More than two-thirds of staff want flexible working to stay

Microsoft research finds 71% of UK workers want flexible work options to remain after the Covid crisis has passed and one-third are likely to move to a new location in the next year because they can work remotely

With the UK government easing lockdown measures, prompting companies to plan how and how often their employees can return to the office safely, research from Microsoft has revealed a disconnect between business leaders and their staff, the overwhelming majority of whom want their current working model to continue.

The report, The next great disruption is hybrid work – are we ready?, found that high productivity was masking an exhausted workforce, with one-fifth of UK workers feeling that their company did not care about their work-life balance.

The survey, conducted by Edelman Data x Intelligence from 12-25 January 2021, involved 31,092 full-time employed or self-employed workers across 31 markets. It found that 57% of UK employees were feeling “overworked” and 47% said they were “exhausted”. Yet 43% of leaders said they were “thriving”, compared with one-third of workers who felt the same.

This was even more of a concern for Generation Z workers, with almost two-thirds (63%) saying they were either “struggling” or “surviving”. As a result, two-fifths (41%) of workers were considering leaving their current employer in the next year. This trend was especially acute for Gen-Z workers, with 63% saying they were considering switching jobs.

A further third of UK workers said they were more likely to be their full authentic selves at work this year, compared with last year.

The study also found that self-assessed productivity remained the same or higher for many employees over the past year, but at a human cost. One in five respondents said their employer did not care about their work-life balance, while 54% felt overworked and 39% felt exhausted.

Microsoft said trillions of productivity signals from its core Microsoft 365 productivity suite had quantified the precise digital exhaustion that workers were feeling. It said the digital intensity of workers’ days had increased substantially, with the average number of meetings and chats steadily increasing since last year.

Specifically, when comparing collaboration trends in Microsoft 365 between February 2020 and February 2021, time spent in Microsoft Teams meetings was revealed to have more than doubled globally and, apart from a holiday dip in December, continued to climb.

The average Teams meeting increased in length from 35 to 45 minutes while the average Teams user was sending 45% more chats per week and 42% more chats per person after hours, with chats per week still on the rise. The number of emails delivered to commercial and education customers in February 2021 was up by 40.6 billion compared with the same month last year. Microsoft also saw a 66% increase in the number of people working on documents.

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Microsoft said the barrage of communications was unstructured and mostly unplanned, with 62% of calls and meetings unscheduled or conducted ad hoc.

Workers were feeling the pressure to keep up, but despite meeting and chat overload, half of those surveyed responded to Teams chats within five minutes or less – a response time that had not changed year on year. Microsoft’s survey proved that the intensity of the workday, and what is expected of employees, has increased significantly.

In response, it would appear that business leaders are on the brink of major updates to accommodate what employees want, and that is the best of both worlds, said Microsoft. Nearly three-quarters (71%) of employees want flexible remote work options to stay and two-thirds of leaders said their company was considering redesigning office space for hybrid work. Two-thirds also wanted more in-person work or collaboration post-pandemic.

Going forward, Microsoft proposed a pathway containing key steps that firms need to take to resolve the issues and get the best from the hybrid environment. These include: creating a plan to empower people for extreme flexibility; investing in space and technology to bridge the physical and digital worlds; combating digital exhaustion from the top; prioritising rebuilding social capital and culture; and rethinking employee experience to compete for the best and most diverse talent.

Microsoft concluded that the talent landscape has shifted, and employee expectations have changed, and that the best leaders will empathise with the unique needs of each group in their organisation, and see remote work as a lever to attract the best and most diverse talent.

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