Studies have long shown the desire for flexibility in the workplace. However, facing doubts around a remote working business model, business leaders are increasingly calling for teams to come back to the office. Lucy Kallin writes that flexible working is critical for organisations to maximise their talent pool and become employers of choice.
The power balance shifted in the workforce when the rule book on office work was rewritten overnight. Yet since then and despite businesses adapting and continuing to be successful during the COVID period, doubts around a remote working business model are increasingly surfacing among business leaders.
A 2022 study by Microsoft uncovered a “productivity paranoia“ between leaders and their teams. While almost nine out of ten (87 per cent) workers say they are productive working from home, only one in ten (12 per cent) leaders are confident in their employees’ output.
We are seeing leaders increasingly calling for teams to be back in the office, perhaps under pressure to fill their legacy offices that are now as deserted as the Mary Celeste. Will these leases be renewed or are the days of the corporate power office in a high-status postcode sunk?
Team leaders, chief human resources officers (CHROs) and environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) leads, caught in the middle of this clash, are bearing the brunt of workers’ refusal of diktats. It’s a problem even to get teams to agree one day when they can all be in at the same time to encourage collaboration and personal connections. There’s pushback. Getting people to commit to specific days feels too restrictive for workers looking for flexibility to fit their work life around their home life. A Wednesday might work one week, but not the next and they do not want to be tied down in such a prescriptive way. If they agree, they will be losing their newfound freedom.
Catalyst studies have long shown the desire for flexibility in the workplace. We know that for women flexible work options are a game changer. While the pandemic laid bare the degree to which women still shoulder the bulk of domestic tasks and care-giving responsibilities, it also allowed them to carve out a new way of working effectively outside of the traditional boundaries of the 9-5 office day.
Now is not the time to dial back on flexible working. Not only is it critical for organisations who wish to maximise their talent pool and become employers of choice, it can also increase retention, boost career aspirations and productivity and decrease absenteeism. Fundamentally, it will also help organisations to remain competitive.
We must also be mindful of what people have been through in the last few years. Many have changed as a result of the pandemic, including priorities. Some are still suffering physically and mentally from COVID and its long-term debilitating effects. Also, being trapped inside for long durations during lockdown has decreased the appetite and ability of some to manage the stress of a commute. Anxiety and stress have increased, as well as burnout.
Many employers during the pandemic introduced forums and support groups for staff to candidly share experiences. These are still relevant in the new model of hybrid work, and it is important for leaders to engage with the learnings from these groups.
When empathy was shown during the pandemic, we were all battling the same adversary. The common enemy was easy to unite behind as we supported each other during this time. However, continuing with empathic leadership is more important than ever. Leaders must ensure that empathetic efforts still align with people’s needs. Is this what they think workers need or are they listening to what team members are saying?
Catalyst’s new research demonstrates that leaders have a critical choice, adapt and thrive – or fall by the wayside. There is perhaps only one certainty in the future of work, and that is that disruption and change is constant. Leaders need to embrace the future and ensure they are current, yet we can see there is a problem when 69 per cent of employees say their manager is too rigid to meet new business challenges with an open and flexible mindset.
To encourage the best talent in their workforce, leaders must prioritise empathy and inclusion to improve workplace cultures. We describe empathy as a “must-have” skill for leaders. It can be taught. It is not an inherited trait. The data shows that employees with highly empathic senior leaders report higher levels of creativity (61 per cent) and engagement (76 per cent) than those with less empathic senior leaders (13 and 32 per cent respectively). Our future-of-work global studies show that these lead to an engaged, innovative workforce showing high levels of team cooperation and with less desire to leave.
When managers can to listen to employee challenges (empathising) and take steps to address them (adapting), this drives positive employee outcomes such as inclusion and well-being, decreasing experiences of burnout. Employees will vote with their feet if they do not feel valued and listened to.
Leaders must ask themselves if they are leading for themselves (like in increasingly bygone days) or for the betterment of their team. The future of work is more flexible, humane, and empathetic. The future of work is already here to stay.
- This blog post represents the views of its authors, not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
- Featured image by Anthony Garand on Unsplash
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