The Future Forum, a consortium launched by Slack Technologies, Inc., has released a new study that unpacks how 15 months of pandemic work has shifted employee expectations.
The Future Forum Pulse highlights that flexibility now ranks second only to compensation in determining job satisfaction: 93 percent of knowledge workers want a flexible schedule, while 76 percent want flexibility in where they work.
And employers should take note: One in five (21 percent) knowledge workers is likely to jump to a new company in the next year, and more than half (56 percent) are open to looking for a new position.
The Future Forum Pulse is based on data from more than 10,000 knowledge workers in the U.S., Australia, Germany, Japan, France, and the U.K.
The research paints a picture of flexible work that is more nuanced than the choice between office-based or remote work. Instead, flexibility is shown to require a new working model that delivers always-on access to information, creates channels for consistent communication and carves out predictable working rhythms—without having to revert to an office-based 9-to-5 schedule.
“The past year shifted everyone’s expectations: People don’t want to go back to pre-pandemic norms of office life, but they are also eager to turn the page on the all-remote experiment that was forced upon them for the past 15 months. Companies who want to attract and retain top talent must look forward to an entirely new way of working: a flexible model that fundamentally reimagines not just where but also when and how people work.”
Flexible working hours are more important than flexible locations
Flexible work, in all its forms, has become a default expectation for knowledge workers. Ninety-three percent want flexibility in when they work, while 76 percent want flexibility in where they work.
Location flexibility has a significant impact on knowledge workers’ ability to manage stress (58 percent higher for those working fully remote), their work-life balance (45 percent higher) and their overall satisfaction at work (30 percent higher).
But schedule flexibility has an even more dramatic impact: Employees are more productive and significantly less stressed—and they even report being better connected to the people and information they need to get the job done (see below chart for detailed numbers).
But flexibility has its limits. Knowledge workers still want some structure in their workday. Two-thirds (65.6 percent) want a balance between full flexibility and a predictable framework. Typically, this consists of a limited set of core team hours (e.g., 10 a.m.–2 p.m.) for meetings and quick responses, while allowing for individual flexibility the rest of the day.
The office has a role to play, but digital infrastructure is the big differentiator
In the pre-pandemic era, leading-edge companies spent vast sums on offices in prime locations and campuses with elaborate perks. In the post-pandemic era, that same investment should be rerouted to digital infrastructure.
Fewer than 20 percent say they see the office as a place for focused, solo work. Instead, more than 80 percent of knowledge workers say they want access to an office for in-person collaboration and team building—activities like collaborating with co-workers and clients (32.9 percent), attending in-person meetings (19.9 percent) and building camaraderie (25.2 percent).
“People don’t want to go back to pre-pandemic norms of office life”
If offices are primarily for in-person collaboration and team building, then digital channels are where work happens. Companies that make the required investments in new digital infrastructure see dramatic improvements, compared to those relying on legacy systems. This shows up not only in expected areas such as productivity (+54 percent) but also in the sense of belonging (over 2x) and ability to manage stress and anxiety (over 5x).
The Future Forum Pulse also highlights that the frequency of communication within teams has a major impact on employee satisfaction. Knowledge workers who use digital infrastructure to communicate multiple times per day score significantly better than those who rarely communicate: They have nearly 3x the sense of belonging and over 2x the ability to manage stress and anxiety.
Flexible work is a game changer for working mothers
In the U.S., working mothers have carried a disproportionate burden through the pandemic, with half a million more women leaving the labor force than men. Even though women were working from home, the pandemic put a spotlight on the rigidity of work schedules, which led to unprecedented burnout and attrition. The Pulse shows this in stark detail: Women with kids score lower than men with kids across each element of the Pulse, including work-life balance (-38 percent), ability to manage stress (-50 percent) and sense of belonging (-23 percent).
Flexible working models are a potential game changer. Women with kids say that the number one benefit of a flexible schedule is “being better able to take care of personal or family obligations during the day” (men with kids rate “better work-life balance” as the key benefit). Normalizing and encouraging flexibility for all employees is one of the keys to reversing these numbers.
Winning the war for talent depends on asking three big questions
1. How do we offer flexibility as a basic benefit? Giving employees flexibility in when and where they work is not a perk; it’s a core principle of how a modern company operates.
2. How do we reimagine our infrastructure to create connection? It’s no longer just about office space. It’s about the digital center of gravity where work gets done.
3. How do we reskill our managers to ensure that diversity, equity and inclusion are a core competency? This is a vital step toward ensuring that companies have the ability to attract and retain the best, most diverse talent available.
The specific answers will look different for each industry and each company. Winning the war for talent depends on accepting that there is no going back to the pre-pandemic world of work. Attracting and retaining the best talent depends on moving forward.
Image by Sasin Tipchai
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