Hybrid work is underway. Incentivising the return to workplaces has been a struggle for leaders as, for many workers, the freedom and flexibility offered by remote work makes it a high priority.
The set of challenges that faces leaders, however, is not simply finding the right incentive to get workers back to the office. Rather, the hybrid work world has created a new set of priorities in employees regarding both their teams and their leaders.
Microsoft recently released a trends report, highlighting the statistics and numbers that emerged from research into workplace relations within hybrid work models.
Here are 3 key insights from their findings.
1. We Are Overworked, But Disengaged
The physical separation of employees from workplaces has raised concerns regarding productivity in business leaders. Keeping track of people’s engagement and efficiency was far more straightforward when we were all in the same room. While employers’ confidence in productivity is tentative, employees themselves report high levels, and Microsoft 365 productivity signals reflect this.
To replace the physical ability to keep track of employee work, many employers have turned to digital tracking tools which typically focus on activity as opposed to actual impact. One of the results of this is a breakdown of trust between teams and leaders, and an uncertainty in employees surrounding why they are being tracked in the first place. Beyond this, their knowledge of being tracked provokes a paranoia in employees who then feel the need to perform their productivity and prove that they are working, on top of actually working.
Added to these pressures, team leaders and colleagues are conducting more meetings than ever, with the average user’s number of Teams meetings per week having increased by 153% globally between the start of the pandemic and September 2022. This is understandable, given the need to remain connected with employees working remotely. However, this comes at the cost of genuine engagement, with 42% of participants multitasking during meetings by checking and sending emails.
Further stats reveal a lack of genuine engagement, with 51% reporting weakened relationships beyond their immediate team, and 43% reporting feelings of disconnection from their company.
Despite being digitally overwhelmed, employees remain disconnected.
2. We Are Demanding Incentive
Having had a taste of the freedom and flexibility of work-from-home arrangements, many workers are reluctant to return to offices. Economic incentives have been attempted, as have simple job requirements and expectations, but flexibility surrounding work locations has remained a priority for employees.
As the last point suggested, however, what employees are really missing from the office is the sense of connection that comes with physical proximity. Remote work proved to many the value of incidental conversations in increasing employee connections and sparking innovative ideas, and these benefits have not been forgotten.
The stats tell the same story: 84% of employees would be motivated by socialising with co-workers, and 85% would be motivated by rebuilding team bonds. 73% of employees say they would go into the office more if their team was there and 74% would do the same if their friends were there.
The good news for leaders is that employees will return to the office – they just need the right incentive.
These motivations are particularly true for younger employees who are keen to build their connections, networks and reputations in the early stages of their career. Gen Z is especially motivated by the promise of seeing work friends with 79% of them reporting this as opposed to 68% of Gen X.
These numbers align with research that was conducted in the first few months of the pandemic which revealed that younger generations struggle with remote work much more than their older counterparts. Four in five of this younger cohort reported feeling more disconnected from their workplaces and colleagues – a figure that was significantly lower for Gen X and Baby Boomers. The impact on training and mentoring for young employees is also a factor to consider. Stifel Financial Corp Ronald J. Kruszewski points to the fact that junior employees learn the ropes “…by sitting beside more experienced colleagues and watching them work. That’s hard to do remotely”.
3. We Need More From Our Leaders
Given the new expectations of leaders and employees in what is clearly a new version of work, leaders need to pivot. Trust is more of a priority than ever, as the connection and rapport between leaders and teams that are physically separated depends on it.
Authenticity has become a priority, with 85% of employees listing it as the number one quality a supportive manager can have. This priority is unsurprising considering the prevalent feeling of disconnection, but it is significant all the same. The leaders who successfully engage their teams in the hybrid work world will be the ones who show up authentically, connect genuinely with workers and facilitate an environment where team members can do the same.
Communication remains essential. As is evidenced by the engagement stats for teams meetings, it is not the regularity of communication that matters, but the clarity. Clarity surrounding expectations and priorities has been revealed as a key need in employees, with 80% stating that they would benefit from more clarity from leaders surrounding priorities.
Even more significantly, employees who report having this clarity are
- 4 times more likely to say they plan to stay at the company for at least two years
- 7 times as likely to say they rarely think about looking for a new job
- 5 times as likely to say they’re happy at their current company
With staff retention being crucial for businesses across every industry right now, these numbers are especially important.
There are many benefits to hybrid work models, but their remains a range of issues affecting employees and employers alike. Employees are craving connection, and they are willing to get to the office if they will find it there. The engaged teams of this era will be the ones led by leaders who facilitate connection, prioritise relationships and model authenticity.
 2022, ‘Hybrid Work Is Just Work. Are We Doing It Wrong?’, Microsoft WorkLab, 22 September.
 2020, ‘Over 90% of Young Workers Having Difficulty Working from Home, Survey Finds’, Smartsheet, 22 April.
 Cutter, C. 2020, ‘Companies Start to Think Remote Work Isn’t So Great All’, The Wall Street Journal, 24 July.
About the Author: Michael is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.