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Leveling the playing field in the new hybrid workplace

Data from the Future Forum Pulse reveals alarming discrepancies between who is—and isn’t—coming into the office

Posted January 25, 2022 by the Future Forum team

Reading time 6 min

The latest Future Forum Pulse, our quarterly survey of more than 10,000 knowledge workers in the U.S., Australia, France, Germany, Japan, and the U.K., shows that the “remote versus office” debate is over:

  • A majority of knowledge workers—58%—are working in hybrid work arrangements, and two-thirds cite hybrid as their preferred working model.
  • Hybrid and remote employees score higher than in-office workers on all employee experience measures; work-life balance and work-related stress are major pain points for full-time office employees. 
  • Executives, white knowledge workers, men, and non-parents are opting into in-office work at higher rates, raising the risk that proximity bias could entrench existing inequities.

Hybrid has become the dominant work model for global knowledge workers

The percentage of people working in hybrid arrangements has increased to 58% (from 46% in May 2021), as the share of workers who say their teams work exclusively either from home or from the office has declined sharply. Globally, more than two-thirds (68%) of those surveyed now say their preferred work environment is hybrid—underscoring the urgent need for leaders to align on how they can embrace flexibility while ensuring an equitable experience for all members of their workforce. 

Data from the Pulse shows that despite uncertainty around new Covid-19 variants, knowledge workers are now feeling more positively about their employee experience than at any other point since the Future Forum began surveying in summer 2020. Executives are feeling less concerned about what some initially viewed as obstacles to hybrid work—like how to support coordination and innovation for distributed teams—as a growing number (41%) refocus on a more nuanced, long-term goal: how to prevent inequities from developing between remote and in-office employees. 

“It’s past time to move beyond the ‘remote versus office’ debate. The future of work isn’t either/or, it’s both,” said Brian Elliott, executive leader of the Future Forum. “A hybrid model can foster a more flexible and inclusive workplace, but only if leaders are intentional about establishing guardrails to ensure all employees have equal access to opportunity and can participate on a level playing field.”

Location and schedule flexibility is the expectation and increasingly the norm for global knowledge workers

The Future Forum Pulse shows that the vast majority of global knowledge workers now expect to have flexibility in where and when they work. Seventy-eight percent of all survey respondents say they want location flexibility (up from 76% last quarter), while 95% want schedule flexibility (up from 93%). Executives who are concerned about the Great Resignation should take note that among their employees, requests for more flexibility are not “empty threats”—72% of workers who are dissatisfied with their current level of flexibility at work say that they are likely to look for a new job in the next year, compared with 58% of all respondents.

The desire for flexibility is particularly strong among those who have been historically underrepresented in knowledge work, including people of color, women, and working mothers:

In the U.S., 86% of Hispanic/Latinx knowledge workers and 81% of Asian/Asian American and Black knowledge workers would prefer a hybrid or remote work arrangement, compared with 75% of white knowledge workers. 

Globally, 52% of women want to have work location flexibility at least three days a week, compared with 46% of men; and 50% of working mothers want to work remotely most or all of the time, compared with 43% of working fathers. 

Employee experience scores are rising—and remote and hybrid workers score the highest

The Pulse data shows that there has been a marked improvement in knowledge workers’ employee experience scores with the rise in hybrid work. Globally, workers are polling higher quarter-over-quarter across all eight elements of the Pulse survey, including 12% higher for overall satisfaction with their working environment, 15% higher for work-life balance, and 25% better about work-related stress and anxiety. Remote and hybrid employees score higher than full-time office workers on all elements of the employee experience, from work-life balance and work-related stress to measures like sense of belonging at work and value of relationships with coworkers—long a source of concern about remote and hybrid work arrangements.

In the U.S., these gains have been driven by sharp increases in the scores of people of color, particularly Black and Hispanic/Latinx knowledge workers. Since May 2021, sense of belonging at work has increased 24% for Black respondents and 32% for Hispanic/Latinx respondents, compared with 5% for white respondents. During this time, agreement with the statement “I am treated fairly at work” has also grown significantly among Black knowledge workers (up 21%) and Hispanic/Latinx knowledge workers (up 13%). Notably, while these gains have helped close the employee experience gap, Black respondents still trail behind white respondents on both measures.

Proximity bias may create inequities and could entrench deeper structural inequality along racial and gender lines

Although employee experience scores are rising, there is growing awareness among executives of the risk of proximity bias, or favoritism toward colleagues who work together in a physical office. Today the number-one concern among executives with respect to flexible work (cited by 41% of respondents, up from 33% last quarter) is the potential for inequities to develop between remote and in-office employees. 

Yet despite this concern, executives are still spending more time in the office than their employees. Seventy-one percent of executives report that they currently work from the office three or more days a week, compared with 63% of non-executive employees. And this disparity is likely to grow—of those currently working remotely, executives are far more likely than non-executives to say they want to work at least three days a week in the office (75% versus 37%).

Alarmingly, data from the Pulse shows that the harms of proximity bias could fall hardest on historically underrepresented employee groups, since they are opting into flexible work arrangements—and opting out of work in the office—at higher rates than their peers:

In the U.S., 84% of Hispanic/Latinx respondents, 76% of Black respondents, and 74% of Asian/Asian American respondents report that they’re currently working either remotely or hybrid, compared with just 67% of white respondents.

Globally, women are more likely than men to be remote workers (33% versus 27%), while working mothers and fathers are more likely than non-parents to be opting into flexible work arrangements (75% versus 63%). 

“Executives are now acknowledging that there has been a shift in the past two years, and they don’t know how to create equity in this new normal,” said Ella F. Washington, an organizational psychologist and professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and the founder of Ellavate Solutions. “This is an opportunity for organizations to reevaluate, refresh, or maybe even start over with some of their management processes, from performance evaluation to diversity and inclusion. No one wants to hear that, but it’s not effective for us to shift over old models to this new way of working. A blank slate can be a real opportunity.” 

To combat proximity bias and ensure equity between remote and in-office employees, leaders need to intentionally align on principles and guardrails that outline how hybrid work will work at their organizations. Principles ground an approach in core company values, like inclusivity or equality, while guardrails guide behavior in order to maintain a level playing field for all employees—for example, by limiting the number of days per week that executives spend in the office, or setting a meeting policy that if “one dials in, all dial in.” 

With this framework in place, leaders can turn to the important work of deepening their investment in diversity and inclusion, such as reskilling managers as empathetic coaches instead of gatekeepers, building trust through transparent communication, and measuring outcomes instead of inputs. Leaders should also evaluate how they can redesign offices to enhance belonging and social connection when employees gather in person.

More resources for leaders and additional data on the experiences and expectations of global knowledge workers can be found in the full Future Forum Pulse report

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