Every day, we make and receive multiple requests in both our personal and professional lives. Most of them are reasonable, but every so often, there’s one that’s not. An unreasonable request typically involves an outsized ask that requires extraordinary effort and seems highly impractical. Or the request may be unreasonable because of when or how it’s made — either last minute or in an entitled, demanding or presumptive manner, or all of the above.
Earlier in my career, as a junior-level investment banker, I received a request that was a trifecta of each of the above-mentioned elements. As I was about to sit down to dinner with friends, I got a voicemail from a more senior banker at my firm telling me to be on a redeye flight leaving in two hours from San Francisco to Washington D.C. to attend a client meeting the next morning. More on this shortly.
Invariably, we will receive requests that seem unreasonable — and research shows that if you’re a woman, you may receive more of them. I know I’ve gotten several over the years. These requests may come from people you know, such as a client, work colleague, boss, friend or acquaintance, or from people you don’t know who have reached out to you cold or were referred to you.
Regardless of who is making the ask, here are six strategies to give you a greater sense of agency while responding to a request that doesn’t seem reasonable to you.
Assess the relationship.
How (or if) you respond to the individual and how much you decide to try to accommodate the request, will likely depend on the relationship. Research shows that reciprocity — fulfilling a request for someone who has fulfilled one for you, and vice versa — has a stronger effect for personal relationships than work relationships.
A power dynamic, such as a request coming from a boss (or boss’s boss) or an important client may also affect how much pressure you feel to comply with the request (which is not to suggest that you should).
If it is a cold request from someone you don’t know, the anonymity will likely make it easier for you to politely decline the request (if you decide to respond at all).
Ask open-ended questions about what is really behind the request to shed light on what the other person really needs (versus what they think they need). For example, I asked the senior banker who demanded that I hop on a redeye, “What’s important about having me attend this meeting?” I learned that the client simply wanted a representative from the firm at the meeting and the senior banker wanted an update as to what transpired. If that was all that mattered, I knew that someone else could take my place.
Likewise, if your boss asks you to work all weekend on an analysis, you might ask, “What are you hoping this analysis will tell you?” You may discover that said analysis won’t give them the information they’re looking for and that it can better be found from another source, or there might be a much more efficient way to get a good proxy of what your boss is looking for on short notice that will suffice.
Raise awareness for the other person.
Often, part of the egregiousness of an unreasonable request is that the person making the request has no idea that what they’re asking for is unreasonable. They have a blind spot either around the work involved in fulfilling the request or the impact that fulfilling the request would have on the individual, their team, and other workstreams. What they think is simple might take days or weeks to accomplish and involve way more work than they ever considered. This can especially be the case for more senior leaders who may be more detached from the work.
A good leader will ask about the work involved in getting something done, but if they don’t, you can tactfully share this information to both raise awareness and give them the opportunity to make an informed choice. You might say something like, “This new request will take all week for the team to work on, which means we won’t be able to focus on X. Is this still something you’d like us to do?”
Several consulting colleagues of mine also shared stories about clients asking for significant work that was out of scope on a project. While “scope creep” is inevitable in consulting, you can say something like, “We can certainly do this additional work you’re requesting. Since it’s not in the scope of our original project, let me get back to you with what the additional cost will be.” Again, this tactfully both raises awareness about the extra work involved and gives the other party a choice. It may be a tough conversation to have, but it’s one that gets easier with practice and is one worth having.
Be clear on your boundaries.
A request may encroach upon your values, such as respect, work-life balance, equity, family, health, professionalism, integrity, etc. If you feel angry or irritated by the request, it’s a clear sign that one of your values is being stepped on. I felt my blood start to boil when I received the voicemail from the senior banker requesting that I jump on a redeye with two hours’ notice, as it clashed with my values of respect and autonomy. Being clear about your values can help guide your decision-making when it comes to determining what you will or won’t do (or if you even want to stay in that job).
In addition to unreasonable requests, there are also requests that are downright inappropriate. In a prior job, a colleague was asked to present someone else’s work because she spoke English better (which was a second language for her colleague). Another person shared that when she was in the hospital in grave condition, her boss (without asking how she was), said, “Can you just grab your laptop and finish up these few things?”
Despite the egregiousness of these requests, the silver lining is that they tend to be much easier to say no to. In the case of the presentation, the individual might say: “I don’t feel like it’s my place to speak for someone else’s work. It robs them of the visibility and development opportunity they’ve earned and runs counter to the firm’s DEI goals. These things not only far outweigh the benefits you’re looking for, but it’s something I don’t think you really want.” (This latter part lets the other person save face).
Offer alternative solutions.
When I learned that my attendance was requested at the client meeting in Washington D.C. to represent the firm and take notes to give the senior banker an update, I found another solution. I called the summer intern in our department who was looking for some good learning experiences, had capacity, was only a short train ride away from the client and was eager to attend — voila! Problem solved. This isn’t to say I didn’t get any flack for it, but it also challenged my boss’s assumption about who really needed to fulfill the request. It also raised his awareness that there are sometimes other (better) solutions than the first one that comes to mind and that perhaps he could have better weighed the costs and benefits of the different solutions.
Another type of unreasonable request that I’ve gotten on more than one occasion, is receiving a presumptuous-sounding email request from someone I don’t know, with some version of “I’d like to schedule an hour with you at 9 am tomorrow so you can give me some career advice.” First, an hour is a lot of time to ask for. Second, as is likely the case with most busy professionals, my near-term calendar is quite full, so to expect another person to be free at the drop of a hat is a bit audacious. Third, the tone is quite demanding for someone who is asking for help. On the occasion that I have replied to such poorly executed requests (and there are those I haven’t replied to), I’ve declined their request by saying something like, “I’m often booked weeks in advance, so am not able to meet on such short notice. Here are a few links to resources that might be helpful.”
Let the other person know what would work next time.
If part of what makes the request unreasonable is something that can be modified to make the request more palatable next time, let the other person know. It’s a way to give gentle but direct feedback and make for more positive interactions in the future. For example, you might say, “If you can give me a little more notice next time, we can get you the level of detail you’re looking for in this report,” or “If you can let me know early in the week what you need for the following Monday morning staff meeting, instead of waiting until Friday afternoon, it would help avoid unnecessary fire drills and weekend work.”
Unreasonable requests don’t have to be seen as intractable demands. Using the above strategies can help you respond more effectively and feel more empowered.
How the Best Teams Keep Good Ideas Alive
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
3 Strategies for Managing an Understaffed Team
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.
Balancing Autonomy and Structure for Remote Employees
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.