As companies weigh well-being versus productivity, which way of work will prevail?

New studies reveal the depth of change we’ve experienced and what workers expect moving forward. But will businesses force employees back into old habits?

By Robby Brumberg      @robbybrumberg      
Future of work

Amid all the chaos of the past year and the fallout we’re all still processing, one thing’s pretty clear: Workers want a flexible workplace future.

A study from Harvard Business School Online bears this out. Patrick Mullane, HBS Online’s executive director, says: “Now, as we’re preparing to get back to ‘business as usual,’ it seems professionals don’t want ‘business as usual.’ Instead, they want flexibility from their employers to allow them to maintain the new work/home balance and productivity they have come to enjoy.”

Consider these stats:

  • Eighty-one percent of Harvard’s respondents said they “either don’t want to go back to the office or would prefer a hybrid schedule going forward.”
  • Moving forward, 27% hope to work remotely full time.
  • Sixty-one percent would like to work two or three days a week from home.
  • Just 18% want to go back to the office full time.
  • Seventy-one percent are hesitant to go back until everyone is fully vaccinated.

The survey also revealed that one in three respondents said their job performance, ability to focus, and quality of work had actually improved since the prior year. Nearly half of those surveyed said their collaboration with colleagues, levels of support from co-workers and trust in overall leadership did not change during the pandemic. Working remotely also offers a multitude of health benefits.

Still, some are quite eager for returning to the office. What should companies do?

Managing the next ‘great disruption’

A new Microsoft study delves deeper into employees’ post-pandemic productivity preferences and workplace desires. And how companies are responding (or not) to such internal feedback thus far. The report surfaces a key point to consider when weighing return-to-work options: the massive cultural chasm between top-level execs and employees. As ZDNet points out, Microsoft’s study revealed that 61% percent of leaders described themselves as “thriving” right now. Meanwhile, “those who don’t make the decisions are thriving 23 points less than their bosses.”

ZDNet encapsulates the disconnect:

“I want to be staggered by this. Companies, after all, insist that they’re comprised of teams. Their leaders boast that they’re all one big family. They speak of, good Lord, servant leadership. Yet they somehow haven’t noticed that their brothers and sisters are more miserable than a Russian newscaster?”

Bridging this cultural gap and finding compromises are safe first steps toward gaining clarity on the future of your workplace. So far, it seems some variation of hybrid work is the answer. As CVP of Microsoft 365 Jared Spataro sums it up in the report: “Those impromptu encounters at the office help keep leaders honest. With remote work, there are fewer chances to ask employees, ‘Hey, how are you?’ and then pick up on important cues as they respond. But the data is clear: Our people are struggling. And we need to find new ways to help them.”  

Speaking of helping workers, Microsoft offers several suggestions to keep employees engaged—including enshrining “extreme flexibility,” doling out more consistent and meaningful recognition, and accounting for “digital exhaustion.” Microsoft writes:

“As we look to create a better future of work, addressing digital exhaustion must be a priority for leaders everywhere. It won’t be easy, but consider how to reduce employee workloads, embrace a balance of synchronous and asynchronous collaboration, and create a culture where breaks are encouraged and respected.”

Regardless of which return-to-work path you choose, bear in mind one of the most crucial nuggets from Microsoft’s research: “Thirty-seven percent of employees say companies are making them work too hard.”

If you’re driving employees too hard, without regard for their overall well-being, you could end up not having a workplace to return to at all.