Top Ten Work Trends Quarterly Updates

A diverse group of SIOP members are serving as Trend Champions for the people-related work trends that SIOP members collaboratively predicted to be the most impactful in 2022. Each Trend Champion has expertise in and professional passion for their trend subject. SIOP appreciates their service to the profession in providing quarterly updates on their chosen topics.

Find the full list of topics and links to the other Top 10 Work Trends here

Trend #1: Employee engagement and organizational commitment of remote workers

2022 3rd Quarter Update

As pandemic restrictions ease, it’s becoming clear that remote working is going to be sticky, no matter who is against it. A recent poll found that 45%+ of US based employees are working remotely at least some of the time. 91% say that they want to maintain the flexibility of working remotely – even if (as I have noted in previous updates) this means that social and emotional needs are far less likely to be met. Interestingly, there are definitely some geographic dynamics at play too, as people living in smaller urban areas are more likely to be back in person for work. This is a reminder that commuting frictions are a significant contributor to people staying at home. Prevalence of remote work is also directly correlated with hourly wage, which again reminds us that this is mostly a topic of concern for highly skilled “knowledge” workers. 

With new behaviours setting in, attention is turning to how we can make this whole new system work. The Harvard Business Review published an insightful piece on this, emphasizing the role of manager behaviours to address some of the issues and challenges of remote working. The piece highlights the “ground game” that managers need to play to ensure they keep employees engaged, developing intentional habits to compensate for the lack of ad-hoc interactions and “soft data” offices generate. For me, there are a few things that stand out. First, many of the strategies try to directly mirror or simulate the act of being together – like enjoying the same bottle of wine together (sent to everyone’s home in advance). Second, the importance of regular face to face/in person interactions continues to be emphasized – it’s always important to have the next in-person connection planned. Last, the role of the manager expands significantly, with many additional tasks and activities including an increased in planned one-on-one check-ins and regular ad-hoc calls that help create connection. 

The last part is important because it’s clear that it has never been more difficult to be a manager – not only does a good manager need to be inspiring, empathetic, technically competent, calm, objective, etc, etc – they now also need to be able to help connect employees to the wider culture of the organization and generate a sense of belonging for each person, all while managing their own boss effectively. The job is getting even harder and changing fast. The risk of this is that an increasing number of people who might actually be good at it (like women or people in care-giving situations) start to avoid taking on the role, which opens opportunities for ambitious but ineffective managers to step into the gap. This would only make a bad situation worse and is something that organizations much actively intervene to avoid. More support is needed for managers. 

The other advice that has appeared is largely in the areas of setting clear guidelines, boundaries and work patterns. This can mean working in a more “asynchronous” way – using cloud technologies to collaborate on work products independently. It can also mean establishing new rules for hybrid work meetings, frequency of interactions and expectations about response times across various interaction platforms (email, direct messages, meetings, etc). Many are still struggling with this and a recent report found that just 28% have established team agreements to clearly define the new norms of behaviour. 

Last, as people spend more time working remotely (and therefore independently), the individual’s own role and skills to operate in that context become more important. While discussions about “quiet quitting” are just a continuation of trends related to employee disengagement – they also signal an increased focused on the importance of an employee’s managing their own engagement and motivation with less structure provided by an organization or community around them. This is something that might benefit some people (conscientious, curious, self-starters will do well in this environment) while others might struggle. Everyone will have a role to adapt to making remote work, work. Leaving it to organizations alone is not an option. 

2022 2nd Quarter Update

If there is a mega-trend of work trends in 2022, it would arguably be wellness (3 of SIOP’s Work Trends are about wellbeing, burnout and health this year). This makes sense as the global pandemic has underscored the importance of wellbeing, but also the vital role work patterns play for our health. As more people work remotely than ever before, HR teams, leaders and researchers have been asking what it takes to work well while you are working remote. 

Eliminating the commute, focusing productively on important activities all day and having the flexibility to enjoy family or leisure time on-demand is the fantasy of the remote worker; but as many (hilarious) parodies have pointed out, there are also many significant pitfalls. The lack of natural breaks in the day, the increase in sedentary lifestyle, and the reduction is social contact all create an increased risk of exhaustion and burnout for many people. Interacting for long periods on video also causes many people to experience lower levels of energy over time and impact mental health. It seems the commute can be useful for more than just traveling to and from an office to see people – it’s also a natural break in your day. Interestingly some people have found remote work easier to adopt, particularly those who are less extraverted and conscientious – perhaps because these people have a more relaxed attitude to work in general. 

Researchers diving into this topic have found that social support via digital channels can help to buffer against declines in wellness for remote workers, but not remove them entirely. Some have also looked into the importance of working remotely from different places – like co-working spaces, coffee shops or hotels - as a way to boost wellness. Others have explored manager behaviours, and have found that clear work structures, flexibility and considerate treatment help to maintain worker wellbeing. What strikes me is that many of these things are no different from what it takes to be a good manager in any context – but of course, doing them well while someone is working remotely requires much more intentional action, and probably more skill.   

Remote working is here to stay – not least because the talent market is so tight at the moment that many organizations need to find talent anywhere they can get it. The strategies organizations use to help people stay focused and engaged as more and more people work remotely need to continue to evolve in order to maintain employee wellbeing and engagement. Innovating how we manage workforce wellness, and especially the support that people get when they are not in a psychical place of work is likely to remain a priority for the foreseeable future. 

2022 1st Quarter Update

While remote working is not a new practice, most organizations or individuals have never experienced it at such a significant scale. After two years of managing the pandemic, data suggests that many people expect to adopt a more frequent remote work lifestyle – having proven that they can maintain their productivity while working away from the office. This has drawn the interest of researchers and practitioners who are looking to find out if new styles of working also generate enhanced employee wellbeing and performance. 

Research into remote work has benefited from the rapid adoption of new digital tools that generate a lot of data about the way people behave and interact. We can now see how people are behaving and communicating in real-time. These new tools are vital for the IO community to understand and influence, especially as they are likely to become “normal” streams of leadership data in the near future. They are also likely to generate data that can supplement or replace traditional survey tools that psychologists depend on for data gathering. 

While a lot of research and discussion over the last two years has focused on whether people want to work remotely (or whether people want other people to work remotely), more recent work has started to look at the impact on drivers of engagement and commitment – especially feeling of control, job embeddedness, collaboration, and belonging. 

Recent data continues to show a very mixed picture. While remote work can increase feelings of control and empowerment, it can also enhance feelings of loneliness and disconnection. Going deeper, analysing data on employee behaviour found remote working caused communication to become more siloed and less “real-time” which made it harder to share information across the organization network. Relationships weaken and it becomes harder to interact informally which creates barriers to the social ties that generate feelings of belonging. This said, some workers from diverse backgrounds or with different needs have found a reduction in the demands from the office to be beneficial – perhaps because informal interactions in the office made them feel less included or valued. As with many things in life – one size does not fit all, and the discussion of how remote work can help improve fairness and equity is ongoing. 

Increasing the overall scale of remote working also creates additional demand on the skills of managers, who need to be more structured and less passive to engage people they see less often. Employees have also found that they need new skills. As digital remote working has a tendency to remove the boundaries in people’s lives (especially time and space), employees need to learn new ways to segment and manage their day. For example, if employees are no longer commuting, then they have no clear start and end to their day, which can lead to overwork. Research suggests that the way people segment their day moderates the impact of work on wellbeing. 

The key point to note here is that new ways of working require new skills and behaviours from everyone. As research and practice develop, I expect that we will learn how to make remote work more effective and less stressful without reverting to pre-pandemic practices that would reintroduce friction that many people have eliminated in the last 24 months.  

Champion: Lewis Garrad

Lewis Garrad

Lewis is Partner and business leader for Mercer’s Singapore Career business. Voted a Top 101 Global Future of Work Influencer, he is regular contributor to publications such as the Harvard Business Review and speaker in the areas of people science, HR data, employee engagement and leadership. In his commercial work, he leads a team of economist, social scientists, engineers and consultants to help clients and customers implement data-driven reward, talent, leadership and employee engagement programs to improve organizational performance.