Transformation

Hybrid rules: the emerging playbook for flexible work

Future Forum releases Q4 results of Remote Employee Experience Index data

Author: Brian Elliott, VP of Future ForumJanuary 28th, 2021

A year into the global pandemic, there is near universal agreement that flexible working models—accommodating different locations and schedules—have proven to be better and more productive than most would have imagined possible. Data increasingly shows that employees want to maintain a flexible working model, even once the pandemic has ended. And many companies are rapidly experimenting with distributed and asynchronous models, helping to write the playbook for how to thrive in the new world of work.

The second set of data from the Future Forum’s Remote Employee Experience Index—based on data from knowledge workers in the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, Japan and Australia—provides a snapshot of employees’ evolving perceptions of remote work. It tracks data across five key elements:

  • 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 related to day-to-day work
  • 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

Here is a summary of the quarter-over-quarter changes.

Summary of the quarter-over-quarter changes

Note: The highest and lowest potential scores are +100 and -100 respectively. Higher scores indicate higher satisfaction with remote work compared to office-based work; lower scores, a lower satisfaction. See footnote for detailed methodology.

A flexible, hybrid model remains the favored choice among employees

Despite some obvious fluctuations, the data shows that knowledge workers remain more satisfied with remote work than they were with office-based work (+10.9). Because of these sentiments, the vast majority (83%) do not want to return to five days a week in a physical office.

  • 63% favor the flexibility of a hybrid remote-office model, while 20% want to work remotely full-time. Only 17% want to return to full-time office work.
  • This shift represents a slight hardening of preferences on either end of the spectrum from what we saw in the Q3 data when 72% said they favor a hybrid remote-office model, 16% said they want to work remotely full-time, and 12% said they want to return to full-time office work.

The preference for hybrid work is strongest in younger workers, and people with less tenure in their jobs:

  • 81% of those on the job for three months to a year want a hybrid or full-time remote model, compared with 58% of those with two to five years of tenure at the company
  • 82% of 25- to 34-year-olds want a hybrid or full-time remote model, compared with 75% of 55- to 64-year-olds.

The data shows that flexibility is the key driver that makes remote work a positive experience and hybrid work a desirable model over the long term. Flexibility influences the employee experience in many ways beyond obvious categories like work-life balance. Workers who have the option to work a flexible schedule also score more favorably on elements such as stress and anxiety (+12.8 vs. +8.1), satisfaction with working arrangement (+15.7 vs. +10.8), and productivity (+11.6 vs. +8.1).

Employee productivity remains steady despite persistent pandemic challenges

Knowledge workers have built-in advantages—namely the ability to work with little beyond a laptop and good Wi-Fi—that have made it easier to remain productive through the pandemic than almost all other types of workers. Still, it remains striking that reported productivity for remote workers increased from our Q3 to Q4 reports despite the persistent disruption of the pandemic. Compared with office-based workers, remote workers are:

  • More likely to say they are satisfied with the amount of work they accomplished (61% of remote workers vs. 53% of office-based employees)
  • More likely to feel their workload is manageable (62% vs. 51%)
  • Less likely to say they feel burned out from work (27% vs. 33%)

One of the most material impacts on productivity is seen in companies that allow their employees flexibility in not only in where but also when they work:

  • People working at companies allowing flexibility in where they work reported 43% higher productivity scores than those who did not (+11.6 vs. +8.1)
  • People working at companies allowing flexibility in when they work reported 53% higher productivity scores than those who did not (+11.5 vs. +7.5)

There is one significant productivity call-out: Remote managers of small teams (one to six direct reports) feel less satisfied with how much work they’re accomplishing compared with remote managers of large teams (15 or more direct reports).

  • 67% of large team managers agree that “I am satisfied with how much work I get done every week,” compared with 57% of small team managers
  • Managers of small teams tend to be more concerned with their team’s well-being and keeping their teams aligned
  • In contrast, managers of large teams tend to say they are more concerned with helping their teams stay productive and tracking progress against goals

The investments in process and collaboration tools may be benefiting leaders of larger teams, but middle managers continue to be squeezed due to limited visibility and formal peer networks. There’s an opportunity for leaders to over-communicate decisions to all levels of the organization and provide management support for up-and-coming leaders.

Sense of belonging can be fostered without an office

Social connection and bonds between colleagues are foundational to the success of all organizations. That’s why the flip in “sense of belonging” scores from a negative (-5.0) in our Q3 report to a positive (+1.1) in the Q4 report might be the single most encouraging data point.

The data shows that many organizations are making the investments needed to build team cohesion in a remote-first world. Almost half (46%) of workers agree that their company or team “has made deliberate changes to how we collaborate since working remotely.” Workers at these companies are:

  • 27% more likely to feel that remote work is better for their sense of belonging than working in the office
  • Slightly more likely to agree that “I feel like I belong at my company” (58%) compared with office-based workers (55.4%)

Investments in new technology are also a critical factor. Knowledge workers who believe their employer is a technology leader score dramatically higher in “sense of belonging” scores (+11.8) compared with those working for perceived technology laggards (-4.1). And the gulf between leaders and laggards is growing: Workers at technology laggards are seeing declines not only in belonging (-4.4 QoQ), but also in their work-life balance (-13.8 QoQ) and productivity (-2.6).

Amid the bright spots, there are warning signs of burnout

While the index shows that employees prefer a flexible work model, the data also signals that as the pandemic stretches into its second year, knowledge workers are feeling an increased strain. Much lower scores in the categories of work-life balance (-9.2), stress and anxiety (-6.2), and satisfaction with working arrangement (-6.0) demand urgent attention from employers.

Work-related stress and anxiety

Only about a third of workers (34%) agree that “I have felt cheerful and in good spirits,” “I have felt calm and relaxed” (36%), and “I wake up feeling fresh and rested” (32%), all reflecting a downward trend from the Q3 report.

The pressure to demonstrate productivity is also a contributing factor to growing stress. A third (33%) of remote workers say they feel pressure to make sure their managers know they’re working, a sentiment shared by only 22% of office-based workers.

Satisfaction with working arrangement

Certain employee populations have seen a significant decline, including scores for employees with kids dropping from +14.4 to +8.9. As schools across the world have re-opened and then closed, the stress of homeschooling is multiplied in a 9-to-5 work environment.

Work-life balance

Almost half (49%) of remote workers feel that they spend too much time in unnecessary meetings, compared with only 37% of co-located employees. Remote workers are also more likely to feel that they are working more hours every day (39%) compared with office-based workers (31%).

Investments are showing traction, but leaders still have work to do

Over the past year, leaders have increasingly invested in new processes to replace the office—from technology to initiatives to drive belonging. We’re seeing positive results because of those efforts.

As we enter our second year of widespread remote work, there’s an opportunity for leaders to implement more flexible working practices— including asynchronous schedules and measurement of outcomes—to reduce the strain on employees.

In February, we’ll launch a deeper dive into each of these elements and study the impact of the shift to remote work on different groups, including the impact in different geographies, among working parents, and historically disadvantaged groups. But from our initial take of the data, one trend is increasingly clear: Embracing flexibility is the single most important thing a company can do to give its employees a positive work experience.

Methodology

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 U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, Japan and Australia. It analyzes the key perceptual elements of the working experience for 3,480 of the workers surveyed who are primarily working remotely. The survey was fielded between November 25 and December 30, 2020, via GlobalWebIndex, a third-party online panel provider, and commissioned by Slack. Results were weighted based on sector and population.

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.

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