There have been many viral trends sweeping the workplace over the last three years, from the baffling "quiet quitting" to the sweeping tsunami of Great Resignation. Beneath these surface trends lies an overarching megatrend - a fierce tug-of-war between management and workers, each vying for their post-pandemic vision of work.
Faced with substantial employee attrition, an array of large corporations, from Wall Street to Silicon Valley, have pulled out all the stops to woo back their workforce, while others have resorted to stern measures to enforce onsite attendance. Tech titans including the likes of Google, Meta, and Apple found themselves grappling with rising employee pushback and a mass exodus of talent, compelling them to put the brakes on their initial return-to-office (RTO) plans and recalibrate for a smoother transition.
While the majority eventually zeroed in on hybrid modes of working, employers are still struggling to adapt to the new ways of working and find the equilibrium between employee happiness and teamwork. However, one thing is resoundingly clear: employees yearn for greater meaning and purpose in their work, prompting profound shifts from the pre-pandemic status quo. This pursuit of meaningful work goes beyond the surface and includes reduced commutes, fewer meetings, and a laser focus on purposeful discussions that yield tangible results.
In the midst of the fierce debate between remote and in-office work, a new McKinsey report reveals a clear victor - the hybrid model. With employees spending considerably less time at the office than pre-pandemic, office attendance is stabilising at 30% below the norms of the past. Meanwhile, the study estimates that remote work will reduce office property values by $800 billion by 2030 in major global cities
A global study by Colliers echoed the same, revealing challenges faced by office occupiers in reassessing employee space due to inconsistent hybrid work models. Employers are now rethinking metrics beyond physical space. Steve Elliott, from QBE Insurance Australia, highlights the struggle to determine the right amount of space for current and future needs. Meanwhile, Michelle Myer, from Oracle, points out, "It's more about, 'Hey, how is the space being utilised?
The emergence of various hybrid models hasn't quelled the pursuit of the best work mode, especially with evolving expectations of employees; in-person and remote arrangements remain in the crosshairs. A myriad of opinions and strategies abound, with leaders like Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings expressing doubt while others like Suresh Kumar, CTO of Walmart, attest to thriving in remote work. The vicious cycle of layoffs, talent retention, and attracting new recruits remains a constant headline grabber. Companies, which ultimately seek skilled talent who are not only engaged but also content in their work, find it increasingly daunting to meet the evolving needs making it one of the most formidable challenges for leadership in the post-covid era.
In an interesting TED talk, Mark Mortensen, a future of work expert, highlights the complexity of the equation, riddled with numerous variables and perspectives. Who holds the key to unlocking the optimal balance? Is it the managers, the employees, or a harmonious fusion of both? Should it be influenced by seniority, specific tasks, or individual circumstances?
Decoding effectiveness, talent needs, culture
Mark identifies three distinct challenges that demand thoughtful consideration. The first centres around effectiveness, questioning whether organisations can truly deliver on their stakeholder commitments. While COVID showcased the feasibility of remote work, it was under unique conditions, with many operating in survival mode, raising doubts about its long-term sustainability. On top of this, a surge in working hours globally led to a blurring of the lines between work and personal life for many. The experience also varied significantly, with parents of school-aged children facing distinct stressors.
The second challenge centres on talent acquisition and retention. Workforce today weighs the hybrid work policy as a pivotal factor in choosing an employer. Those who can deftly strike the perfect balance between staffing and catering to individual preferences hold a distinct advantage in attracting and retaining top talent.
The third challenge involves nurturing and preserving organisational culture. Does hybrid or remote work dilute culture? Or, can organisations foster a cohesive social fabric that strengthens connections and upholds shared values by working with distributed teams? Clearly, a one-size-fits-all approach won't suffice, Mark argues. Instead, the journey towards effective hybrid work necessitates a nuanced understanding of the tasks and priorities at hand.
The data versus perceptions conundrum
According to Mark, the comparison between work from home and office work is not simply a matter of logistics but rather a battle of perceptions. It's about reclaiming the narrative and recognising the real experiences at play.
Consider the recovering commute - while some may celebrate the saved time from not commuting, it's essential to reflect on the meaningful moments lost during that time. After all, those after-meeting debriefs over coffee do foster relationship repair and collective sense-making. Remote work can impact psychological safety, trust, and feelings of isolation, making this conversation even more complex.
These three conversations are interconnected but not fully independent. The first step to fixing this, suggests Mark, is initiating open and honest conversations to navigate these complexities, even when disagreements arise. And it won't be easy. What makes this challenging is that they have almost ideologically different positions about what creates value in your organisation. Is it about the output of what you produce? Is it about the people in that organisation or something in the ether, the culture?
While creating a work model that drives productivity, employee satisfaction, and organisational success is a work in progress, leaders should ask the right set of questions as they navigate these doldrums: What level of flexibility should be offered in work hours and locations? How will communication and collaboration be facilitated across the organisation? How will performance be measured and evaluated in the new work model? What policies and practices will support employee well-being and work-life balance? What technology and infrastructure investments are needed to support the work model effectively?
The journey towards a successful and sustainable future work model is far from over –one that will require continuous adaptation and a keen understanding of the evolving needs of the workforce.