Skip to main content

The great executive-employee disconnect

New Future Forum Pulse study reveals that the view of the office looks different from the top

Posted October 5, 2021 by Eliza Sarasohn

Reading time 6 min

The latest Future Forum Pulse, a quarterly survey of more than 10,000 knowledge workers around the world, reveals that executives’ preference to return to the office is threatening employee satisfaction and retention, particularly for women, working parents and people of color:

  • The survey finds that of knowledge workers currently working remotely, executives are nearly three times more likely than non-executive employees to want to return to the office full-time.
  • Desire for flexible work policies is strongest among employees of color. The study shows promising but fragile improvement in employee experience scores for Black knowledge workers.
  • With 57% of global knowledge workers open to looking for a new job in the next year, companies that dismiss employee preferences risk losing top talent. 

About the survey and key findings

The Future Forum Pulse is published quarterly and is based on a survey of more than 10,000 knowledge workers in the U.S., Australia, France, Germany, Japan and the U.K. Data from the four Pulse reports released over the past year indicate that employees’ desire for flexible work has remained consistent, and a growing number of employees are willing to vote with their feet to retain this flexibility. As of this quarter—with survey data gathered from July 28 to August 10, 2021—57% of knowledge workers are open to looking for a new job in the next year, up slightly from three months ago. 

The report shows that of knowledge workers currently working remotely, executives are nearly three times more likely than employees to want to return to the office full-time. Overall, the vast majority (76%) of employees do not want to return to full-time office work. This dramatic divide between executive and employee preferences should raise alarm, since most executives (66%) say they are designing their companies’ “post-pandemic” workforce policies with little to no direct input from employees.          

“The view of the office looks different from the top,” said Brian Elliott, Executive Leader of the Future Forum. “While executives are banging down the door to get back to their corner offices, non-executive employees are demanding flexibility in where and when they work. Companies must do more to bridge this gap in order to attract and retain top talent.”

The great executive-employee disconnect—and what’s driving the divide

The Future Forum Pulse shows that more than two-thirds of executives (68%) want to work in the office most or all of the time. Of that group, 59% report that their company plans to bring employees back to the office for most or all of the workweek. This executive view on returning to the office contrasts sharply with employee preferences for flexibility: 76% want flexibility in where they work, and 93% want flexibility in when they work. 

The divide between executives and employees is especially stark among those currently working fully remotely. Nearly half of all executives in this group (44%) want to work from the office every day, compared with 17% of employees. Furthermore, 75% of executives currently working fully remotely say they want to work from the office three to five days a week, versus only 34% of employees.

Among those currently working remotely

Source: Future Forum Pulse, conducted July 28-August 10, 2021. Number of respondents = 10,569. Sample sizes by country: USA (5,339), Australia (1,060), France (1,049), Germany (1,050), Japan (1,047), and the UK (1,024).

There are several factors driving the disconnect between executives and employees:

  • Divergent work experience: Executives report markedly higher job satisfaction (+62%) than non-executive employees, and the divide is growing wider. This past quarter, as some companies ordered employees back to the office, executives’ overall satisfaction with their working environment rose 3%, while employee satisfaction dropped 5%.  

Executives are more satisfied

Source: Future Forum Pulse, conducted July 28-August 10, 2021. Number of respondents = 10,569. Sample sizes by country: USA (5,339), Australia (1,060), France (1,049), Germany (1,050), Japan (1,047), and the UK (1,024).
  • Confirmation bias: Two-thirds (66%) of executives report that their companies’ post-pandemic planning conversations are happening primarily at the executive level, with little to no direct input from employees or consideration of their preferences. 
  • Opaque decision-making: While two-thirds of executives (66%) believe they’re being “very transparent” regarding their post-pandemic policies, less than half of employees (42%) agree. Similarly, 81% of executives say that their company’s leadership is “transparent about sharing new developments that affect the company,” but only 58% of employees agree.

Executives believe they’re being transparent. Employees disagree.

Source: Future Forum Pulse, conducted July 28-August 10, 2021. Number of respondents = 10,569. Sample sizes by country: USA (5,339), Australia (1,060), France (1,049), Germany (1,050), Japan (1,047), and the UK (1,024).

Why flexible workplaces are more inclusive

This quarter’s Pulse study also underscores the importance of flexible work policies to people of color, women and working parents. Black employees, in particular, have shown gains in feelings of belonging while working remotely and expressed a strong preference for flexible work. Eighty-one percent of Black respondents say they want flexibility in where they work, compared with 75% of white respondents. With respect to when they work, 66% of Black respondents want a fully or mostly flexible schedule, compared with 59% of white respondents. 

While the data shows that flexible work arrangements improve the employee experience across the board, the positive, cumulative effects of remote work are especially evident for Black knowledge workers, whose employee experience scores have risen steadily over the past year. This quarter, Black men made the biggest gains in employee experience out of all demographic groups in the U.S. The significant upswing in the percentage of Black respondents who agreed with the following statements in August 2021, compared with August 2020, is striking:

  • “I value the relationship I have with my co-workers”—76%, up from 48%
  • “I am treated fairly at work”—73%, up from 47%
  • “Management is supportive”—75%, up from 43%

This improvement in the employee experience for Black knowledge workers is promising, but it is also fragile. If employers rescind the flexible work policies that Black knowledge workers have said they prefer—or default to pre-pandemic working norms that favor in-office employees over remote or hybrid workers—this progress could be wiped out and new inequities introduced.

“Studies show that many executives are holding on to the remnants of the past and failing to see this as an inflection point in the workforce,” said Ella Washington, an organizational psychologist and professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and the founder of Ellavate Solutions. “If employers don’t pay attention and take action to re-create the best of what we’ve learned working virtually in the office and in hybrid work environments, then opportunities for inequity could skyrocket.”

How to bridge the gap—and win the war for talent

The Future Forum Pulse findings are an urgent wake-up call to executives that more must be done to redesign workplaces that can attract, empower and retain the best, and most diverse, talent. The process and end result will look different for every company, but there are three guiding principles that all executives can commit to today: 

  • Embrace flexibility: Executives must recognize flexibility—in both where and when work gets done—as the defining competitive advantage. Flexibility ranks second only to compensation in what matters to employees for job satisfaction.
  • Train and reward inclusion: Companies should give managers the training and support they need to evolve from information gatekeepers to inclusive coaches. Managers who measure performance based on outcomes over activity, give regular and consistent feedback, and build social connections within and across diverse teams will be able to unlock the full potential of their organizations.
  • Build connection through transparency: Transparency is particularly critical when it comes to communicating post-pandemic work policy decisions and why they were made. Employees who don’t believe their companies are being “very transparent” about these policies report substantially lower job satisfaction, perceived equity and sense of being valued. They’re also more open to changing jobs.

To further support organizations during this pivotal time, today the Future Forum is releasing two playbooks developed with the Boston Consulting Group and Management Leadership for Tomorrow that include concrete guidance on how companies can better measure success in a digital-first world and re-orient managers to lead through uncertainty and discontinuity

More information can also be found in the full Future Forum Pulse report

Subscribe to Future Forum’s newsletter

Redesign work with tips and tools from our twice-monthly LinkedIn newsletter.