Bridging the gap between the needs of employees and leaders in the future hybrid workplace

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez April 13, 2021
New research out this week suggests that employees and leaders have differing concerns, priorities and fears about what the future workplace might look like as the Vaccine Economy takes hold.

Back view of female employee on video call with coworkers on laptop at home © fizkes - Shutterstock
(© fizkes - Shutterstock)

With the Vaccine Economy beginning to take shape in the UK and with companies beginning to formalize their return to workplace strategies, it's more important than ever to ensure that leaders and employees are aligned in their thinking around what makes a happy, productive, innovative workplace. 

Why is this so important? The past year has been tough - in many cases leaders have had to make hard decisions, investments have brought forward to support distributed work, and employees have rallied during difficult circumstances to ensure that work is getting done effectively. Recognising that new habits have been formed, and sacrifices have been made, is necessary to understand what could possibly come next. 

An ill thought out response of ‘let's get back to normal', without considering what's worked for people and what hasn't, would feel callous. Not to mention that employees are likely to place future job decisions on workplaces that suit their own needs - making the need to think this through properly a competitive priority too. 

Aligning leaders and employees on a roadmap to what their future workplace looks like is therefore a priority. Both need to be satisfied with what comes next and any trust that has been gained during the pandemic needs to be built upon. 

Hearing news that the likes of Goldman Sachs are planning to not only send their employees back to the office as soon as possible, but to also open new offices, feels out of touch and jarring. And I'd personally be surprised if such a strategy didn't have a negative impact on the company's workforce. 

With all this in mind, it's important to understand now where the gaps between leadership and employee priorities lie and to formulate a plan to bring them closer together. 

There's no going back

Two pieces of research out this week help us to better understand the context of where employees and leaders are in their thinking about the future workplace. 

Firstly, think tank The Workforce Institute at UKG, surveyed nearly 4,000 employees and business leaders across 11 countries to get a sense of how both groups feel about distributed work and what they'd like to see in the future. 

Interestingly, the research suggests that there is fear amongst employees that leaders won't adapt to the changes over the past year and roll-back on what has been introduced. Some 86% of UK employees expressed satisfaction with new technologies deployed during the pandemic to help them do their jobs more safely, efficiently or from an alternative location - but 38% believe their organization will roll back the changes and go back to the ‘old way' of doing things. 

Not only this, but almost half (44%) of all UK workers said that their company's pandemic response would have been smoother if they had implemented these technologies as part of their standard strategy, rather than waiting for a crisis to occur. 

Commenting on the findings, Peter Harte, Group VP of EMEA at UKG, says: 

COVID-19 turned the world of work upside down and clearly forced the digital transformation hand in a very short period of time.

Some organisations were simply trying to survive - and still are - but others have been thriving. One year later, organisations are seeing the fruits of their digital transformation labour and it's now imperative to have a technology roadmap to aid them in thriving throughout the remainder of 2021 and into the future to keep pace with developments to not only protect their bottom line, but also meet the needs of their people and customers.

Differing concerns

A separate piece of research from Fujitsu UK suggests that the fear from employees that companies will roll back on changes is somewhat unfounded. The survey found that 74% of employees want a hybrid working style in the future and only 18% of leaders and employees said they wanted to go back to working in an office full-time. 

In fact, 46% said that the changes made to move to home working didn't go far enough and that there is more to do to get it right. Some 59% of leaders worry that employees won't feel valued when working remotely and that 70% feel that they need a drastic overhaul of their strategy. 

This suggests that most company leaders are thinking about how to embed permanent change going forward and are looking closely at what will be required to do so. However, when it comes to top concerns, employees believe that they are working just as effectively from home, but leaders put down ‘productivity' as one of their top worries as a result of the changes. 

Whereas, for employees, one of their top concerns is not productivity, but collaboration. In other words, it seems that leaders are focused on results, whilst employees are just thinking about what they need to make sure they have what they need to do their jobs. 

Fujitsu sums up this dynamic as follows: 

Leaders have stated that the changes made don't go far enough and know they need to take significant leaps forward when it comes to equipping their people to do their jobs effectively.

That means better tools and equipment (delivered to remote settings at the right time) better access to modern systems that allow them to deliver excellent service to ever-changing consumer needs, better experiences when they do visit offices to allow for social interaction and connection to the organisation, and better job security because they are truly adaptive, whatever comes their way.

The prize is worth the effort; happy, empowered people who have plainly stated that they will move mountains for their employers if only they can retain some of the flexibility they have come to value so much.

My take

Understanding priorities and concerns from both leaders and employees is critically important, as companies begin to form their future strategies. We've spoken to dozens and dozens of organizations in recent months and most of them are not only rethinking their technology investments, but are more broadly considering what a ‘good' company looks like post-COVID-19. The key to this is that leaders don't approach this in a top-down way where ‘back to normal' is the message, without consulting with the workforce. This is going to be a mighty communications and engagement challenge for leaders, who need to be in front of their employees consistently, engaging and building a path forward with them in collaboration. If they don't, there's a lot at risk - I can guarantee that if employees don't feel like they've been heard, they will look to organizations that did build a future workplace that reflects their needs. And organizations are nothing without their people. 

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