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3 Strategies to Help Employees Thrive in the New “Normal”

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As businesses continue to feel their way into a post-pandemic world and plan for a new normal, managers and organizational leaders are dealing with a number of immediate and near-term decisions. And big questions remain: How can I motivate my employees while balancing work from home and safe return-to-work policies? Is there a way to get employees to be creative and come up with innovative ideas to help them and the organization navigate the uncharted workplace reality? If you’re considering questions like these, what you’re really asking is: How do I help my employees thrive?

Employee thriving is a psychological state in which they feel that they can adapt, evolve, and even transform themselves. Researchers have found thriving employees to be passionate about their work and are willing to continually “show up and be counted.” These qualities are essential not only as a buffer for stress and uncertainty, but they’re also potentially a secret weapon in responding and succeeding in uncertain times.

Most managers would agree that the Covid-19 pandemic has been an extreme event: A low-probability but high-consequence occurrence. When the pandemic first hit, none of us had a clear reference to compare it to — we had to navigate our jobs without a roadmap. Now, as we emerge into a post-pandemic reality, one thing is certain: Viewing the pandemic as a “one-off,” never-to-happen-again event is a significant missed opportunity to learn to succeed in future extreme events, which surely will come (hopefully not in the form of a global pandemic).

Contrary to common belief, your employees focus less on how the crisis unfolded and more on how your organization responded to it. Therefore, it’s critical to attend to how they interpreted your actions — and inactions. Our extensive research on psychological contracts, idiosyncratic deals, and leadership identified three organizational strategies you should use to develop thriving employees: recalibrate expectations, reestablish commitment, and rebuild capacity. Before you can implement these “three Re’s,” you need to understand employee sensemaking.

The Importance of Sensemaking

Sensemaking describes the psychological process by which individuals construct meaning as they interact with their environment and with others. All of us engage in sensemaking as we ascribe meaning to our experiences. Most experiences, including those at work, tend to be routine and therefore require little or no sensemaking. However, extreme events like the pandemic defy easy interpretation and response.

Because individuals will always make sense of things with themselves as the central focus, your employees are expending significant energy and effort to understand the post-pandemic workplace and asking, “How does this affect me?” This offers you and your organization a unique opportunity to nurture your employees — your most important resource — by ensuring that they feel valued and cared for. This is the essence of the three “Re’s” and will free up employees to seek new and innovative opportunities in significant and unexpected ways, allowing them to thrive in the new normal.

Recalibrate Expectations

Common organizational responses to Covid-19 that resulted in cost-cutting measures and layoffs sent negative messages to your employees that probably set in motion a self-defeating cycle of anxiety, neglect, disengagement, lower productivity, and even turnover. Our research found that employees with relational qualities, such as loyalty and organizational commitment (in other words, the most valuable members of your organization) are particularly prone to such adverse responses.

To recalibrate expectations, you have to demonstrate that your organization is open to being creative and innovative about the work relationship you and your employees have. It’s less about your contractual relationship with them and much more about their perceptions of how supportive your organization is and how effective you are as their manager.

Recalibrating expectations as the pandemic winds down requires a deliberate approach and the active involvement of your employees. Our research on successfully negotiated individualized work arrangements, referred to as idiosyncratic deals (“i-deals”) has shown positive outcomes for both employees and organizations. These i-deals enable employees to adapt work arrangements to better suit their personal needs, values, and preferences, and benefit you through enhanced productivity and decreased absenteeism.

These customized arrangements can vary in nature and scope. Some employees may want flexibility in their work schedules, which could look like different start and end times than their peers or the option to work during off-hours, for example. Others may have individualized preferences regarding their work location. Some may ask for role-crafting that allows them to stay current and challenged. (For example, consider a print-marketing employee who wants to branch out into digital marketing.)

Individualized arrangements can be logistically challenging. However, our research found something surprising: individualized arrangements even minor in scope can have a comparable positive effect on career satisfaction and perceptions of organizational support as more major accommodations.

There are two keys to success. The first is a willingness to explore and engage in creative ideas, as they’re likely to yield unexpected and important benefits. Consider a rising employee who’s upset that the pandemic recovery has delayed their promotion. As a manager aware of their career aspirations, you may negotiate an arrangement for them to attend an executive program to further develop their skills — and thus be ready for the much-anticipated promotion when the company is on a stronger footing. Recalibrating expectations using this type of thinking is a win-win for both parties: skill development and career advancement for the employee and retention of a motivated and skilled employee for you.

The second key to success is taking the right tone in your discussions with employees. These discussions on renegotiating work expectations call for transparency and reciprocity. Communicate your needs openly so that organizational concerns, such as the viability of the business, are shared, but do so while acknowledging and addressing your employees’ needs. This sends the message that you’re ready to support your employees so that they in turn can be productive members of the organization.

Overall, recalibrating expectations using an individualized rather than a one-size-fits-all approach will result in radical improvement for your organization because you’re investing in a committed, skilled workforce.

Reestablish Commitment

Reestablishing commitment involves giving honest explanations for why you, as a representative of your organization, made the decisions you did and how you came to make them. In the absence of such explanations, employee sensemaking tells us that your employees will fill in the blanks with their own explanations, often to the detriment of the organization.

With extreme events like the pandemic, employees engage in social comparison, which is to psychologically compare their situations with actual or imagined individuals. Such comparisons often result in your employees believing they’ve been treated unfairly, which produces negative views of the organization. Reestablishing commitment helps prevent these unfavorable judgments. It requires you to go on the record as to how the crisis was managed, which allows you to build credible trust and confidence with and in your employees.

Reestablishing commitment can be done in three ways:

  1. A mitigating explanation, which involves a straightforward presentation of why you did what you did (think following local health mandates).
  2. A justification approach, which legitimizes your actions by referencing an authoritative source (think CDC guidelines and other research that guided your actions).
  3. A reframing approach, which calls for highlighting outcomes that would have been worse than the current situation (think extreme workplace quarantining practices in some parts of the world).

Reestablishing commitment demands transparency. As one of our research subjects so eloquently said, “Engage everyone by having leadership down through the ranks of personnel share what challenges they faced personally and professionally.” This organizational action says, “We’re all in this together.” It also reinforces values of empathy and caring so that these values, rather than random circumstances, serve as guideposts for your employees. This serves to normalize the situation so that employees can look beyond the uncertainty and strive to be productive.

Rebuild Capacity

Rebuilding capacity addresses beliefs about your company’s ability to take effective action. It involves giving systematic attention to what best serves the organization and what needs to be let go. For example, one of our research subjects, an owner of a counseling services firm, calls her capacity-building strategy, “Get lean to grow” — to walk away from relationships and agreements that no longer “work” and invest intentionally in systems and technology that promote transparency and growth. Money freed up from ending unproductive relationships and contracts can be invested in systems that replace outdated legacy management information and reporting infrastructure. Employees can now be better informed and be more productive, as their time and effort is better served without the frustrations of dealing with burdensome documentation and communication systems.

Rebuilding capacity also means investing in employee skills that energize them and benefit the organization. For example, a private higher education institution serving a predominantly Hispanic student population now offers free Spanish lessons to all institutional members. Now all employees (faculty, administrators, staff, etc.) feel they can serve students and their parents better because they have some language proficiency, which communicates respect for and honor of the families’ culture.

Another capacity-building strategy is to support employees in building professional networks. Employees can discover efficient work practices through trade groups and industry-specific organizations. One of our research subjects discussed how the pandemic has been a golden opportunity to partner with new firms with strong presence in the industry, allowing for cross-pollination of ideas and skills. For example, a company committed to social justice issues could invite prominent national speakers on diversity, equity, and inclusion to give a company-wide presentation with follow-up breakout sessions about how to apply some of the concepts to the company.

Personal networks also provide support and feedback for developmental goals. For example, a manager could sponsor an employee for a sustainability conference and another employee for a meeting focused on prevention of ransomware attacks.

Taken together, these networks play a vital role in building employee capacity through access to support, feedback, insight, resources, and information that they’ll bring back to the company. This fosters innovative and creative organizational responses. Investing in employees’ sense of self-efficacy helps buffer against the hopelessness and defensiveness that extreme events engender by allowing them to identify how they could intervene and how they can make a difference, and thus how they can act effectively.

There’s still uncertainty about what the workplace new normal will be, and it’s easy for companies to default to old routines and habits. Our three Re’s are planned opportunities that you should take now to develop thriving employees — those who experience learning and vitality at work and feel that they make difference. By recalibrating expectations, reestablishing commitment, and rebuilding capacity, you strengthen your company’s most important asset to weather the next unexpected, extreme event — whenever it comes.

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How the Best Teams Keep Good Ideas Alive

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Leaders face rising pressure to include more voices in day-to-day decision making. Soliciting diverse perspectives across the organizational hierarchy makes good business sense: It’s been shown to improve innovation and help employees feel valued and avoid burnout. But have these pressures resulted in more ideas reaching fruition for the average team? Not really.

In our work as researchers, consultants, and teachers, we’ve seen that “good intentions” aren’t enough when it comes to implementing employees’ ideas. Leaders have plenty of stories and tactics to encourage people to share their ideas — and as many reasons for rejecting them. Research shows that asking people to speak up without listening to what they say can be counterproductive. Energetic star employees can become discouraged and even quit when they’re invited to share ideas that don’t go anywhere compared to when they’re not invited at all.

Many leaders feel stuck. They know that employee perspectives are crucial for retention and innovation, but they struggle to single-handedly create a culture where employees are empowered both to speak up with ideas and to see them through — where it’s the good idea that matters, rather than the role or status of the person who initially raises it. Based on our research on “voice cultivation,” we’ve identified several tactics leaders and their teams can use to help ensure good ideas make it to implementation.

Voice cultivation can overcome initial rejection

To understand how good ideas come to fruition or die on the vine, we spent two years in a health care organization tracking instances of “upward voice” — that is, employees’ constructive ideas for improving organizational or team functioning. We witnessed many rejections, but we also found that around a quarter of the hundreds of ideas we followed were ultimately implemented.

The ideas that made it shared a process we came to call “voice cultivation”: the collective, social process through which employees help lower-power team members’ voiced ideas reach implementation. There were five specific tactics we saw team members engage in to resuscitate initially rejected ideas and then keep them alive over time: amplifying, developing, legitimizing, exemplifying, and issue raising. Team members in most work settings can adapt and apply these tactics strategically.

Amplifying

Publicly repeating someone else’s good idea, especially at later times and through multiple communication channels, can help push an idea forward. This is particularly true for those trying to influence authority figures. In the clinic, we observed many instances of this. For example, a nurse shared how overwhelmed she was with clinic calls that limited her in-clinic nursing work and proposed different strategies for handling calls. The doctor thanked her but rejected her idea because the problem was huge and “[couldn’t] be fixed.” However, the idea lingered, and other team members brought up the nurse’s idea again even while she was out on maternity leave. By the time she returned, the team was experimenting with different call-routing strategies.

Similar amplification tactics were evident among women staffers in the Obama administration. According to the Washington Post, “When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution — and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.” And during a recent conversation at NYU Law, Justice Sonia Sotomayor described how she and the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg overcame constant interruptions and appropriation of their ideas by amplifying each other’s ideas. In our latest executive workshop at Harvard, Dr. April Camilla Roslani, a surgeon and university dean, shared that she encouraged her team “to repeat or echo good ideas in the event that they are missed or not valued and to recognize the person who brought them up originally.” Amplifying allows anyone who hears a good idea to ensure that it’s not lost.

Developing

Sometimes giving an idea the benefit of the doubt is sufficient. We saw team members keep rejected ideas alive by asking clarifying questions that helped them and others better understand them. This strategy is particularly helpful in interdisciplinary teams, where people from different professions and genders often speak past each other, using different jargon and linguistic patterns. The difficulties and opportunities posed by an idea that are salient to some team members may be invisible to others. Developing one another’s ideas helps make them legible across the team.

Legitimizing

Vouching for ideas that you believe in is critical for their success. We saw team members keep ideas alive by sharing examples of a similar personal experience or of how a similar idea worked at a competitor or admired peer institution, or by describing how the idea could be beneficial and doable at their organization. It prevented ideas from lower-power members from being dismissed.

We’ve seen the importance of this tactic even outside organizations. For example, La Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, an organization of farmworker women, wrote an open letter in which they legitimized the workplace sexual harassment experiences of their “sisters” in Hollywood, helping prompt the creation of the Time’s Up legal defense fund.

Exemplifying

Researchers who study innovation and conflict highlight the importance of discussing ideas that are tangible rather than amorphous. Finding a way to show preliminary evidence that a previously rejected idea is feasible and important can help revive it. In keeping with the saying that it is sometimes better to beg forgiveness than ask permission, if you’re lower in the organizational hierarchy, taking the initiative to demonstrate in small ways how an idea can actually work in practice or to collect data as part of your day-to-day work can prompt discussions that help keep an idea alive.

Allies can exemplify, but the idea holder can also engage in this work. For example, we observed a receptionist propose that staff should have a seat in leadership team meetings — an idea that was rejected when the team leader explained that a similar proposal didn’t receive enough support a few years back. Though the idea was rejected several more times, the receptionist volunteered to liaise between the team and leadership, making herself indispensable to both and earning a seat at the leadership table.

Issue-raising

Supporting an idea does not mean unconditional support. Publicly calling out the weaknesses associated with an idea can keep it alive by providing allies the chance to openly generate solutions and address concerns directly. In fact, we found the best way to “kill” an idea was to not raise issues or name specific weaknesses, preventing allies from having an opening to address concerns. Acknowledging all the barriers an idea would face helped the idea holder prepare and helped allies engage in joint problem solving. Issue-raising is not about silencing but rather acknowledging that it might take time and work for an idea to find its footing.

Promoting voice cultivation

To make sure their employees’ good ideas get a better chance at implementation, leaders should train their teams to engage in voice cultivation. By introducing voice cultivation to their teams, leaders:

  • Set the tone that team members can build each other up or at minimum grant each other the benefit of the doubt
  • Promote teamwork rather than competition by rewarding team members for developing others’ good ideas
  • Provide practical behaviors the team can engage in and recognize
  • Create accountability structures outside of the leaders’ own good intentions

That last point can be tricky for leaders since they’re setting up conditions through which their team can wield some collective power in pushing ideas through to implementation — ideas the leader may not always support. However, they might find longer-term benefits in employee morale by modeling voice cultivation in their teams, and they might also find it useful in meetings where they’re the lower-power team member.

Here are two tools leaders can use to promote voice cultivation on their teams.

Choose the right tactics

A vital feature of leadership is to name and give meaning to vital issues that others intuit but may lack the language to articulate or feel they have the permission to address. This is absolutely the case for voice cultivation. By sharing the concept of voice cultivation with their teams and helping team members reflect on opportunities to implement cultivation tactics, leaders can set the stage for active voice cultivation. Doing so may offer leaders the secondary benefit of setting a tone of psychological safety and inclusiveness on their teams, by emphasizing that they believe everyone has important contributions to make in both raising ideas and seeing them through.

To assist leaders in bringing voice cultivation to their teams, the following table presents an overview of the cultivation tactics and offers example reflection questions to help team members reflect on opportunities to implement these tactics in their own work. Leaders can share this information to spark a discussion as part of a launch for a new team or as part of a “relaunch” for a team seeking to reset its norms and work processes. Other teams that are ongoing may already be using voice cultivation tactics, and leaders can further advance progress by recognizing, naming, and encouraging their continued use.

Consider the environment

Voice cultivating tactics are most powerful when they’re responsive to why an idea was initially rejected. For example, if those with the power to greenlight an idea don’t think the idea is important or possible, amplifying is the wrong tactic, but legitimizing it could provide the support needed to push it forward. This is particularly true of ideas that ask those in power to give up or change something that’s important to them. In those instances, engaging in issue-selling is critical to fostering the opportunity for joint problem raising and joint problem solving. In the following table, we suggest some groupings of tactics — allyship, co-crafting, problematizing, and persistence — that can be responsive to specific forms of resistance.

***

From our work with leaders across industries, we’ve seen that many are embracing new behaviors to create more inclusive and participative work environments. Voice cultivation can be a helpful addition to their repertoire.

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3 Strategies for Managing an Understaffed Team

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Thanks to continuing resignations, many employees’ workloads have increased to untenable levels. There are a few common solutions for staffing shortages: redistributing work, hiring replacement employees and outsourcing lower-level tasks. But amid the Great Resignation’s persistent talent shortage, many managers are finding that their usual go-to solutions aren’t enough. The author presents three strategies for managers struggling with understaffed teams.

With job resignations still up 23% above pre-pandemic levels, many organizations are short-staffed. When just a few employees resign, their workloads can usually be redistributed among the remaining employees. Indeed, resources abound to help managers fairly divide workload and to help employees manage the increased workload. However, as departments of 50 become departments of 35 and teams of 10 become teams of seven, workload redistribution is an untenable long-term solution.

In addition to redistributing work, there are a couple common solutions for staffing shortages: hiring replacement employees and outsourcing lower-level tasks. But amid the Great Resignation’s persistent talent shortage, many managers are finding that their usual go-to solutions aren’t enough. Here are three strategies for managers struggling with understaffed teams.

Rethink Project Calendars

One of the fastest ways to turn high performers into low performers is to allocate their time to so many different projects that they don’t have time to think deeply. For example, in my work with a global insurance company, as the number of treasury managers dwindled, one historically high-performing treasury manager found herself spending 10% of her time on each of 10 major project teams — with no time to spare for her individual job responsibilities. The result was weekly calendars full of double-booked meetings, multiple frustrated teams, and poor results.

It’s critical to prioritize projects and defer what you can. For example, does there really need to be a system upgrade every year, or is every other year actually fine? What you can’t defer needs to be implemented more strategically and scheduled more carefully — preferably sequentially. If the treasury manager had four weeks allocated for each project, with a slack week in between for overages or previous project revisions, each of the 10 projects could have been accomplished within the year, and with two weeks to spare for some well-deserved PTO. Although it can be tempting to fight over scarce resources and demand your projects are the priority, as a manager, it’s more important to get employees’ focused effort rather than clock time. Stated differently, don’t just grab for whatever you can get — help employees be their best.

Prioritize Core Client Needs

Traditional business teaching emphasizes the importance of having a diverse portfolio of clients and products to minimize risk and make your business stronger. Indeed, focusing on only a few big clients is potentially precarious. However, when you’re in a situation where you can’t manage your entire client base well, giving everyone a little may prompt important unsatisfied clients to move on.

It’s a reoccurring theme across industries (e.g., investments, insurance, and health care) that the number of policies, customers, or patients that an employee is expected to manage has significantly increased — sometimes even doubling or tripling. For example, an asset manager I worked with at a multinational financial services company who two years ago was expected to call about 60 clients per week now has a client load of 246 per week. That comes out to fewer than 10 minutes per client with no time allocated for anything else, like meeting with new clients or conducting market research. No client was getting great service and the employee was working long hours and constantly under tremendous pressure. Unsurprisingly, they just accepted a new job.

Sometimes prioritizing clients involves firing clients, but there are less-drastic measures to try. For example, does every client really need a personal phone call every week, or might some be satisfied with a call every quarter accompanied by automated weekly emails or monthly newsletters? Also consider whether algorithms or even simple group sorting/filtering in Excel could be introduced to determine which client should be a priority on a given week — for example, those whose investments are currently experiencing market volatility. Ideally, a mid-range solution will be effective at reducing employee workload while maintaining your client base. But if not, you may need to prioritize your core clients over having a large portfolio of clients.

Find Quick Interventions

Look for interventions that can substantively improve employees’ daily work and be mastered in less than a week. For example, are there ways to automate data entry, such as converting paper forms into electronic forms that clients enter themselves? Could teaching employees a few formulas in Excel or creating report templates save hours of manual computations? Could three levels of approval be reduced to one, or could the dollar amount requiring approval be increased? Could a shared document repository be used to save the project lead hours of integrating feedback from 10 people’s emails?

Alternatively, if it’s the less-frequent tasks — for example, monthly financial or operational reports — that are the bane of your employees’ existence, try to make any process improvement interventions even shorter (ideally, a day or less). If you can, bring in external consultants or human resources to manage much of the design and rollout of the interventions to avoid further overwhelming an already overstretched workforce. Although investing in process improvement may be expensive, it’s likely much cheaper than recruiting, training, and managing a revolving door of employees who are all frustrated by broken processes.

. . .

Thanks to staffing shortages, many employees’ workloads have increased to untenable levels. For the workplaces running on a skeleton crew, now is the time to implement process improvement interventions, prioritize your core clients and products, and assign your employees to fewer concurrent projects — not more.

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Balancing Autonomy and Structure for Remote Employees

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As major companies like Google and Apple have begun mandating a return of all employees to the office for a certain number of days per week, the debate about flexibility and autonomy continues to develop. More organizations are taking a firm stance on where they feel their employees should work, once again casting the spotlight on the question of how much say employees should have in determining their own work arrangement — whether they should be able to decide where and when they work, or whether their organization should make that decision for them.

Even since before the post-pandemic return-to-office discussion, there had been many diverging opinions about the best approach for leaders to take. This has resulted in headlines ranging from  “Let Employees Choose Where, When, and How to Work” to “Don’t Let Employees Pick Their WFH Days.” In this wide-ranging debate, advocates for leadership control over employee work arrangements are often seen as insensitive to the needs of employees. Similarly, advocates for full employee control over their work arrangements are perceived as blind to the needs of the organization. However, in many cases, both of these arguments miss the mark. If executed correctly, allowing employees to choose where and when they work can both boost the employee experience and give leaders the structure and predictability they need to make key strategic decisions for the organization.

Here, we present a roadmap showcasing how leaders can use office spaces and technology to empower employees to create structure in their work arrangements, even when they have full autonomy to choose where and when they work.

Employees want to choose where and when they work

The new Jabra Hybrid Ways of Working 2022 Global Report shows that employees with full autonomy to choose where and when they work unanimously report a better work experience than those with limited or low autonomy. Below, you can see how we’ve defined these various groups:

  • High autonomy: “I have full autonomy to choose where and when I work, with the ability to come into the office if I want.
  • Limited autonomy: “I’m required to work remotely full time and can choose to work anywhere but the office”;
    “There is a minimum number of days required in the office, but I can choose which days to come in.”
  • Low autonomy: “I’m required to work in-office full time”; “I work from home and the office, but the days are chosen for me (e.g., required in office on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and from home on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays).”

In the study, we define work experience as an aggregate of eight different metrics: sense of belonging, motivation, productivity, trust in team, trust in leaders, impact, work-life balance, and mental well-being. When asked how their work arrangements impact various aspects of their work experience, high-autonomy employees report the highest levels of belonging, motivation, productivity, trust in team, trust in leaders, work-life balance, and mental well-being. In some cases, these scores are more than 20% higher than their low autonomy counterparts. Interestingly, the sense of impact that employees felt they had in their organization barely varied across any of these groups. In the future, leaders and managers will need to find alternative ways to boost employee sense of impact, such as through increased reward and recognition.

In today’s battle for talent, employee experience has become a key focus for many leaders. Empowering employees to choose where and when they work can be one of the biggest drivers of a better experience at work.

Flexible location choice will continue to grow as a priority 

The shifts of the past two years have given employees good reason to reprioritize their lives to focus more on their health and well-being. So much so, in fact, that our research last year found that the majority of employees had come to value flexibility more than salary and other benefits. This flexibility has given them the opportunity to find newer, better ways of doing their jobs from anywhere and on their own terms.

Employees believe that these new, better ways of working are here to stay. In fact, our latest data shows that 64% of Gen Z and 63% of Millennials consider their office to be their laptop, headset, and wherever they can get a strong internet connection, compared to only 48% of Gen X and 43% of Baby Boomers. It’s clear that the future of work — a future made up primarily of these younger generations — will prioritize having the freedom to work from anywhere.

Leaders are concerned about letting employees choose location 

Despite the major motivation, productivity, trust, and well-being benefits of increasing employee autonomy, many business leaders may find relinquishing all location decision-making power to employees to be a disconcerting thought; after all, it’s leaders who need to make important decisions about what to do with the organization’s physical infrastructure. CBRE, a global leader in commercial real estate, released a report in 2021 indicating that “corporate real estate professionals are being tasked with developing more agile strategies in the face of portfolios that are bound by contractual obligations, depreciation schedules, and cultural norms.”

This same sentiment is leaving many business leaders asking themselves important questions about the future of their organizations in a hybrid working world. Should we sell off some of our real estate? What do we do with our desk arrangements or meeting rooms? How do I service our technology needs if I cannot predict how many employees will be working in the office? If leaders are to make informed decisions on these crucial questions impacting workplace investments and overhead costs, they need to have a predictable and stable overview of how their employees plan to work. They need to understand how buildings, spaces, and technology will be used.

Employees seek habits, structure, and predictability 

We’re creatures of habit. In much of what we do, we strive for balance and structure, not least between work and life. It’s this predictability that offers us more certainty and allows us to get the most out of our lives. And just because employees can choose where and when they work doesn’t mean that they’ll override these inherent human tendencies. They’ll still try to create structures and habits in the day-to-day that allow them to optimize their time.

Take one example from the workplace. In our research, 69% of high-autonomy employees said that if they didn’t have a permanent, regular desk or office at work, they’d still try to sit and work in the same spot every day anyway. This number is the same for low-autonomy employees and only 2% lower for those with limited freedom to choose where they work. Predictability triumphs regardless of the amount of autonomy you’re able to exercise at work. Similarly, knowing what your workday will look like can be a great motivator for coming into the office, and employees will be more likely to do so if they know what to expect.

We found that as the amount of time a given employee spends in meetings goes up, so too does their preference for their home workspace over their in-office workspace. With 80% of all meetings now fully virtual or hybrid, in-office meeting spaces aren’t being utilized to the extent that they were prior to the pandemic. And with the work-from-home shift of the pandemic, 42% of employees have reconfigured their home workspaces for a virtual working world (a number that rises to 68% for those spending more than half their time in meetings). As such, many are better equipped for today’s virtual workstyles at home. The reliability and predictability of their home collaboration experience offers more certainty about the trajectory of their day than the prospect of coming into an office that isn’t optimized for a virtual style of work.

Here, leaders are in a bit of a Catch-22. On the one hand, many are hesitant to reconfigure offices without mandating that employees use them. On the other hand, they can’t expect employees to want to go back into the office when their home setup is better for virtual work and collaboration. If office spaces are brought up to speed with the capabilities of many employees’ remote locations, the predictability of their office use habits will be easier to map out.

Three steps to leading a high-autonomy hybrid organization

With the right strategy, leaders can leverage the trust and well-being benefits of increasing employee location choice — both of which contribute positively to productivity — while still being able to make business-critical decisions about what to do with the organization’s physical infrastructure.

Step #1: Create spaces that actually meet the demands of a virtual-first working world.

Our data shows that employees recognize the value of having access to multiple places to work, both in terms of maximizing productivity and feeling a sense of belonging in the organization. The top two reasons for wanting to come into the office are focus and collaboration — two tasks that are often seen as diametrically opposed to one another. But the current state of offices leaves employees with a subpar environment to effectively complete these types of tasks.

For example, a recent Bloomberg piece reported that “one of [one employee’s] main annoyances is the echo when she’s seated next to a colleague on the same call as her.” “Sometimes,” writes the author, “she can’t even understand what’s happening in the meeting because of it.” Because workspaces aren’t purposefully thought out, employees are forced to blend the physical and virtual worlds in a way that reduces the value of both.

For both individual focus and group collaboration tasks, employees must be able to access spaces that reduce these types of disturbances and maximize the utility of virtual tools. One way to do this is by considering the acoustic and visual privacy offered by any given space. Our data shows that employees prefer spaces with acoustic privacy (61%) over visual privacy (39%). In other words, they’d rather work in spaces where they can’t hear or be heard by those outside of the space than spaces where they can’t see or be seen by those outside. And this makes sense, as acoustic privacy lends itself well to increased concentration as well as to virtual collaboration environments where audio quality oftentimes poses quite an issue for many.

The death of in-office collaboration is being driven in part by a superior remote experience with technology that is better suited to the environment in which it’s being used. Creating office spaces that allow employees to access virtual environments more easily will make their lives easier, consequently allowing them to create predictable work habits and space usage patterns.

Step #2: Supplement the diminished sense of belonging in the office space with an increased sense of belonging in the virtual space.

For a long time, many employees had a personal desk or office at their place of work. And oftentimes, these spaces were points of great pride for employees, spaces where they would keep their favorite coffee cup and proudly display photos of their children. With the rise of hot-desking — a necessary decision for many companies transitioning to a hybrid model — we know that personalized spaces are rapidly disappearing in many offices. Similarly, employees are resistant to the idea of not having a place they can call their own: four in 10 say they would feel less loyalty and commitment to their company if they didn’t have a regular, permanent workspace in the office. And why wouldn’t they feel that way? For many employees, that sense of belonging and ownership they had over a personal space was taken away and they were given nothing with which to replace it.

With our presence in the organization being primarily perceived virtually, that very same sense of belonging that employees once felt in the office space must be replaced with a sense of belonging in the virtual space. This is especially true for organizations proceeding with hot-desking arrangements. The personal artefact that was taken away from them — the desk or office — must be replaced with their own personal technology that offers them a sense of ownership and belonging in the new virtual world of work.

This then raises the question of which technologies best enable that increased sense of belonging and inclusion. Our data found that users of professional audio devices reported feeling more included in virtual meetings than those using either consumer audio devices or the microphones and speakers built into their laptops. In fact, users of professional headsets were 11% less likely to feel left out of the conversation in virtual meetings than consumer device or built-in audio users. Similarly, professional headset users were 14% less likely to report not being able to hear what’s being said in the meeting than built-in users and 12% less likely than consumer device users. If employees are to feel a sense of belonging in these professional virtual environments, they need the professional tools and technologies built exactly with those environments in mind.

Step #3: Let employees find the balance that matches their life’s new rhythm.

Now that the architectural and technological backdrop is all in place, leaders can focus on building a flourishing high-autonomy work culture. With this setup, employees have all the elements they need to build work habits that work for them. Over time, a picture of the organization’s average workplace occupancy rates will begin to emerge. Consequently, leaders can then use this information to identify that balance and make well-informed, strategic decisions about the company’s future real estate and technology needs.

When leaders give employees the freedom to choose where and when they work, it signals that they trust them to do the job they were hired to do. The data shows that that trust is then paid back to leaders and teams at a very high rate, building a tight-knit culture of inclusivity and belonging. With the right spaces and technology in place, employers enable employees to create structure in the way they work, thereby improving the employee experience. And by following these steps, a high-autonomy approach to work will create happier, healthier, and higher-performing employees who will be able to find a balance that benefits both themselves and the wider organization.

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