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Hybrid work pulse check: insights into what employees are feeling

By Ahead Thought Leadership
hundreds of people spread out but connected by lines, representing data points of a hybrid and remote work survey

A global survey indicates companies and workers alike are adapting well to remote work—but the still-shifting landscape is upending the traditional work agreements between them as well.

Hybrid work is about trusting your employees to work when they’re not in front of you all the time.

Jeetu Patel – EVP and GM, Cisco Security and Collaboration

The 2020s are no doubt a historical moment in the world of work and the contract between employers and employees. Two years into the decade, we are moving on to a new test of remote and hybrid work’s viability as a working model. But is our vision clouded by the “Great Resignation” or concerns about not being seen, missing out, or short-changing younger workers of the wisdom of those who came before them? Much can be gleaned from people’s sentiments about work, leadership, and company culture during the last two years when the options for in-person work were limited and curtailed. 

Webex by Cisco partnered with MIT Sloan Management Review Connections in late 2021 to survey over 1500 respondents on their remote and hybrid work experiences over the last two years since the pandemic shutdowns began. Participant roles ranged from corporate directors and C-level executives to supervisors, managers, and individual contributors. They worked in organizations of all sizes, represented a variety of industries, and were based throughout the world. 

The following highlights the key insights from our study and what it means for the future of work and employment:

1. Hybrid work improves corporate culture

Business leaders need to be intentional about how they develop culture, which appears to be what they have done with hybrid work environments.

Aaron De Smet – Senior Partner, McKinsey & Co.

Respondents agree that working remotely during the pandemic has not harmed corporate culture, and in many ways, it has improved. More than ninety percent of respondents reported remote work has had a positive impact on corporate culture, with only a small percentage—fewer than 10%—saying, in response to multiple questions, that remote or hybrid work has a negative effect on corporate cultures. What’s more, when it comes to “walking the talk,” 88% of respondents said alignment of company practices with company values is improved (47%) or unchanged (41%) with remote work. 

This sentiment is backed up by answers to questions about belonging, inclusivity, fairness, communication, and a sense of safety. Eighty-nine percent said feelings of diversity and inclusion improved or stayed (47%) the same (42%), countering concerns of proximity bias with remote and hybrid work. And, in a time of great uncertainty, 80% reported their organization treats all employees equitably by including them in important decisions.

Across the board, when it came to questions about camaraderie, engagement, diversity, inclusion, or expressing opinions, less than 10% reported any of these cultural factors having gotten worse with remote or hybrid work. Despite a belief that younger generations are getting lost in the away-from-the-office shuffle, Generation Zs (born since 1995) are most likely to say cultural aspects of expressing personal opinions or inclusion and diversity have improved (Figure 1).

Graph showing survey results: Generational differences: Personal Opinions, Inclusion, and Diversity
Figure 1: Camaraderie, engagement, diversity, inclusion, and expressing opinions

Source: “The New World of Work Is Transforming the Old Social Contracts,” MIT SMR Connections: Copyright © Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2022.

2. Leadership, not location, accelerates belonging

Remote work during the pandemic proved leadership and culture are more important than location to create a sense of belonging. Eighty-three percent reported they were confident in senior leaders’ ability to strengthen the overall sense of belonging. Respondents also reported managers and leaders model inclusivity and fairness. Eighty percent said their managers encourage honest and open feedback “always” or “frequently.” Seventy-six percent said leaders take steps to avoid language that may make some people feel they don’t belong. And almost 75% said their managers intentionally give top assignments to everyone, instead of just a select few. 

I think it’s a fair statement to look at these findings and say that managers in remote and hybrid environments have very deep concerns and understand the possible pitfalls. They are being very intentional about how to manage these situations and seem to be pretty successful.

Robert C. Pozen – Senior Lecturer, MIT Sloan School of Management

Likewise, leadership is also confident in their employee’s ability to work remotely. Seventy-six percent of C-level executives agree that company leaders believe home-based employees will do good work on time (Figure 2). The bottom line: managers can manage remote workers and teams, remotely.

Graph showing survey results: Do leaders believe employees work well from home?
Figure 2: Do leaders believe employees work well from home?

Source: “The New World of Work Is Transforming the Old Social Contracts,” MIT SMR Connections: Copyright © Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2022.

3. Hybrid work is reshaping the Great Resignation into a Great Renegotiation

Employees generally prefer benefits that they view as options more than givens, which are essentially mandates.

Kevin Martin, Chief Research Officer, Institute of Corporate Productivity

People want the choice of where to work, not increased compensation or perks. 

While the first part of this statement is being understood more clearly these days, the sentiment is more nuanced. Fifty-nine percent of respondents agreed the ability to work from a place of their own choice, at least part of the time, should be considered optional and not mandated. In addition, 68% said letting people choose where they work is a key driver of employee engagement and well-being, suggesting that the preference for choosing their working location comes from a work-life balance point of view.

The second half of the above statement, “not increased compensation or perks,” tells another story, however. While the Great Resignation is marked by employees’ exerting their autonomy over the working contract between employer and employee, it does not appear to be a zero-sum game. Employees seem to recognize that flexibility of workplace choice includes tradeoffs and are not asking for extra perks or changed compensation along with the option. Seventy percent believe compensation should, as most organizations do now, vary based on the employee’s local cost of living, as opposed to having one standard rate of compensation based on the employee’s role regardless of where the work is done.

Sixty-two percent were slightly or not concerned about seeing an increased pay gap between people working from home and those working in the office full time. But only 22% of respondents believe it’s critical to reimburse costs for maintaining a home office. And only a small percentage (23%) were looking for the same perks as office workers such as child/elder care, gym memberships, commuting costs (Figure 3).

Graph showing what remote workers say they need such as access to the same benefits as office workers, reimbursing costs for maintaining a home office, remote brainstorming and workshops, social events for remote workers, and reimbursing costs of space in cowering sites.
Figure 3: What remote workers say they need

Source: “The New World of Work Is Transforming the Old Social Contracts,” MIT SMR Connections: Copyright © Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2022.

Moreover, the workplace is changing, and employees recognize it. People consider going to the office as a place to collaborate and do their best work, not to be seen. Respondents’ top three advantages to going to the office include being more creative and collaborative, balancing home and work better, and learning and developing new skills.

Whether people believe that humans are by nature going to be self-directed or need to be controlled is becoming less relevant. Since the pandemic began, we have seen increasing amounts of self-direction and motivation.

Jeremiah Lee – Innovation Leader and Consultant at Spencer Stuart

4. Minding the Fault Lines

It’s as if that social contract of work is being rewritten, and right now, the worker’s holding the pen.

Karin Kimbrough – Chief Economist, LinkedIn

Although the new social contract for work is still being negotiated, business leaders must be vigilant to not undo the remote and hybrid work progress they’ve made to date. This study shows culture does not disappear when people are not in the same location. It makes clear that leadership took steps to lead remote teams fairly through very uncertain times. And employees’ desire for the ability to choose their place of work is rooted in the need to live more balanced lives. 

In other words, remote and hybrid work did not create the conditions for the Great Resignation but are leading contributions to employees’ desire for well-being and the ability to choose where they work. 

Backsliding is a real worry. Experts interviewed for the study’s report offer the following advice to avoid common pitfalls leaders may face in negotiating this new contract.

  1. Make effective use of technologies such as videoconferencing platforms and messaging apps to bring executives, managers, and employees closer together.
  2. Think carefully about what “returning to normal” means.
  3. Ensure management ranks are thoroughly populated with leaders committed to innovation.

Organizational cultures are thriving, and, in some cases, doing better than they did before the pandemic. Leadership’s ability to model new remote work behaviors, practice fairness in assigning jobs, foster a sense of belonging, and create safe environments for people to express their opinions is recognized by employees. A new social contract for work is unfolding in real-time, one that is leading both employees and employers to scrap traditional agreements about work. Both sides are working through monumentally contentious issues to level the playing field for a stronger future of work.

Research conducted by

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