year.

The Future Forum Pulse is published quarterly and is based on a survey of more than 10,000 knowledge workers in the US, Australia, France, Germany, Japan and the UK. Data from the Pulse shows that non-executives are facing far more strain during the return-to-office era than leaders in the C-suite, further widening the existing executive-employee disconnect on key job satisfaction measures. Non-executives’ work-life balance scores are now 40% worse than their bosses, plummeting at five times the rate of executives’ over the last quarter. Non-executives are also reporting more than twice the level of work-related stress and anxiety as executives.

‘Leaders need to move away from dictating days in the office and rigid 9-to-5 schedules, and focus instead on aligning their teams around a common purpose and leading by example. Trusting your teams with the flexibility to work where and when works best for them will lead to better business results and happier employees.’

Brian ElliottExecutive Leader, Future Forum

Full-time office workers report the steepest declines in employee experience scores

Employee experience scores fell for all knowledge workers this quarter, likely due to concerns and challenges related to the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19. But full-time office workers, who already ranked behind remote and hybrid employees on the eight key sentiment measures in the Pulse survey, posted the steepest declines on average, widening the gap with their flexible counterparts. This quarter, fully in-person knowledge workers reported:

  • 2x as steep a decline in work-life balance, compared to flexible (hybrid and remote) workers
  • 1.6x as steep a decline in overall satisfaction with their working environment, compared to flexible workers
  • 1.5x worsening in work-related stress and anxiety, compared to remote workers

The data indicates that the majority of workers who have been called back to their offices five days a week are returning reluctantly – 55% say they would prefer to work flexibly at least part of the time. This gap between expectations and reality poses a looming challenge for employers who have mandated that employees return to the office. Knowledge workers who say their company does not allow flexible work are 20% more likely to look for a new job in the next year, compared to those who have the option to work outside of the office on a full-time basis.

For many women and working mothers, who often shoulder a greater share of caregiving responsibilities at home, the call to return to the office has only strengthened the desire to retain some degree of location flexibility. The percentage of women who say they want to work flexibly three days a week or more jumped to 58% this quarter, compared to 48% of men. Meanwhile, the number of working mothers who say they want at least some location flexibility rose to an all-time high (82%) since Future Forum began surveying.

Executives say they want to work from the office, but it’s their employees who are being told to show up

The Pulse data shows a troubling double standard when it comes to office attendance: Non-executive employees are nearly twice as likely as executives to be making the daily commute to the office. This discrepancy suggests that while many executives continue to work flexibly, the flexible work options that provided much-needed balance and relief for their employees have been clawed back. In light of this, it’s unsurprising that the delta between executives and non-executives on key employee experience measures like work-life balance and work-related stress and anxiety has widened considerably since last quarter.

The data also suggests that employees’ patience with ambiguous or delayed guidance from executives around what the future of work will look like at their company is wearing thin. Employees who say that their employer is not being ‘transparent about their future of work plans’ are nearly four times as likely to say that they will ‘definitely’ seek a new job in the next year. It may surprise employers to learn that employees who say their company does not have a policy on flexible work are even more likely to indicate that they will ‘definitely’ try to change jobs than employees who say their company prohibits remote work.

‘Employees have clearly proven that they can get the job done while having flexibility in their work lives. If executives roll back this flexibility – or put off key decisions on the options that employees will have going forward – they’re setting themselves up for a wave of departures.’

Deborah LovichManaging Director and Senior Partner, Boston Consulting Group

Schedule flexibility is even more important to employee happiness and retention than location flexibility

For many companies, return-to-office conversations have focused almost exclusively on the ‘where’ instead of the ‘when’ of work, overlooking the critical importance of schedule flexibility. Today, more than 9 out of 10 knowledge workers (94%) say they want schedule flexibility (compared to 79% who want location flexibility) – yet nearly two-thirds (65%) say that they personally have little to no ability to adjust their hours from a pre-set schedule, outside of the occasional doctor’s appointment.

Pulse data shows that this kind of schedule rigidity can have significant adverse impacts on an employee’s overall experience at work. Knowledge workers who say that they do not have access to flexible working hours report:

  • 2.2x worse work-related stress and anxiety
  • 1.7x worse work-life balance
  • 1.4x worse burnout

Employers who are concerned about losing talent amid the Great Resignation should build schedule flexibility into their ‘future of work’ plans, whether by reducing employees’ meeting load, encouraging teams to adopt a more limited number of ‘core collaboration hours’ each day or experimenting with other strategies like team-level agreements. The costs of inaction could be high – knowledge workers who say that they have little to no ability to set their own hours are 2.6x as likely to ‘definitely’ look for a new job in the next year (compared to those with moderate schedule flexibility).

How the future works

This quarter’s Pulse survey captures a workforce amid massive transition, as many employees begin to regularly work in-person from the office for the first time since March 2020. At some companies, long-discussed flexible work policies will finally be tried and tested at scale, while other organisations are shifting gears to provide additional flexibility based on employee feedback (and attrition). For all of us, wherever we are, it’s time to see how the future works.

Leaders in search of a blueprint for adopting flexible work at their organisations can find additional research, case studies, templates and best practices in the upcoming book How the Future Works, co-authored by Future Forum’s Brian Elliott, Sheela Subramanian and Helen Kupp (available 17 May 2022, from Wiley).

Further guidance for leaders, and data on the experiences and expectations of global knowledge workers, can be found in the full Future Forum Pulse report.


This Future Forum Pulse surveyed 10,818 knowledge workers in the US, Australia, France, Germany, Japan and the UK between 27 January – 21 February 2022. The survey was administered by Qualtrics and did not target Slack employees or customers. Respondents were all knowledge workers, defined as employed full-time (30 or more hours per week) and either having one of the roles listed below or saying they ‘work with data, analyse information or think creatively’: Executive Management (e.g. President/Partner, CEO, CFO, C-suite), Senior Management (e.g. Executive VP, Senior VP), Middle Management (e.g. Department/Group Manager, VP), Junior Management (e.g. Manager, Team Leader), Senior Staff (i.e. Non-Management), Skilled Office Worker (e.g. Analyst, Graphic Designer).

The Future Forum Pulse measures how knowledge workers feel about their working lives on a five-point scale (from ‘very poor’ to ‘very good’) across eight dimensions on an index from -60 (most negative) to +60 (most positive).

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