5 Key Trends Leaders Need to Understand to Get Hybrid Right

After many false starts, organizations are finally making the shift into a true hybrid work model. Like every other turning point over the past two years, there’s no shortage of perspectives on what this next phase will look like. While some companies are going all in on flexible work, others are pushing for a return to the office of 2019.

Despite this range of approaches, almost every leader today has the same question: Is the new emphasis on flexibility and well-being a temporary pendulum swing, or the beginning of our new normal?

Microsoft’s latest Work Trend Index compiles input from 31,000 people in 31 countries, labor trends from LinkedIn, and trillions of productivity signals from Microsoft 365 to offer a closer look at the year ahead, highlight what employees truly want, and help leaders chart a path forward .

What we found is the past two years left an indelible mark on the psyche of workers, altering their expectations and fundamentally shifting the way work gets done. Three or six months of remote work could have been dismissed as a blip, but the duration of our collective, lived experience means there’s no going back.

This is a pivotal moment, where leadership matters more than ever. Those who embrace a new mindset and shift cultural norms will best position their people and their business for long-term success. Adapting to the influx of change in this business environment is no easy feat. Our report lays out five key trends to help leaders empower their teams to thrive in the year ahead.

Employees have different priorities when it comes to work and life.

When it comes to work, employees are redefining their “worth it” equation: what they want from work and what they’re willing to give in return. Compared to before the pandemic, 47% of employees are more likely to put family and personal life over work. And 53% are more likely to prioritize their health and well-being – that figure rises to 55% for parents and 56% for women.

These aren’t empty words – the Great Reshuffle is far from over. Fifty-two percent of Gen Z and Millennials are considering changing employers this year (up 3% year-over-year), and 18% of all respondents quit their job in the past 12 months, with well-being, mental health, work -life balance, and lack of flexible work hours cited as top reasons.

When asked what they wanted from a new employer, topping the list was positive culture (46%), with well-being benefits (42%), a sense of purpose and meaning (40%), flexible hours (38%), and more than two weeks’ vacation time (35%) not far behind.

Adapting to these new expectations is not only good for people, it can be a competitive advantage that ultimately boosts the bottom line, allowing organizations to empower current employees and attract new talent to their ranks.

Managers feel wedged between leadership and employee expectations.

As the people closest to the unique needs of employees, managers have a key role. However, they’re feeling stuck between new employee expectations and leaders’ decisions. More than half of the managers we surveyed (54%) feel their leadership is out of touch with employees.

Case in point: Our 2021 study told us 73% of employees want flexible work options to stick around long term. But this year, 50% of leaders say they either require or plan to require employees to be in the office full time.

With more than two years of remote or hybrid work under their belt, employees feel they haven’t just survived flexible work – they’ve gotten pretty good at it. Eighty percent believe their productivity has stayed the same or improved, in stark contrast to 54% of business leaders who fear their team has been less productive since moving to remote or hybrid.

Managers are in a prime position to see and understand both sides of the equation, but all that insight doesn’t add up to much if they’re not empowered to act. With 74% of managers saying they don’t have the influence or resources they need to make changes on behalf of their team, there’s a clear gap that needs to be addressed.

Leaders need to make the office worth the commute.

We used to equate the office with work, but now that we’ve spent work can happen from just about anywhere, what role does the office play? Many organizations have been clear in encouraging employees to come back in, but what’s been less clear is the why. If leaders don’t get this right, they’re going to risk employees giving up on the notion of hybrid completely.

In fact, 51% of employees who are currently working in a hybrid model say they’re considering going fully remote in the year ahead. It seems after a year of an almost-hybrid model, they’re just not convinced hybrid can work for them. Thirty-eight percent of them say their greatest challenge is knowing when or why to come into the office, and only 28% of them have a team agreement that answers those fundamental questions.

It’s not just getting employees into the office – it’s making the most of their time, especially in hybrid meetings. Despite the fact 44% of hybrid employees and 43% of remote attendees do not feel included in meetings, just 27% of organizations have established a new hybrid meeting etiquette to ensure everyone feels included and engaged.

To make the office worth the commute and to create an engaging experience for everyone, leaders need to be intentional about who, where, and why of in-person gathering and set a new meeting etiquette that gives everyone a seat at the table.

Flexible work doesn’t have to mean “always on.”

Many of us have felt like we’ve been working more than ever since early 2020, and our data proves it. Looking at anonymized productivity patterns in Microsoft 365, we’ve seen a steady uptick in the average workday span (+ 13%), after-hours and weekend work (+ 28%, + 14%, respectively), time in meetings (+ 252%), and chats sent (+ 32%). It’s a rising tide that’s not sustainable.

However, there are promising signs that employees are being more intentional with their time and reshaping their workdays. Compared to last year, meetings start later on Mondays and wrap earlier on Fridays, and fewer meetings take place during lunch hour. People are taking much-needed time off, with a 10% year-over-year increase in out-of-office calendar blocks. Employees are also finding ways to recreate the value of short hallway conversations, with a rise in 15-minute ad-hoc calls, which now make up about 60% of all Teams meetings.

While these are promising signs of individual efforts to maintain balance, to make flexible work sustainable, teams must set new norms that establish boundaries so one person’s flexibility doesn’t become another’s “always on.”

Rebuilding social capital looks different in a hybrid world.

We’ve all felt the effects of remote work on our workplace relationships, and our data reinforces it. While 58% of hybrid employees have been able to maintain thriving relationships with their direct teams over the past year, only half of those who are fully remote can say the same, and even fewer (42%) have a strong relationship with those outside of their immediate team. Newly onboarded employees also stand out as a group who will need more support: They have weaker workplace relationships, and 56% say they’re likely to consider changing jobs in the year ahead.

Organizations cannot see a return to the office as the only way to rebuild the social capital we’ve lost in the past two years. By creating the time and space for relationship building to happen and encouraging teams (especially remote and new employees) to prioritize networking and in-person connection, employees can make up lost ground.

The people returning to the office are not the same as those who left in March 2020. The biggest change is their expectations. These past two years have made a lasting imprint that will be felt for years to come. As leaders navigate the ripple effects, a willingness to adapt and embrace new ways of thinking and working will be a competitive advantage that sets thriving organizations at the head of the pack.

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