Though they might look like the same people, those who left the office at the start of the pandemic have dramatically different priorities, expectations, and needs than those who are returning today, according to Microsoft’s second annual Work Trend Index.
The follow up to last year’s report — which earned Microsoft a spot on Fast Company’s top 10 most innovation companies in data science list — combines insights from more than 30,000 workers in 31 countries and trillions of anonymized data points from its workplace products. The findings paint a picture of a workforce that prioritizes its own health and well-being over work accomplishments, demands greater flexibility, and is more willing to switch employers to get what they want out of work.
“We’ve changed in some fundamental ways in terms of how we think about life, how we think about what’s important to us, and in particular, how we think about work,” says Jared Spataro, corporate vice president of Microsoft 365 and Teams. Microsoft is already incorporating these findings into its workplace culture and hybrid policies. For example, the company allows most of its global workforce to work remotely up to 50% of the time without seeking permission from their manager. Each employee will also meet with their managers one-on-one to discuss these policy changes and align their expectations.
Spataro refers to this transition as “great expectations,” as demonstrated by five major insights gathered in the report.
Employees have a new “worth it” equation
Workers have taken the temporary break from business as usual to revaluate their priorities. According to the study, 53% now put their health and wellbeing over work. Of the 18% of respondents who quit their jobs last year, the top three motivators were wellbeing, work life balance, and flexibility, with compensation ranking seventh.
“I like to think of it almost like a ‘new deal’ that employees are coming to the office with,” says Spataro. “It’s really important for business leaders to understand that.”
Managers feel wedged between leadership and employee expectation
Most employers are struggling to meet these new expectations, according to the report, putting greater pressures on managers. For example, 73% of workers want the flexibility of remote work to continue; yet 50% of business leaders plan to bring employees back into the office full time. As a result, 54% of managers feel their leadership is out of touch with employee expectations.
“We essentially have a showdown as managers try to figure out how to navigate between leadership and employees,” says Spataro.
Leaders Need to Make Offices Worth the Commute
Two years of remote work have challenged the prior perception that offices are the only place employees are productive. According to the study, 38% of hybrid workers say their greatest obstacle is knowing when and why they go to the office, and 51% want to be fully remote in the next year. Respondents also complained that many returned to the office only to spend their days in virtual meetings.
“It’s really important for business leaders to be much more explicit about when you come into the office, why you come into the office, and how you arrange to come into the office so you’re [doing in-person activities] that matter,” says Spataro, adding that 54% of business leaders are redesigning their office spaces to be more hybrid-friendly.
Flexible work doesn’t mean always-on
The length of the average workday has been rising exponentially over the last two years, according to the report. Spataro emphasizes that employers need to establish boundaries when implementing flexible work.
“The good news is we are seeing — from productivity patterns in Outlook — that people are becoming more intentional with their time,” he says. For example, meetings are starting later on Mondays, ending earlier on Fridays, and unscheduled “informal” chats of 15 minutes or less now make up 60% of Microsoft Teams meetings.
Rebuilding Social Capital in a Hybrid World
During the pandemic ties with immediate work groups strengthened, while more casual relationships suffered, based on the frequency and duration of virtual interactions. According to the report, 58% of hybrid workers have thriving relationships with immediate team members, compared with 50% of remote workers.
“Folks that see their colleagues in person are maintaining workplace bonds that are strong with both their immediate and their broader team, but remote workers are starting to suffer,” says Spataro.