two people working one in an office one at home

Rewiring how we work: building a new employee experience for a digital-first world

The Future Forum launches the Remote employee experience index to help organisations to redesign work

Author: Brian Elliott, VP of Future Forum7th October 2020Illustration by Pete Ryan

Office buildings have always been much more than physical spaces – they’re an industrial-revolution-era foundation for how we think about work. They long provided the organising principles for how work should happen.

Going to work meant joining your colleagues in a building from 9 to 5, with dedicated space for each functional group and the execs on the top floor. Collaboration meant a whiteboard and conversation dominated by the most assertive voices. Making a decision meant calling a meeting of the leadership team. And culture meant all the behaviours and norms – good and bad – that happened in that traditional setting.

Instead of questioning whether this was the best way to work and build successful teams, we used the office as a crutch. We didn’t think through all the possibilities of the working experience because we limited our options to what would work in an office, despite an explosion of tools that made effective collaboration from a distance possible and accessible to many.

The pandemic has given us a golden opportunity to redesign the world of work. We have no choice but to work differently. We must establish new organising principles that enable a wholesale redesign of the places that we use for work, the experience of our people and the processes that we use to run efficiently.

That’s why the Future Forum is launching the Remote employee experience index, a new quarterly report that will provide the data and analysis that organisations need to navigate this new world of work.

The 5 key elements of the working experience

The Remote employee experience index is based on data from 4,700 workers in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Japan and Australia who are primarily working remotely. It measures five key perceptual elements of the remote working experience:

  • Productivity: the ability to complete tasks efficiently while delivering a high quality of work
  • Work-life balance: the fluidity between priorities in work and personal life
  • Managing work-related stress and anxiety: the ability to manage pressure and worry in the virtual workplace
  • Sense of belonging: a measure of whether knowledge workers feel accepted and valued by others on their work team
  • Satisfaction with working arrangement: the perception of the infrastructure and support that underpins their remote work experience

To assess the impact of working remotely, each element is scored on a 5-point scale, from ‘much better’ to ‘much worse’ than working in the office, with the midpoint being ‘about the same as working in the office’. The highest possible index score of +100 would indicate that, in aggregate, all remote knowledge workers feel much better about all elements of the index. A neutral score of 0 would indicate no net change, and a score of -100 would indicate that employees feel much worse about working from home across each element.

Results of the inaugural index

The first set of data from the index shows that, globally, knowledge workers are generally more satisfied with working remotely than they were with office-based work (+9.2). The biggest increases are seen in:

  • Work-life balance (+25.7)
  • Satisfaction with working arrangement (+20.1)
  • Managing work-related stress and anxiety (+17.3)
  • Productivity (+10.7)

results remote employee experience index
These data show that most knowledge workers are happier working remotely than they were in the office. They don’t want to go back to the old way of working. Only 11.6% say they want to return to full-time office work, while 72.2% want a hybrid remote-office model.

The data also carry a warning. The one element where most knowledge workers are less satisfied is their sense of belonging (–5.0). Organisations should invest in fostering connection between employees, as these bonds are vital to the long-term health of teams.

Dispelling remote work myths

While the aggregate-level index data provide useful directional information, the true benefit comes from deep dives that explore the experience of different groups of workers, the practices they adopt and the benefits that their companies provide. These deep dives offer a view into the complex challenges that organisations face in adapting to a working model in which remote work plays a prominent role.

In many cases, the necessary changes appear counterintuitive. This is because the move to remote work en masse is fundamentally rewriting the rules of work. The attempt to ‘lift and shift’ office norms into the virtual world is proving to be woefully inadequate. The index shows that successfully reinventing an organisation to meet the challenges of remote working requires more than incremental adaptations. It demands wholesale change and a radically new mindset.

Here are five of the biggest myths about remote work that the index dispels.

Myth No. 1: Workers crave the 9-to-5 routine of working in the office

Reality: Office-based norms have long imposed a relatively uniform insistence that work happens primarily 9-to-5. Companies have generally chosen to continue following this logic into the remote world. However, the index shows that one of the single biggest factors that influences a positive remote experience is the ability to break free of the 9-to-5 and instead work a flexible schedule.

Workers who have the option of working a flexible schedule score higher across every element of the index than those made to continue working 9-to-5. The positive impact on elements such as work-life balance (+23.0) is not surprising. More interesting is the fact that those with flexible schedules score nearly twice as high on productivity compared to those working 9-to-5 (+13.1 compared with +7.1) and significantly better when it comes to sense of belonging (-0.2 compared to -5.8).

Myth No. 2: Keeping employees aligned depends on regular meetings

Reality: Meeting-heavy schedules do not work well in the remote world. For example, workers who attend weekly status meetings actually feel worse about their sense of belonging (-2.7) than workers who receive status updates asynchronously through digital channels (+5.8).

This new form of asynchronous communication depends on companies giving employees access to modern tools. The index shows that employees working at companies that are early adopters of technology have dramatically higher ‘sense of belonging’ scores: +4.7 compared to -8.5 for employees at companies that are slow to adopt technology.

Some level of live interaction continues to be important to building and maintaining team chemistry. The index shows that organisations need to build in opportunities for social interactions less frequently but more explicitly. The interactions that have the most significant impact on workers’ sense of belonging are:

  • Biweekly team celebrations to recognise team members or achievements (+9.9)
  • Monthly team-building activities (+9.7)
  • Monthly games or unstructured group social activities (+8.1)

Myth No. 3: Workers with children all face the same challenge

Reality: There is one group that faces a disproportionate challenge in balancing work and child care: women with children in the US. They have a lower overall score (+7.4) compared with both US men with children (+14.3) and women with children outside the US (+12.3). These differences are particularly pronounced in areas such as:

  • Work-life balance: Mothers outside the US (+20.4) score 60% higher than US mums (+12.8).
  • Productivity: Mums outside the US (+12.0) score almost twice as high as US mums (+6.6).
  • Satisfaction with working arrangement: Mums outside the US (+17.8) score 95% better than US mums (+9.1).

The evidence clearly points to the lack of a strong social safety net, including publicly-funded childcare, disproportionately affecting US women with children. It’s unlikely that the government will take decisive action to meet this need, so it is up to companies to step up and fill the void. If they don’t, they risk losing out on a significant pool of talent.

Myth No. 4: The remote work experience is worse for underrepresented groups

Reality: One of the most surprising findings is that in the US, historically underrepresented workers have higher overall index scores than their white colleagues: Black (+10.1), Asian (+16.6), Hispanic (+10.5), white (+8.9). And the most dramatic difference is seen in the most persistently problematic element of remote work, the sense of belonging: Black (+8.4), Asian (+7.6), Hispanic (+5.2), white (-1.3).

These data demand greater scrutiny and exploration. It’s not clear what combination of factors creates this difference: Why is remote work helping level the experience? Have white employees always felt more of a sense of community in majority-white workplaces? Do members of minority groups feel a better sense of community because they are at home? The norms of the digital workplace are yet to be written. We have an opportunity to start again, to throw out baggage that has built up over centuries and to build teams that are truly representative of our society.

There are still dramatic problems: systemic disparities are still visible. For example, in the US, 65% of white knowledge workers agree with the statement ‘My manager is supportive when I need help’, compared with only 46% of Black knowledge workers. It will take time and deliberate effort to get this right, but the opportunity for remote work to be a great equalising force is clear and unmistakable.

Myth No. 5: Executives and managers have an easier time adapting to remote work

Reality: People managers, especially middle managers, face some of the most acute challenges in adapting to remote work. In fact, people managers have a lower overall index score (+10.5) compared to individual contributors (+15.2). They face particular challenges when it comes to:

  • Sense of belonging: People managers (-7.0) compared to individual contributors (-0.6)
  • Productivity: People managers (-9.4) compared to individual contributors (+14.8)
  • Managing stress and anxiety: People managers (+12.8) compared to individual contributors (+17.7)

In the remote work world, the role of the manager has shifted from gatekeeper to coach and social connector. Social ties are more difficult to build and maintain in a digital-first workplace. Add to this the fact that middle managers were already challenged, in that moving from an individual contributor to a manager position is hard work and requires an entirely new skill set. Organisations need to devote time and resources to providing people managers with new tools to enable them to coach and connect with their teams.

Next steps

The office-centric models that we have long been accustomed to will not work in the remote world. This pandemic offers organisations a unique opportunity to reinvent how they operate, retaining the best parts of office culture while freeing themselves from bad habits and inefficient processes.

The Remote employee experience index is designed to help organisations and knowledge workers to get their bearings. We’re still in the early stages of this experiment, so we’re a long way from having the answers. But we are starting to gather the data and insights that will allow people to thrive in the new world of work.

Looking ahead, the Future Forum will be releasing the Remote employee experience index every quarter. We’ll continue to expand the findings, including differences across countries and work functions. Over time, trends and patterns will emerge, providing evidence of how organisations can build a new culture, leverage new tools and find new ways to thrive. This era of work is at once daunting and full of exciting new opportunities, and we’re proud to partner with leaders on this transformation journey.

The Remote employee experience index is based on data from a survey of 9,032 knowledge workers who identify as ‘skilled office workers’ in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Japan and Australia. It analyses the key perceptual elements of the working experience for 4,700 of the workers surveyed who are primarily working remotely. The survey was fielded between June 30 and August 11, 2020, via GlobalWebIndex, a third-party online panel provider, and commissioned by Slack. Results were weighted based on sector and population.

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