The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work—Are We Ready?

We’re on the brink of a disruption as great as last year’s sudden shift to remote work: the move to hybrid work — a blended model where some employees return to the workplace and others continue to work from home. We’re on the brink of a disruption as great as last year’s sudden shift to remote work: the move to hybrid work — a blended model where some employees return to the workplace and others continue to work from home.

Microsoft 2021 Work Trend Index


We’re all learning as we go, but we know two things for sure: flexible work is here to stay, and the talent landscape has fundamentally shifted. Remote work has created new job opportunities for some, offered more family time, and provided options for whether or when to commute. But there are also challenges ahead. Teams have become more siloed this year and digital exhaustion is a real and unsustainable threat.

With over 40 percent of the global workforce considering leaving their employer this year, a thoughtful approach to hybrid work will be critical for attracting and retaining diverse talent. To help organizations through the transition, the 2021 Work Trend Index outlines findings from a study of more than 30,000 people in 31 countries and an analysis of trillions of productivity and labor signals across Microsoft 365 and LinkedIn. It also includes perspectives from experts who have spent decades studying collaboration, social capital, and space design at work.


Flexible work is here to stay


“Over the past year, no area has undergone more rapid transformation than the way we work. Employee expectations are changing, and we will need to define productivity much more broadly — inclusive of collaboration, learning, and wellbeing to drive career advancement for every worker, including frontline and knowledge workers, as well as for new graduates and those who are in the workforce today. All this needs to be done with flexibility in when, where, and how people work.”

Employees want the best of both worlds: over 70 percent of workers want flexible remote work options to continue, while over 65 percent are craving more in-person time with their teams. To prepare, 66 percent of business decision makers are considering redesigning physical spaces to better accommodate hybrid work environments. The data is clear: extreme flexibility and hybrid work will define the post-pandemic workplace.


Hybrid work is inevitable


Business leaders are on the brink of major updates to accommodate what employees want: the best of both worlds.

The Work Trend Index survey was conducted by an independent research firm, Edelman Data x Intelligence, among 31,092 full-time employed or self-employed workers across 31 markets between January 12, 2021 to January 25, 2021.

Gen Z is at risk and will need to be re-energized

“Those impromptu encounters at the office help keep leaders honest. With remote work, there are fewer chances to ask employees, “Hey, how are you?” and then pick up on important cues as they respond. But the data is clear: our people are struggling. And we need to find new ways to help them.”

An overlooked demographic appears to be suffering right now: Gen Z. Sixty percent of this generation — those between the ages of 18 and 25 — say they are merely surviving or flat-out struggling right now.

Networking as someone early in their career has gotten so much more daunting since the move to fully remote work — especially since switching to a totally different team during the pandemic. Without hallway conversations, chance encounters, and small talk over coffee, it's hard to feel connected even to my immediate team, much less build meaningful connections across the company.

This generation is more likely to be single and early in their careers, making them more likely to feel the impacts of isolation, struggle with motivation at work, or lack the financial means to create proper workplaces at home. Survey respondents reported that they were more likely to struggle balancing work with life (+8 percentage points) and to feel exhausted after a typical day of work (+8 percentage points) when compared to older generations. Gen Z also reported difficulties feeling engaged or excited about work, getting a word in during meetings, and bringing new ideas to the table.

New generations offer fresh perspectives and challenge the status quo. Their contributions are critical, and as the first generation to start their jobs in a completely remote environment on such a widespread basis, their experience will set expectations and attitudes toward work moving forward. Ensuring that Gen Z feels a sense of purpose and wellbeing is an urgent imperative in the shift to hybrid.


Shrinking networks are endangering innovation

The pandemic-driven isolation people feel in their personal lives is also happening at work.

Anonymized collaboration trends between billions of Outlook emails and Microsoft Teams meetings reveal a clear trend: the shift to remote shrunk our networks. At the onset of the pandemic, our analysis shows that interactions with our close networks at work increased, while interactions with our distant networks diminished. This suggests that, as we shifted into lockdowns, we clung to our immediate teams for support and let our broader network fall to the wayside.

Put simply, companies became more siloed than they were before the pandemic. And while interactions with our close networks are still more frequent than they were before the pandemic, the trend shows even these close team interactions have started to diminish over time.

“When you lose connections, you stop innovating. It’s harder for new ideas to get in and groupthink becomes a serious possibility.”

Authenticity will spur productivity and wellbeing

As people navigated unprecedented stress on the frontlines, balanced childcare and homeschool, worked from living rooms, quieted barking dogs, and pushed away curious cats, something changed: work became more human.

One in five have met their colleagues’ pets or families virtually, and as we clung to each other to get through the year, one in six (17 percent) have cried with a colleague this year. This number was even higher for those in industries hit hardest during this time, like education (20 percent), travel and tourism (21 percent), and healthcare (23 percent).

“Before the pandemic, we encouraged people to ‘bring their whole self to work,’ but it was tough to truly empower them to do that. The shared vulnerability of this time has given us a huge opportunity to bring real authenticity to company culture and transform work for the better.”

These interactions with coworkers may help foster a workplace where people feel more comfortable to be themselves. Compared to one year ago, 39 percent of people say they’re more likely to be their full, authentic selves at work and 31 percent are less likely to feel embarrassed or ashamed when their home life shows up at work. And people who interacted with their coworkers more closely than before not only experienced stronger work relationships, but also reported higher productivity and better overall wellbeing.

It‘s important to note, however, that Black and U.S. Latino workers in the U.S. reported bigger challenges in building relationships, feeling included, and bringing their authentic selves to work than the broader population. Leaders and teammates should be aware and ensure their workplace interactions encourage authenticity among all groups, especially in hybrid environments.


What's at stake?

As the world opens up, more employees are evaluating their next move

Today, our research shows that 41 percent of the global workforce is likely to consider leaving their current employer within the next year, with 46 percent planning to make a major pivot or career transition.

According to global 2020 data collected by Glint, a people success platform acquired by LinkedIn, 71 percent of employees said they plan to be with their current employer in two years, a number nearly consistent with the previous year (69 percent).³ “We nearly have a doubling of job switching-intent,” says LinkedIn Senior Editor-at-Large George Anders. “People are going to try and compress into one year what they might ordinarily have done in two.”

With so much change upending people over the past year, employees are reevaluating priorities, home bases, and their entire lives. So, whether it’s due to fewer networking or career advancement opportunities, a new calling, pent-up demand, or a host of pandemic-related struggles, more people are considering their next move. The way companies approach the next phase of work — embracing the positives and learning from the challenges of this last year — will impact who stays, who goes, and who ultimately seeks to join your company.



The way forward

1. Prioritize rebuilding social capital and culture

Broadening our networks and building social capital takes effort in any work environment, but it’s even more difficult in a digital world. Teams must reframe network-building from a passive effort to a proactive one, encourage and reward managers to prioritize building social capital at work, and seek to create a culture where social support thrives.

2. Rethink employee experience to compete for the best and most diverse talent

The talent landscape has shifted, and employee expectations have changed. The best leaders will empathize with the unique needs of each group in their organization, and see remote work as a lever to attract the best and most diverse talent.



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