Gartner Research

6 Key Gaps Between Leader and Employee Sentiment on the Future Employee Experience

Published: 27 July 2021

Summary

As increasing employee expectations for flexibility move employers to consider a hybrid model, a gap is emerging between executive and individual contributor perceptions on the future of the employee experience. CHROs can read our sentiment analysis for each of these populations.

Overview

Key Findings
  • Our research shows wide gaps between individual contributor and executive sentiment across six key areas crucial to planning for the future employee experience.

  • Individual contributors feel far less listened to than executives; 75% of executives agree they take employee perspective into consideration when making decisions, compared to only 47% of individual contributors.

  • Executives feel better equipped to work from home and believe they are already operating in a culture of flexibility, whereas individual contributors report much lower sentiment in these areas.

  • A crisis of trust is exacerbating communications challenges, with only 41% of individual contributors agreeing that senior leadership acts in their best interest — an alarmingly low number, particularly compared to the percentage of executives who agree (69%).

Data Insights

As senior leaders plan for their future of work strategy, it is becoming apparent that there is a gap between their perceptions of flexibility and those of their workforce. Our research outlines six key areas where the gap is alarmingly wide.

Note on the data: This report was compiled using our global employee dataset and cut solely by level (executive and individual contributor). The data does not distinguish between roles that have traditionally benefited from more flexibility, like knowledge workers, and roles that by nature of their design must be on-site, like frontline workers. However, where a respondent replied that the question did not apply to them (“N/A”), we have removed their answer from the dataset to ensure the survey population reflects only those respondents to whom the question is relevant.

A culture of flexibility will become crucial to any future of work strategy as employees look to take advantage of flexible work patterns in a way that harmonizes their own needs with their team and business needs. Our data shows that executive leaders believe they are already operating within a culture of flexibility; but this stands in stark contrast to how individual contributors feel.

Only 57% of individual contributors indicate that their organizational culture embraces flexible work, compared to 75% of executives (see Figure 1). A culture of flexibility promotes remote work as just as valid a mode of working as on-site work and leads with flexibility as the default, not the exception. One of the first barriers organizations must break down to establish this culture is the stigmatization of remote work, which is more keenly felt by individual contributors than by executives. While not all executives seem bought in on the idea that remote working is effectively destigmatized at their organization, with only 59% agreeing, this is still far higher than the percentage of individual contributors (41%).

Another crucial aspect to a culture of flexibility is a hard-wired understanding by the business of its value to the workforce. The overwhelming majority of executives (74%) believe the business understands how flexible work patterns support employees, but only 50% of individual contributors share this view, which suggests many employees do not feel that their need for flexibility is truly seen as a driver of performance. There is also a clear gap between the two populations when it comes to the extent to which they feel they have autonomy over the decision to work flexibly. Seventy-two percent of executives agree they can work out their own flexible work arrangement with their manager, whereas only half of individual contributors feel they have that same privilege. This gap is a heightened risk for employees’ sense of fairness, which in turn will likely become a greater driver of engagement in a hybrid environment.

Figure 1: Sentiment Gap Between Executive and Individual Contributor on Culture of Flexibility

As flexibility becomes a core part of the employment value proposition, organizations must invest strategically to ensure the workforce is set up with the resources to work from home effectively. This involves not just providing the right tools, technology and equipment, but also the role modeling and emotional support that helps mitigate the known risks of remote work, such as difficulties disconnecting at the end of the day or virtual meeting overload.

Our data shows executive leaders are currently better equipped to navigate these challenges than individual contributors, who report lower ability overall to work from home. Only 66% of individual contributors agree they have the technology they need to effectively work remotely, compared to 80% of executives (see Figure 2). Individual contributors are also much less likely to find it is easier to get their work done from home than ever before, with only 56% agreeing, compared to 70% of executives.

Executive leaders report much higher satisfaction with how their organization has shifted to remote work, with 77% agreeing that their organization has effectively adapted to a virtual work environment; This is much higher than the 64% of individual contributors agreeing. Similarly, only 59% of individual contributors agree their organization has invested in providing them with resources that allow them to work the way they would on-site in a virtual environment, compared to 76% of executives.

It is apparent that executives are much more likely to have favorable and productive work conditions at home due to their financial circumstances, and they may be able to more readily afford important support mechanisms of remote work, such as child care, quality desks or ergonomic chairs. Due to their seniority, they are also more likely to have the autonomy to arrange their schedule in a way that suits their life patterns. Perhaps that’s why 84% of executives agree they can pursue their professional goals and personal passions without too much difficulty, compared to only 69% of individual contributors. The gap between executives and individual contributors as relates to their ability to work from home is likely to further disadvantage individual contributors if it makes them less likely to take advantage of flexibility. With fewer executives in the office, their access to learning and promotion opportunities may be at risk.

Figure 2: Sentiment Gap Between Executives and Individual Contributors on Ability to Work Remotely

As organizations move into a hybrid environment, where levels of visibility into employee work patterns will be much lower, the ability to foster trusting relationships with the workforce will be crucial. Without trust, senior leaders will struggle to get their employees on board with the strategic direction of their future of work plans, and employees will be wary of being open and honest about the effectiveness of new ways of working.

Our data shows individual contributors display much lower levels of trust than executives, especially when it comes to flexible work plans. Only 41% of individual contributors agree that senior leadership acts in their best interest — an alarmingly low number, particularly compared to the percentage of executives who agree (69%). The pandemic has provided employees with an unprecedented opportunity to have more control over their workday, and the workforce may now be concerned that this control is about to be taken away from them. Executives are much more likely to feel trusted when it comes to working from home, with 70% agreeing that their organization trusts employees not to abuse work flexibility, compared to 58% of individual contributors (see Figure 3). The gap widens further still when respondents were asked to what extent they agree their leadership demonstrates high levels of trust toward employees; 74% of executives agreed, compared to only 53% of individual contributors.

This crisis in trust will be a challenge for organizations looking to create a model of flexible work founded in part on employee preferences. Without trust, employees may feel wary of sharing their honest opinions about how, where and when they want to work. Indeed, only 56% of individual contributors agree they feel welcome to express their true feelings at work, compared to 74% of executives. This distrust extends to rewards and recognition at the organization, with executives much more likely to agree than individual contributors that employees who help the organization achieve its strategic objectives are fairly rewarded and recognized (73%). Less than half of individual contributors (47%) share this view.

Figure 3: Sentiment Gap Between Executives and Individual Contributors on Trust

As organizations look to design their future of work model, the importance of including employee preferences as part of the design cannot be understated. After more than a year of increased autonomy, employees believe they have the right to influence how, where and when they work. Our data shows, however, that individual contributors are far less likely to feel they are being listened to than executives.

The greatest gap between individual contributor and executive sentiment as relates to inclusiveness of employee preferences lies in the extent to which they believe leadership takes their perspective into consideration when making decisions; 75% of executives feel they do, whereas only 47% of individual contributors agree (see Figure 4). This gap is alarmingly wide and denotes a clear dissonance between these two populations that will prove problematic when organizations start to roll out their flexibility plans. If employees do not feel listened to, they will likely become disengaged, exacerbated by the crisis of trust already examined above.

This dissonance also is evident in the extent to which employees believe their work environment is inclusive of a diverse set of employee needs and preferences; 72% of executives believe this is the case compared to only 59% of individual contributors. This gap should perhaps not be a surprise given that the more senior the population, the typically less diverse. Taking into account diverse viewpoints will be essential to designing an inclusive future work model that is free from inherited biases and systemic discrimination, yet only 60% of individual contributors agree they are given opportunities to provide feedback on ways to improve their work experience. In contrast, 77% of executives feel they have these opportunities, which presents an unfair advantage for that population. Their circumstances are wholly different from their more junior colleagues, so executives’ viewpoints are not fully representative of others’ experiences.

Figure 4: Sentiment Gap Between Executives and Individual Contributors on Inclusiveness of Employee Preferences

Communicating with transparency and authenticity must become a core part of a future of work strategy; without clear communication, employees will be left confused and unsure about how their organization’s strategy has evolved to meet their needs.

Our data shows executives have a very different perception from individual contributors as to the content and effectiveness of their organization’s communication. For example, 71% of executives agree leadership at their organization has expressed a preference for work conditions to return back to normal after the pandemic, signaling a firm belief that their organization will revert to their prepandemic model (see Figure 5). In contrast, only 50% of individual contributors have that same impression, demonstrating a clear disconnect between what executives and individual contributors are hearing. This is likely because executives will be involved in much more senior-level discussions about the strategic direction of their organization, which may shape how they consume the communication rolled out to the entirety of the workforce. This is also reinforced in each of these populations’ beliefs about what the future of work at the organization actually looks like; 67% of executives agree their organization is likely to go back to the way things were before the pandemic, compared to only 51% of individual contributors. Clearly, while each of these populations may be receiving the same communication about the organization’s future of work plans, they may be interpreting it differently.

Similarly, executives are much more likely to feel that this communication is honest and open, with 73% agreeing, compared to just over half of individual contributors (52%). These perceptions of honesty and openness translate to the extent to which these populations trust their organization’s communication: 76% of executives agree they do, compared to only 55% of individual contributors. Organizations are clearly struggling to get consistent messaging across to their workforce in their communication, and this only furthers the gap between their senior and junior populations.

Figure 5: Sentiment Gap Between Executives and Individual Contributors on Organizational Communications

As employees keep a close eye on their leadership teams’ decision making when it comes to the future of work, their sense of connection to the organization may be compromised if these decisions do not resonate with their own preferences and aspirations for a more flexible work model. Our data shows individual contributors are already much less likely to feel a sense of purpose at their organization compared to executives; while 77% of executives agree they feel like they are a part of something important at their organization, only 59% of individual contributors feel similarly (see Figure 6).

There seems to be a distinct dissonance between how executives and individual contributors feel about important aspects of organizational purpose, such as a commitment to diversity or a sense of shared community and care. Only 52% of individual contributors agree people in their organization care about them, compared to 73% of executives. Clearly, executives report much more positive sentiment about how included and regarded they are in the organization. The more alarming statistic is perhaps how differently these two populations feel about their organization’s diversity; 70% of executives believe that managers at their organization are as diverse as the broader workforce at their organization, compared to only 52% of individual contributors. If executives do not become aware of this gap, their efforts in sustaining organizational purpose as they build the future of work may not succeed. They may communicate messaging, as already seen, that will not resonate with the majority of the workforce if it is based on their own sentiments that are so distinctly different from their more junior colleagues.

Figure 6: Sentiment Gap Between Executives and Individual Contributors on Organizational Purpose

If left unaddressed, the widening gap between individual contributor and executive sentiment may lead to a critical failure to build trust and employee buy-in for future of work plans. Employees who do not feel listened to will perceive their organization’s actions as hollow and siloed, and this may have a damaging impact on their engagement and intent to stay. Executive leaders must take actions now to close the gap between what they are seeing and feeling and what the majority of their workforce is feeling and seeing. To do this, they must:

  • Adopt employee listening techniques. By employing strategies like pulse surveys or focus groups, organizations will have a stronger understanding of where there is dissonance between populations on the future work model.

  • Include diverse groups in crafting communication. Ensure the communications team is inclusive of diverse voices and differing viewpoints to create maximum resonance with the workforce.

  • Acknowledge the gap. Employees who have enjoyed more control over their workday in the last year will feel resentful of leadership teams that try to take it away from them without a worthy cause. Leaders must demonstrate awareness of the significant gaps between executive and individual contributor sentiment on this sensitive topic.

  • Test communication. Run messaging by various populations to test how it is received, and ensure the content feels resonant and honest.

  • Be as explicit as possible. Inconsistently received messages create confusion. It is better for leaders to state clearly what they do and — crucially — do not know to ensure populations are not consuming different messages.

Evidence

This report is based on analysis of the 2021 Gartner Hybrid Work Employee Survey, which surveyed 4,000 employees across a wide range of industries, functions, geographies and current work statuses to understand their preferences and challenges related to current and future work design.

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