Jabra research reveals new insights into how to facilitate happiness, belonging, and well-being in hybrid work.
We’re two years into the greatest work experiment of all time. What began as a necessary shift to remote work has evolved into a long-term exploration of hybrid ways of working. Around the world, organizations have been implementing emerging technologies, innovative leadership strategies, and new workspaces, all with the goal of finding a better way of working fit for a highly digital, globalized world. Together, we’ve had the opportunity to completely reinvent how, when, and where we work.
The March 2020 shift to remote working supercharged the digital transition already underway in many organizations. Because of this, most of the work we do has moved almost entirely onto virtual platforms, allowing us to collaborate with one another no matter where we are. It’s also enabled colleagues to remain connected to one another even through the toughest of times.
Now, we’re entering the next stage in this hybrid working journey. Employees around the world are experiencing a wholesale evolution in their work identities and the emotional connections they have to colleagues, workspaces, and to work itself. They’re beginning to embark on new journeys – many exploring new jobs and industries altogether – and they’re finding novel ways to organize work around their life.
But with these major changes come new challenges for organizations, leaders, and employees. With two years of constant adaptation to extraordinary societal circumstances, employees are still experiencing a great deal of uncertainty when it comes to their work arrangement; just as they return to the office, they’re sent back to work from home. For some, a return to the home office comes as a welcome relief, while to others it’s a major disappointment. But for the vast majority, the constant uncertainty is beginning to take its toll.
As we enter the third year of this new era of work, we must begin to think about hybrid work differently. We need to start thinking about how to create emotional stability in an otherwise consistently unstable reality.
To better understand how to move forward with hybrid work, we surveyed 2,800 knowledge workers in six key countries to answer three critical questions: How much autonomy should employees have to determine where and when they work? What characterizes our emotional connection to our workspaces? And how can we use technology to rewire our relationships with colleagues for a virtual-first era?
Employee autonomy has long been of interest to management and HR professionals. At its core, the goal of promoting autonomy is to empower employees to truly take ownership of the work they do and to work in a way that allows them to do their job most effectively. After all, it’s employees who are most familiar with their work and how they can do it best, whether that means deciding which tasks to prioritize or in which order to complete them. And with hybrid work becoming more common, employees are increasingly able to decide for themselves where and when they should do their work.
In this section, we explore how autonomy impacts employees’ work experiences, as well as how leaders can most effectively implement a hybrid work model that empowers employees with more freedom to determine their own work arrangement.
In our survey, we asked all employees to choose one of five possible options that best described their current work arrangement. Then, we asked them to rate how that work arrangement impacted various aspects of their job. The goal was to create a direct link between the amount of autonomy an employee is given and their overall experience at work. To convert these into a simpler framework, we’ve classified these work arrangements according to the degree of autonomy they give the worker to determine how their own work week is arranged.
We found that as autonomy increased, so too did the likelihood that an employee would feel their work arrangement had a positive impact on their overall work experience. Workers with full control over their work arrangement unanimously reported a better work experience – sometimes with notable differences – than those with limited or no say in where and when they worked. These differences are most apparent when it comes to feeling a sense of belonging, productivity, trust in leaders, work-life balance, and mental well-being.
Interestingly, there was almost no difference across all three groups when asked whether their work arrangement had a positive effect on the impact they felt they had in their organization. Impact is a matter of receiving recognition for a job well done and understanding how those results affect the wider goals of the organization. As such, where and when we work may not have as direct an effect on our sense of impact as do other practical considerations such as reward and praise.
The trust experiment of the century is playing out before our eyes and autonomy is going to pay a key role; it’ll be an essential part of improving employees’ satisfaction and engagement at work. Increased, autonomy will positively impact their sense of belonging, motivation, productivity, trust, work-life balance, and mental well-being. Decreased, it’ll begin to erode these foundational pillars of organizational culture and success.
When weighing the viability of various work arrangements moving forward, autonomy should be the first variable leaders consider. By giving employees the ability to choose where they work, then planning space and technology needs accordingly, leaders can create a world-class work experience that will translate to broader organizational success.
If there’s been one benefit from the constant location changes of the past two years, it’s that employees have been able to experience the advantages of having access to multiple kinds of workspaces. And because of this, employees with full autonomy are very likely to choose to work in a hybrid working model as their normal working arrangement. With a hybrid model, they know they’ll be able to access spaces that are conducive to socialization, collaboration, and focus, while also having the ability to balance work and life in a way that makes most sense to them.
Empowering people with the autonomy to optimize their time and tasks as they see fit is absolutely essential to building an equitable company culture. As such, forcing everyone to work in the same way – that is, to work in the same place from 9 to 5 – will inherently alienate any employees who can’t balance their lives with that outdated and narrow conception of work.” Kelly Nagel,
President of North America, Jabra
When we looked at the current workweek of fully autonomous employees, we found that 57% of them choose to work a hybrid week. This is more than double those who choose to work fully remote and more than triple those who choose to work fully in-office. Hybrid is the clear front-runner for employees when they aren’t mandated to work in any specific way.
When it comes to settling on a work arrangement for your organization, handing the decision-making over to employees doesn’t automatically mean that leaders won’t be able to predict their behavior to plan space and technology needs accordingly. For months, leaders have been concerned with social aspects of hybrid work, such as how to maintain company culture and maximize informal interactions between colleagues. However, the data shows that if you let people decide, they generally opt in favor of a balance that services these needs automatically. In other words, they generally opt for hybrid work.
In addition to this, by creating a virtual-first work culture in which the work we do is independent of location, organizations open up the possibility of hiring fully remote talent. Around the world, the so-called “Great Resignation” has been a rude awakening to many organizations. By expanding the pool of eligible candidates beyond a commute radius of a physical location, organizations create major opportunities to hire the best of the best.
Places have meaning and symbolism. Up until the pandemic, the emotional connection we had with our workspace may not have been something we gave much thought; it was simply somewhere we sat while getting our work done. But when employees were sent to work from home, many were cut off from the feeling of belonging that their in-office workspace provided. They were separated from that sense of regularity and predictability that a specific place offered them. In response, employees all over the world were inspired to create that connection for themselves by setting up a more dedicated home workspace. In fact, since the pandemic, 42% of employees have reconfigured their home workspace to better fit their needs. These reconfigurations allowed workers to recreate that connection to a dedicated workspace that so many of them had in the office prior to the pandemic.
While employees were busy setting up a dedicated workspace at home, 49% of respondents say their organization had been reconfiguring their office space to create new meeting rooms, restructure desk clusters, and update lounge spaces. They’ve also been considering the best way to implement hot desking arrangements in order to optimize space and give employees a dynamic workspace to return to. These changes were in many cases meant to reflect the new realities of the hybrid world we live in: lower daily headcount, more diverse space needs, and concerns over health and safety in the office. It turns out, however, that the return to the office was not as smooth and clearly defined as many had anticipated. We tried returning to the office on set days, only to find out that people want to manage their own schedule. We tried hot desking, only to see employees sit at the same desk every day anyways. In many places around the world, workers have been floating between these multiple workspaces not out of choice, but out of necessity. Right as they begin to re-establish that connection to their workspace, they’re cut off from it by a change in guidelines regarding where to work. For a large portion of workers, this constant back and forth has left them without a sense of “place” in their work.
So, what do we need to do to restore – or rather, recreate – a more permanent sense of connection with our workspaces? How do we once again feel that we belong somewhere?
Your employees might not be returning to the office anytime soon, but they’ve still created a strong association between the office and their sense of belonging in the organization. Across all types of workers, there’s still a desire to have a dedicated personal space in the office. In fact, almost 7 in 10 workers agree that if they didn’t have a regular, permanent workspace in the office, they would still try to sit and work in the same spot every day. As humans, we’re drawn to consistent and predictable routines, and workers really want to know what their day is going to look like should they choose to go into the office.
The data also shows that not having a regular, permanent working space could be detrimental to employee engagement, motivation, and even retention. With almost 4 in 10 workers saying that they’d feel less loyalty and commitment to their company if they didn’t have a regular, permanent workspace, this brings into the spotlight the possible unintended consequences of hot-desking arrangements in the office. Much of the guidance around hot desking addresses practical considerations, such as the number of desks necessary or whether employees should have individual lockers where they can leave their belongings. But as we see here, the emotional reaction to losing your dedicated space could outweigh many or all of these logistical concerns.
Leaders who wish to implement a hot-desking setup will need to think carefully about how to replace this sense of belonging with one that is more location-agnostic. A first step in this direction is to build a “virtual-first” approach to work and culture, wherein physical locations have a role but are secondary to effective virtual connection. If everyone knows that they can contribute on an equal playing field regardless of where they are, they’ll be able to create a physical space that responds to their needs while still feeling a sense of belonging within the team and the organization.
Gen Z represents a generation not only of digital natives, but also of hybrid natives. To a large extent, these young employees were only beginning their careers as the pandemic struck. Because of this, almost the entirety of their professional experience thus far has been characterized by constant movement from one workspace to another. In short, the “anywhere office” is all they’ve ever known.
Entering a workforce where remote and hybrid work are commonplace has had a major impact on how these hybrid natives perceive the importance of location in work. So much so, in fact, that 10% of Gen Z report that their usual workspace is a third space (e.g., co-working space, café, library, etc.) rather than their home or traditional office. That’s twice as much as Millennials and roughly three times as much as Gen X and Boomers. In addition to this, 64% of Gen Z says that they consider their “office” to be their laptop, headset, and wherever they can get a strong internet connection.
As we’ve already seen, the connection to regular, permanent, in-office workspaces is strong across the workforce as a whole. But as Gen Z continues to take up a larger proportion of the workforce, this connection will continue to fade away. Unlike their more experienced counterparts – particularly Gen X and Boomers – these hybrid natives don’t have as strong of an association between work and place. For them, what’s more important is that they can get their work done from wherever they happen to be, rather than to be wherever they have to get their work done.
As leaders, we can’t expect that our Gen X and Gen Z employees will have the same motivations for coming to work – or any two generations, for that matter. To create a work culture that reflects, respects, and embodies the wide range of values in a five-generation workforce, it’s up to leaders to identify the shared values that bridge these groups and use those as common ground on which to collaborate and cooperate. Holger Reisinger,
Because these employees have a less established connection to the office, leaders need to be more mindful of bringing teams together more often to create stronger ties and relationships. It also has strong implications for IT strategies and flexible working policies. In order to prepare for the shift to a predominantly Millennial and Gen Z labor market, equipping teams with the right tools to work from the “anywhere office” will be crucial. It will also be an important part of attracting and retaining young talent in a future increasingly dominated by hybrid natives.
The future of work will be virtual-first. With hundreds of millions of people collaborating on Teams, Zoom, and other unified communications (UC) platforms every day, these virtual environments are the new standard for how we connect to one another. In fact, many employees have only ever met some of their colleagues on these platforms. Because of this, it’s critical that leaders do all they can to get the most out our virtual environments, so employees can create closer, more human relationships with their colleagues.
However, not all employees have the same experience in virtual meetings. In fact, 37% of employees globally say they often feel left out of the conversation in hybrid meetings. UC platforms will not only be where hybrid and remote workers meet to get work done; they’ll also be central to fully in-office teams, as meetings with clients, customers, and other partners will often take place in a virtual or hybrid setting. As such, inclusivity in the physical office or meeting room isn’t sufficient for the future. Organizations will need to find ways to make sure that all their employees can connect inclusively and equitably in fully virtual and hybrid environments. Being able to easily operate in a virtual setting will be essential in making sure employees can maintain a sense of confidence and purpose in the hybrid working future.
As we saw earlier, office workers are roughly (25%) less likely than hybrid or remote workers to report being provided with the necessary technology to collaborate equitably and inclusively. More specifically, only 3 in 10 regularly use external audio and video devices for work. These differences in access to technology make operating in virtual environments difficult for in-office workers. Below, we can see exactly how the consequences of the lack of technology play out in virtual meetings. Specifically, in-office employees are 17% more likely than remote workers – the most well-equipped group – to report difficulties with hearing what’s being said. Similarly, in-office employees are 21% more likely to struggle with collaboration in virtual environments. This shows that having the right technology in place truly does make the experience.
While in-office employees may be collaborating in-person with their colleagues more regularly, there’s still going to be a strong need to collaborate virtually with external partners; strong relationship-building with clients and customers is essential to business success. We know from our previous research that a fancy headquarters is no longer going to do the trick. Instead, the technology you use to connect with others is going to be your first impression, an indication of professionalism and a willingness to meet others where they’re at. A lack of proper technology may make relationship-building in these virtual environments more tenuous and difficult than it needs to be.
In the future, while some teams will collaborate in person more often than others, business more broadly will still take place in virtual environments. Because of this, it’ll be essential for employees to be able to thrive in virtual meetings regardless of whether they’re fully in-office, remote, or hybrid. To make this happen, IT decision-makers need to not only equip meeting rooms with video conferencing technology that connects in-office workers to remote and hybrid workers elsewhere, but also to provide individuals with the necessary personal collaboration technology to be able to connect virtually with business partners.
As we’ve seen above, not everyone feels included in virtual meetings to the same degree; in-office workers are experiencing more difficulties than hybrid and remote workers. In response, and since the start of the pandemic, there’s been a large focus on virtual meeting training to ensure that everyone can participate: leaving time at the end of the meeting for discussion, using “hand raise” functions built into UC platforms, or encouraging participants to use the meeting chat to pose questions. And while these are all effective methods to more equally include everyone in the conversation, what if people simply can’t hear what’s being said in the first place?
In our survey, we discovered clear links between the kind of audio technology used and employees’ meeting experiences. There are many different kinds of audio devices, and they’re not all created with the same purpose in mind. The built-in microphone in laptops, tablets, and mobile devices are there to serve our base audio needs. Similarly, consumer audio devices, such as those that come with your mobile phone, are designed for music and streaming purposes. However, professional audio devices are designed specifically to be used in professional virtual environments, such as on UC platforms like Microsoft Teams and Zoom.
We found that those using only professional devices for work reported the least amount of issues in virtual meetings on UC platforms. Most notably, they had less trouble hearing what’s being said than those using only consumer devices, where almost 4 in 10 reported audio issues. Additionally, professional device users were 10% less likely than consumer device users to report feeling left out of the conversation.
Virtual meeting inclusivity is difficult to achieve, and devices truly do make or break the meeting experience. As such, for IT decision-makers, professional audio should be seen as a major enabler of a more seamless and inclusive virtual meeting experience. As the way we work continues to trend towards virtual environments, there’s an immediate need to equip all employees, regardless of location, with standardized professional audio technology. Without the right tools, employees risk feeling left out, unheard, distracted, and unable to collaborate effectively.