Since the pandemic's start, Microsoft invested in a series of studies aiming at measuring where leaders and employees are in their expectations around the future of work. This week, Microsoft published its latest study focused on hybrid work. Microsoft surveyed 20,000 people in 11 countries and analyzed trillions of Microsoft 365 productivity signals, along with LinkedIn labor trends and Glint People Science findings. The data collected points to three urgent steps leaders must take to drive alignment expectations and empower people to work how they want to. Because according to Microsoft, "when employees thrive, organizations flourish," and who could argue with that?
End Productivity Paranoia
Productivity was the biggest concern when we entered the pandemic. How would employees be able to work away from their peers and the office? And yet, despite outdated PCs, poor connectivity, children and pets all around and sharing our home office with spouses and roommates, we did it. We were more productive than ever. So much so that many of us were burned out.
As companies are figuring out the return to the office, there seems to be a substantial discrepancy between how employees feel and how leaders feel about productivity. Most employees (87%) report being productive at work, and productivity signals across Microsoft 365 continue to climb. At the same time, 85% of leaders say that the shift to hybrid work has made it challenging to have confidence that employees are being productive. This lack of confidence in their own people leads companies to use technology to track activity rather than impact. In addition, employees lack context on how and why they're being tracked, which can undermine trust and lead to what Microsoft labels "productivity theater"
Eighty-one percent of employees say it's important that their managers help them prioritize their workload, but less than a third (31%) say their managers have ever given clear guidance during one-on-ones. Sadly, managers themselves seem to be lacking direction, with 74% of people managers saying more guidance on prioritizing their own work would help their performance, and 80% say they'd personally benefit from more clarity from senior leadership on impactful priorities.
At an event held in London to discuss hybrid work and the study, Microsoft's CEO, Satya Nadella, said about work: "Work is about having employees thrive. And in order for employees to thrive, multiple things have to happen. They have to have that sense of empowerment, feel the energy and do meaningful work. All three of those things must be true and measured and something that all leaders and managers have to drive. So that's really the work in front of us, recognizing that this is a real structural change, not harkening back to 2019, but lean into what the expectations are going forward."
Embrace the fact that people come in for each other
The mismatch of employer's desires and employees' needs does not end with the view on productivity. Driven by this productivity paranoia, many organizations have been trying to get people back into the office. Due to burnout and a new sense of worth, employees have been asking for more flexibility. At a minimum, employees want a good reason to justify the commute into the office. Policy alone will not reverse this reality: 73% of employees and 78% of those business decision-makers say they need a better reason to go in than just company expectations. While some employees might return to the office because of concerns around career progression opportunities, especially in a less certain job market, they will do so reluctantly, impacting their overall engagement and job satisfaction.
The return to the office should be about the people. More specifically, returning to the office must be about rebuilding social capital. At the beginning of the pandemic, while we had to adjust, we could work remotely because, in most cases, we had built social capital we could leverage. However, as the pandemic prolonged, our social capital started to erode. This is why new employees and younger employees struggled the most staying connected. Their social capital was weaker to begin with.
The study makes it very clear: the return to the office is about people. Connecting with colleagues is a key motivation for working in person. 84% of employees would be motivated by the promise of socializing with co-workers, while 85% would be motivated by rebuilding team bonds. Employees also report that they would go to the office more frequently if they knew their direct team members would be there (73%) or if their work friends were there (74%).
To my earlier point, younger employees are especially keen to use the office to build their social capital, those connections that will facilitate career growth and build a sense of belonging. Seventy-eight percent of Gen Zers and Millennials vs. 72% of Gen Xers and older are particularly looking to connect with senior leadership and their direct managers. Seventy-nine percent of Gen Zers vs. 68% of Gen Xers and older are also particularly motivated by working in person to see their work friends.
After almost three years away from the office, the need to reconnect is obvious. Roughly half of the employees say their relationships outside their immediate work group have weakened (51%) and feel disconnected from their company (43%).
All that said about the office, we know remote work is here to stay. In September, 15% of LinkedIn's job postings show as remote, highlighting that connecting employees cannot happen solely in the office. Timely and transparent communication is crucial to keeping everyone engaged and informed. According to nearly all business decision makers (96%) and employees (95%), effective communication is the most critical skill they'll need in the year ahead. And communication will need to be authentic, not just informative. Employees list authenticity as the #1 quality a manager can have in supporting them to do their best work (85%), and 83% of business decision-makers say it's essential for their senior leadership to show up authentically.
Re-recruit your employees
The report's final point is the importance of investing in your talent by prioritizing learning and development. Employees want to grow in their job, or they will leave. Even worse, they will stay and just disengage. Fifty-six percent of employees and 68% of business decision makers say there are not enough growth opportunities in their company to make them want to stay long-term. Yet, many employees believe that to learn, they must leave: 55% say the best way to develop their skills is to change companies.
As employees embrace a new "worth-it" equation, they're increasingly turning to job-hopping, the creator economy, side hustles, and entrepreneurship to achieve their career goals. Younger generations are the most likely to aspire to be their own boss, with 76% of Gen Zers and Millennials saying this is a goal versus 63% of those who are Gen Xers and older. These younger generations are also more likely to say they'd stay at their current company longer if the company gave them the flexibility to pursue side projects or businesses for additional income (77% vs. 66%).
At Microsoft's London event, LinkedIn's CEO, Ryan Roslansky, said that LinkedIn re-evaluated the entire culture and values for the new world of work going through a process of re-onboarding 20,000 employees: "No matter if you've been there for 20 years or two months. We're taking everyone through a process of re-onboarding. People want to feel very connected to their work. They want to feel connected to the company, connected to their manager. They want to know that their work matters. And one of the most important ways to do that is to ensure you have the right people with the right skills in the right role."
As economic pressure mounts, organizations will face some difficult decisions. Balancing employees' needs and shareholders' values will not always be easy. Yet leaders must recognize the actual value of energizing and empowering employees. Jared Spataro, Microsoft's CVP of Modern Work, said it best: "Energized and empowered employees truly are the competitive advantage for every organization."