Organizations are facing a hybrid future, with 75% of hybrid or remote knowledge workers saying their expectations for working flexibly have increased. CHROs must lead in evolving their work model from an office-centric design to a human-centric design to drive high performance and intent to stay.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the majority of the global workforce to move into a remote work setting almost overnight. Most organizations responded to this crisis by virtualizing their office-centric design in a bid to safeguard employee productivity. However, virtualizing office-centric design has exacerbated fatigue levels for employees, and organizations who continue down this path face alarming outcomes.
With 75% of hybrid or remote knowledge workers agreeing their expectations for working flexibly have increased, there is no doubt the future is hybrid. Neither the prepandemic office-centric work design — which is now outdated — nor our current virtualized design — which is exhausting employees — will be sustainable in the new hybrid environment. HR leaders must create a new, human-centric model that is fit for the hybrid environment by designing work around employee-driven flexibility, intentional collaboration and empathy-based management.
Hybrid work is here to stay: 75% of hybrid or remote knowledge workers say their expectations for working flexibly have increased. And if an organization were to go back to a fully on-site arrangement, it would risk losing up to 39% of its workforce.
Working in a remote environment is fatiguing, and organizations’ current practice of virtualizing the office-centric work design is exacerbating fatigue. Fatigue can significantly decrease performance, well-being and intent to stay.
Compared to office-centric work design, a human-centric work design reduces fatigue by 44 percentage points, increases intent to stay by 45 percentage points and boosts performance by 28 percentage points.
Note: This research was created using data that focuses solely on knowledge workers. We define knowledge workers asworkers whose job involves handling or using information.
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the majority of the workforce to shift to remote work in early 2020, organizations were faced with the loss of three work design features they had considered essential to achieving key outcomes:
Loss of consistency— In a remote setting, where employees have their own individualized work environments, guaranteeing consistent work experiences becomes impossible. Equal access to similar workspaces, managers and schedules evaporates. Sixty-two percent of HR leaders are concerned about the consistency of employees’ work environments in the hybrid setting.
Loss of serendipity— Without employees colocated on-site, the “watercooler moment” cannot occur, especially since the virtual world is a far more scheduled place. Eighty-seven percent of HR leaders agree it is more difficult for employees to connect serendipitously in the hybrid world, and 77% are concerned about their ability to maintain organic connections.
Loss of visibility— Managers no longer have clear sight of their employees, with work patterns suddenly significantly more obscure. Eighty-eight percent of HR leaders agree it’s harder to read an employee’s body language in the hybrid world, with 60% agreeing their managers are concerned about the level of visibility they have into their employees’ work patterns.
Without consistency, HR leaders fear there can be no equity: Without providing everyone the same working conditions, there is no equitable way of setting employees up for success. Without serendipity, HR leaders fear there can be no innovation: Without the ability to spontaneously connect, employees lose a key source ofcreativity. And without visibility, HR leaders fear that performance is at stake: If managers cannot see their employees working, they cannot coach them effectively.
In response to these losses, HR leaders worked quickly to recreate consistency, serendipity and visibility in the remote environment. To create a more consistent experience between the on-site environment and the remote environment, HR leaders worked to virtualize on-site practices — for example, investing in digital tools that allowed them to carry out a common practice in the office remotely (e.g., whiteboard) (see Figure 1).
To recreate the serendipitous watercooler moment, HR leaders encouraged teams to keep connected by primarily increasing the number of meetings and virtual interactions. Finally, to get back some of the visibility managers had lost, HR leaders adopted monitoring systems that gave them insight into employees’ work patterns, whether through formal tracking technology or more informal methods, such as frequent manager-employee check-ins.
Duplicating office-centric design in the remote environment may have enabled HR leaders to safeguard productivity. However, when conceiving these strategies, HR leaders did not account for the factors unique to the remote environment that create employee fatigue. In fact, the remote environment has three native drivers of fatigue:
Digital distractions — Remote employees are more likely to experience digital distractions than on-site employees, such as email notifications, meetings reminders or instant messaging pop-ups.
Virtual overload — Remote employees are more likely to spend time in virtual interactions, and these are highly cognitively draining due to the additional amount of information their brains must process.
Always-On— Remote employees are more likely to struggle to disconnect from work than on-site employees due to the lack of boundaries between professional and personal life, such as the dress code or the commute.
Unfortunately, strategies that duplicate office-centric design in the remote environment exacerbate these fatigue drivers (see Figure 2).
Investing in more virtual tools leads to even more digital distractions: Hybrid or remote employees who experienced high levels of virtualization are 29% more likely to feel they are working too hard. Increasing the number of meetings between teams leads to greater virtual overload: Hybrid or remote employees who experienced an increase in their time spent in meetings are 24% more likely to feel emotionally drained. And adopting monitoring systems incentivizes employees to work longer hours: 40% of the remote or hybrid workforce have seen an increase in the length of their average workday since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, hybrid or remote employees who feel monitored are 94% more likely to display behaviors of presenteeism.
While many organizations saw employee productivity remain level or increase during the pandemic, many also reported a significant increase in employee fatigue or burnout. Ninety-six percent of HR leaders are more concerned about employees’ well-being today, compared to before the pandemic, and 93% more specifically concerned about employee burnout.
Fatigue has a dangerous impact on organizational outcomes: It can reduce discretionary effort and employee performance by up to 33%, respectively. It can also reduce effective team collaboration by 38% and intent to stay by 54% (see Figure 3).
HR leaders cannot continue operating in a virtualized office-centric work design that is exacerbating fatigue if they are to protect performance, well-being and retention in the long term.
Prepandemic, organizations operated in a primarily in-person environment, with an office-centric work design created accordingly. During the pandemic, organizations rallied quickly to virtualize this design to remain productive in the new, remote environment. Moving forward, the future environment will unquestionably be a hybrid one: 75% of remote or hybrid employees agree their expectations for working flexibly have increased, and only 4% would choose an on-site arrangement as their preferred future option.
HR leaders seem to have a similar mindset to their employees; our recent poll of HR leaders reveals 99% expect at least some of their workforce will be hybrid after the COVID-19 pandemic ends, with 42% of HR leaders expecting a majority of their workforce to operate in a hybrid model.
Organizations facing this hybrid future are presented with three options (see Figure 4):
They can return to their prior in-person environment and force employees back into an office-centric work design. This comes at a heavy cost: Organizations who opt for this choice could lose up to 39% of their workforce.
They can continue with their current virtualized office-centric work design in an environment it was not created for, essentially force-fitting a “square peg in a round hole.” This will drive unsustainable levels of fatigue.
The preferred option would be to create a new work design aligned with the realities of the hybrid environment that reduces fatigue and increases performance.
Progressive organizations who have opted for the third choice are questioning old assumptions about their existing work design and have learned that many of these assumptions are fundamentally flawed. In fact, the three features HR leaders invested in recreating when the workforce went remote — consistency, serendipity and visibility — were myths, having not existed for years (see Figure 5).
As a result, organizations must redefine the principles underlying their work design to be more aligned to the hybrid environment’s current context. To do this, they must first unlearn these three assumptions:
“Consistency is the key to equity.” While on the surface it may seem the fairest way to set employees up for success is to give everyone the same work conditions, in reality employees are all different and have individualized sets of needs that cannot be accommodated by a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead of aiming for equity by equality of experience, HR leaders must instead aim for equity by equality of opportunity: providing everyone an equal opportunity to succeed based on their circumstances.
“Serendipity is the key to innovation.”While the watercooler moment may have sparked conversations that led to innovation, in reality, employees intentionally stood up from their desks and chose to engage with colleagues. In a more distributed world, innovation does not happen by chance but by design: HR leaders must design collaboration accordingly.
“Visibility is the key to performance.” While managers may have relied on visibility in prior decades, in reality, managers can gather a limited amount of information from just seeing their employees at their desks. Instead of trying to regain visibility into employees’ work patterns, HR leaders must rethink management philosophy to drive performance by outcomes, not by inputs.
While the remote environment’s native fatigue drivers serve as a strong business case for rethinking current work design, so too do the benefits of remote working that employees are advocating to keep in a hybrid model. The majority of remote or hybrid employees agree that in the hybrid world they enjoy:
More control over their work environment
Extended connectivity with their peers
Better integration of their personal and professional obligations
HR leaders must design their hybrid model — or “round peg” — by taking these environmental benefits into account as well as the fatigue drivers that they must mitigate (see Table 1).
To create a model for the hybrid environment, organizations must move away from the office-centric design and look to adopt a human-centric design. An office-centric model designs with location at its core, whereas a human-centric model designs with the individual at its core. In the hybrid environment, the workforce will no longer operate solely in one location but move fluidly between multiple locations. As such, a human-centric model is a better fit for an environment in which the individual, not the location, is the stablest pillar.
Moving from an office-centric design to a human-centric design requires organizations to make three key shifts (see Figure 6).
Shift from providing consistent experiences to providing flexible experiences. If HR leaders are to drive equity by equality of opportunity, they must provide employees the flexibility that allows them to create the environment that makes them productive and healthy.
Shift from enabling serendipitous collaboration to enabling intentional collaboration. If HR leaders are to drive innovation by design, they must hardwire intentionality into how, where and when teams collaborate.
Shift from driving visibility-based management to empathy-based management. If HR leaders are to drive performance by outcome, they must equip managers to display empathetic behaviors that help contextualize performance.
When organizations make the shift from office-centric to human-centric design, they see a reduction in fatigue by 44 percentage points, an increase in intent to stay by 45 percentage points and a boost in performance by 28 percentage points (see Figure 7).
In the hybrid environment, where consistency of experience will be impossible, HR leaders must focus on providing employees with the flexibility that allows them an equal opportunity to succeed. Many organizations fear increased flexibility may have an adverse impact on productivity. But in fact, compared to before the COVID-19 pandemic, knowledge workers who are remote or hybrid reported a 1.46 times increase in productivity compared to their on-site counterparts.
Radical flexibility allows employees to rethink not just where and when they work but how, with who and how much. It increases their ability to harmonize their personal and professional goals, and this may be particularly important for talent populations that have traditionally struggled from a one-size-fits-all approach. In fact, 66% of hybrid or remote caretakers report that, in the last 12 months, their ability to manage child care responsibilities has improved.
Flexibility also yields high returns for performance, with employees who enjoy high levels of flexibility almost three times more likely to be high performers.
Four collaboration modes exist when charted by location and time spend (see Figure 8). We charted these options across location (colocated or distributed) and time spend(synchronous or asynchronous) (see Figure 8). In research conversations, HR leaders have placed emphasis on synchronous modes as the most crucial for collaboration. Indeed, when we asked HR leaders to rank those modes they felt were most important for innovation, synchronous collaboration modes (colocated and distributed) ranked top of the list.
Prepandemic, most collaboration happened in the top half of this grid: Employees spent the majority of time colocated. When moving to a remote environment, however, organizations have primarily invested in the bottom left quadrant of the grid. Many HR leaders say their organizations have introduced new tools for virtual meetings (84%) and provided new training on already available virtual tools (77%).
However, this overreliance on synchronous modes is not only draining employees with increasing virtual interactions, it is also based on a false assumption. Asynchronous modes are just as important as synchronous modes for achieving innovation (see Figure 9). Yet, few HR leaders are investing in these modes: Only 17% have implemented no-meeting days, only 11% have provided mental health days, and only 1% have implemented no-email days.
Asynchronous work is important to employees because it allows them to dedicate time for deep focus and restorative moments. Without access to these modes, organizations lose out on a key driver of innovation.
Expanding access to, and quality of, all four of these modes is not just essential to innovation, it is also essential to inclusion. Further research shows different talent segments thrive in each mode. Introverts, for example, who are given opportunities to collaborate outside meetings are 2.15 times more likely to see creative problem solving from their team compared to extroverts. This makes the bottom right quadrant of the grid incredibly important to empowering them to fully participate in team brainstorming. Observing colleagues interact in the physical space is 25% more important for junior-level talent to complete their work compared to their more senior colleagues, making the top right quadrant of the grid incredibly important to them.
Becoming more intentional about where, how and when we use each of these modes will be essential in the hybrid environment to achieving innovation. Indeed, employees who operate in environments with high intentional collaboration are far more likely to achieve team innovation than those with low intentional collaboration (see Figure 10).
While employees in the hybrid environment face an increase in new-in-kind struggles, manager visibility into these struggles will only decrease: 69% of HR leaders agree managers have less visibility into employee work patterns in the hybrid environment. As a result, shifting away from relying on visibility will be essential to hybrid management philosophy.
If managers seek to rely only on what they see, they may focus only on uneven performances without context (see Figure 11). Therefore, organizations must equip managers to contextualize performance in a low-visibility environment by making empathy a key priority.
Empathy-driven managers are defined by six key attributes:
While empathy is an established tenet of management, it’s a more important priority today than before the COVID-19 pandemic. Eighty-nine percent of HR leaders agree it is more important to lead with empathy in a hybrid environment. And employees want empathy from their managers: 82% of employees agree it is important their organization sees them as a person, not just an employee.
However, organizations face three key barriers in driving empathy-based management:
Skills: Managers may not have the skills required to be empathetic.
Mindset: Managers may resist the requirement to be empathetic, believing it is not their job.
Capacity: Managers may not have the time to prioritize empathy.
While HR leaders are aware of the importance and the barriers they face in driving empathy-based management, their investments in solving for these barriers are falling short:
Of HR leaders surveyed, 84% agree it is more important now than before the pandemic for managers to develop soft skills, such as navigating difficult conversations. Yet only 52% of learning and development leaders report increasing their focus on soft skills.
Seventy-four percent of HR leaders agree managers should prioritize empathy over efficiency in their interactions with direct reports. Yet only 35% of HR leaders agree it is more important for managers to focus on factors unrelated to work when evaluating employee performance.
And while 68% of HR leaders agree their managers are overwhelmed with responsibilities, only 14% of organizations have changed manager role design to reduce their responsibilities.
If organizations are to truly shift to an empathy-based management philosophy, they must create a holistic strategy that addresses all three of these barriers and invests equally in each. They can do this by providing training to navigate vulnerable conversations to develop empathetic skills, rethinking role design to delineate team health and psychological safety from project manager responsibilities, and providing extensive prioritization criteria that make space for managers to prioritize well-being.
Redesigning work for the hybrid world requires organizations to fundamentally unlearn those assumptions that have been the foundation of their work design for years and embrace a move to a more human-centric approach that puts the individual at the heart of work design considerations. By making this move away from office-centric design, organizations see outsized impact on intent to stay, performance and well-being in the new hybrid environment.
CHROs seeking to implement human-centric work design should:
Provide flexible work experiences by making flexibility the default, not the exception, in their organization and by developing principles, not policy, that serve as guidance for employees to create their most productive work patterns.
Enable intentional collaboration by democratizing access to, and quality of, multiple work modes that are inclusive of all different employee needs and preferences and that equalize use of asynchronous and synchronous work.
Drive empathy-based management by creating a strategy that solves for three key barriers to empathy: skill, mindset and capacity.
About This Research
We surveyed over 3,000 knowledge workers throughout a wide range of industries, functions, geographies and current work statuses to understand their preferences and challenges related to current and future work design. We also interviewed HR leaders at more than 65 organizations and surveyed over 75 HR executives to determine how organizations are adapting their work design.
The organizations profiled in this research are provided for illustrative purposes only, and do not constitute an exhaustive list of examples in this field nor an endorsement by Gartner of the organizations or their offerings.
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