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 2023. 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.
2023 3rd Quarter Update
After so much debate, opinion and rhetoric has been thrown around, some useful data is actually starting to emerge on the remote working productivity debate. Recent analysis of several papers summarised in The Economist suggests that fully remote work has a detrimental effect on productivity, even if people like the experience of it more. The reason? Challenges collaborating and learning from others, as well as lower levels of self-motivation (pyjama working is not an ambitious state). Networks weaken and serendipitous opportunities for skill development vanish.
Understandably, the flexibility champions look worried. However, the research also highlights a bigger story: Hybrid workers who attend an office a few days a week have the opportunity to maintain their flexibility but also establish the in-person connections that matter. They therefore see very little impact on productivity, and some even see an improvement. The researchers also note that some organizations might be willing to take the risk of slightly reduced employee productivity to save costs on real estate and open up their talent pool across a wider geographic area. Indeed, as technology improves and management practices adapt, perhaps the remote workforce will eventually be more competitive than an in-person ones as people learn better skills to work remotely.
Still, most organizations will need to deal with two main employee experience challenges of remote work – reduced opportunities for personal growth, and fewer nudges to keep people motivated and focused. Remote workers experience reduced visibility and access to mentors, sponsors, and senior leaders, who can provide feedback, guidance, and recognition. They have lower chances of informal learning and knowledge sharing, which can happen spontaneously in physical settings through casual conversations, observations, and interactions. There are fewer opportunities to network and build social capital, which can open doors to new projects, roles, and collaborations. Some experience difficulty in demonstrating and showcasing skills, achievements, and potential. Where management practices are lagging, there can also be a lack of clear expectations and criteria for performance evaluation and promotion, which can create confusion and frustration for remote workers. It’s also easy to forget that an office is an environment where people are able to witness the ambition and hard work of peers for itself – enhancing personal motivations to step up.
To overcome these challenges organizations are starting to consider ways to make opportunities for growth and progression more transparent. To do this, some are deploying AI tools that support with the discovery of employee skills and aspirations, facilitate the matching of employees with career growth opportunities (automatically), and to help with segmenting work into internal projects and gigs that can help people grow while getting work done. These tools use AI to help address the underlying bias that leaders have towards giving opportunities to people that they are familiar with. These tools also help to facilitate the growth and development of individuals by surfacing more skills based progression opportunities rather than just ones that might be obvious. So for example, someone in Finance with great analytical skills might be able to find opportunities in customer analytics or marketing if they are good skills fit.
This change means that people working remotely can get visibility of projects that might fit their skills and growth aspirations, while project managers get visibility to a wider group of people who might be a good fit for their needs. Of course, everyone benefits from doing this, but remote workers have a big opportunity to leverage these platforms to continue growing and connecting with people while maintaining their remote status.
The shift towards remote work has unveiled unique challenges, especially concerning employee growth, motivation, and networking. But as the paradigm shifts, so does the approach to addressing these hurdles. Innovative solutions, like AI-driven platforms, are bridging the gap, ensuring that opportunities aren't confined to physical spaces or familiar faces. While the debate on productivity continues, one thing remains clear: the future of work is flexible, and with the right tools and mindset, remote work can be as enriching and productive as traditional setups. As we continue to adapt and evolve, harnessing the power of technology will be pivotal in ensuring remote workers are not just seen, but they also thrive and grow in their careers.
If there is one aspect of the shift to more hybrid and remote working that everyone can agree on, it’s that everything has become more “digital”. Data shows we are all using digital tools more often and the number of different technologies that organizations are providing to help keep people “connected” and/ or be “productive” has skyrocketed. The increase in the volume of remote work and very geographically dispersed workforces (people in different offices in different geographies are still remote from each other, even if they are not remote from the office) is clearly a driver of adoption. 30% of remote workers say they have never met the people they work with in person.
While many of the new technologies surrounding employees are dressed up as “productivity enhancing”, a large number add new tasks to an employee’s day. They push work previously handled by other people to self-service by the employee, add additional communications channels, or sometimes add entirely new activities that the technology itself depends on (building your profile = training data for an AI). While there is no doubt that technology adoption has enabled greater flexibility, empowerment and, at times, insight – it also seems to be extremely distracting. In fact research by technology companies suggests that time spent using communications technologies (like chat or email) dominates ones used for creative activities by a third. One of my favourite stats is that time in meetings increased 252% as compared to pre-pandemic levels.
This constant interaction with technology (and other people via technology) is one of the reasons why employees are so tired and why leaders are looking to define what the next wave of employee experience design should look like. If we are going to be more remote, more often then we need to design experiences that help keep people focused, engaged and productive. It’s important to note here that the push to return people to the office does not address this problem. Now that workers of all kinds have access to so many new technologies and the habits that come with them, a new approach will be needed no matter what.
There are two emerging ideas areas that are catching attention to start to address this – and they are the opposite of each other. The first is use another technology like generative AI to automate distracting tasks, get insights more quickly (like AI meetings summaries so you don’t need to attend if you’re just going for the “update”) and help people accelerate their productivity when doing creative work. The second is to consolidate and reduce the volume of tools that employees are expected to use. The goal of both of these ideas is to reduce the burden and load on employees to streamline experiences, simplify work and bring more focus to what is important. The hope is that this will also help improve employee wellbeing and engagement.
As I mentioned in my first update nearly 18 months ago, the adoption of digital tools provides interesting opportunities for understanding people at work. We are learning that people deeply value the flexibility and connectivity that new tools provide. However, it’s clear that the proliferation of new technologies has dramatically influenced the experience that people have when doing their work. A more joined up, simple and less distracted experience is something that would benefit everyone.
Recent research suggests that remote work is stabilizing at about 25% of overall days worked – at least in the United States. While this is down significantly over the last year, it is still 5 times higher than pre-pandemic levels. Technology, finance, and professional services employees are the most likely to be working remotely, and those who are at home (2-3 days a week) say that it’s “worth” somewhere between 6-11% of their pay. That’s a lot.
While the value of remote work to employees has been widely touted, leaders who are responsible for the performance of organizations have been much more mixed in their responses. One of the reasons for this is that it is taking a long time to see the real outcome and impact of such widespread adoption of remote work. Leaders often “feel” things are less productive or effective but have had very little real evidence of that being the case.
Some commentators are now starting to identify and discuss genuine risks and challenges that need to be addressed in the employee experience if remote work is going to be sustainable. For example, there is some evidence that people are less ambitious and driven than before the pandemic; they see work as a less important component of their life (or at least less central to it). In a recent survey of 3000 workers, close to 40% said that work had become less important to them in the past three years. More than a third said that their career ambitions had declined. This has implication for workforce productivity, which has been declining as well as for talent processes like leadership and succession pipelines.
If remote work is so good for engagement and happiness, then why would people feel this way? The reasons behind this are complicated but are likely to be connected to poorly managed remote work, leading to burnout and disengagement. On a personal level, people may also feel less social and peer pressure to exhibit drive and ambition as they are around colleagues in person less often and working at home in their pyjamas – softening their desire to get ahead and compete with others. In many ways, the experience of remote work is simply less motivating, even if it is more satisfying. This is a risk that needs to be managed carefully and thoughtfully with better work and experience design.
Perhaps even more seriously, some employees attribute part of the blame for the poor risk management at Silicon Valley Bank to an increase in remote work. The financial press has been asking questions about the risk management practices at the bank and whether the lack of in-person interactions made it difficult to ensure that everyone was being listened to and that all the potential risks were well understood. While it is difficult to know explicitly, research on risk culture tells us that psychological safety and leadership behaviours are critical – and that employees will often look for social proof to figure out what behaviours are appropriate in uncertain situations. If employees are remote – how can they observe these behaviours?
The point I want to make here is that “re-thinking the employee experience” is not just about adding fancy technology to keep people connected and productive, or dreaming up fun virtual rituals to enable people to have shared cultural experiences that keep people motivated (both useful by the way); it also means thinking carefully about the risks that remote work introduces into organizations and designing a meaningful employee experience that helps to mitigate those challenges.
Champion: 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.
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