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Flexible return-to-office policies are hammering employee experiences

Research shows work-related stress and anxiety is skyrocketing among office workers and those without flexibility, stressing that trusting teams to work where and when works for them will lead to better results

As companies implement return-to-office policies, calling more employees back to the office, knowledge workers’ work-related stress and anxiety has hit the highest levels since the summer of 2020, dropping 28% compared with the past quarter, while work-life balance dropped 17% quarter-on-quarter, according to a study from Future Forum.

The consortium, which is focused on building a way of working that is flexible, inclusive and connected, first began surveying thousands of workers and managers globally on a quarterly basis from June 2020, asking them a series of questions related to productivity, sense of belonging and preferred ways of working.

Future Forum’s latest report, the global Pulse study, summarises the findings of a survey of 10,818 knowledge workers across the US, Australia, France, Germany, Japan and the UK, conducted from 27 January to 21 February 2022.

As of November 2021, Future Forum calculates that less than a third (30%) of all knowledge workers were working full-time in the office – and 68% of all knowledge workers said they preferred hybrid work.

The latest report observed that just more than a third of knowledge workers (34%) have reverted to working from the office five days a week, the greatest share since it began surveying in June 2020, but as this was happening, employee experience scores were plummeting for knowledge workers asked to return to the office full-time and for those who do not have the flexibility to set their own work schedules. This includes 28% worse scores on work-related stress and anxiety and 17% worse scores on work-life balance compared with the previous quarter.

Moreover, the study warned there were signs that employers will pay a price for this discontent: workers who say they are unsatisfied with their current level of flexibility – both in where and when they work – were now three times as likely to look for a new job in the coming year.

The data showed that non-executives were facing far more strain during the return-to-office era than leaders in the C-suite, further widening an existing executive-employee disconnect on key job satisfaction measures revealed in October 2021. Non-executives’ work-life balance scores were now 40% worse than their bosses’, plummeting at five times the rate of executives over the past quarter. Non-executives were also reporting more than twice the level of work-related stress and anxiety as executives.

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Employee experience scores fell for all knowledge workers, which Future Forum said is likely due to concerns and challenges related to the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19. But the research highlighted that full-time office workers, who already ranked behind remote and hybrid employees on the eight key sentiment measures, posted the steepest declines on average, widening the gap with their counterparts operating on a flexible working basis.

In the first quarter of 2022, fully in-person knowledge workers reported a two-times-as-steep a decline in work-life balance, compared with hybrid and remote workers. There was also a 1.6-times as steep a decline in overall satisfaction with their working environment, compared with flexible workers, and a 1.5-times worsening in work-related stress and anxiety, compared with remote workers.

The study data also indicated that the majority of workers who had been called back to their offices five days a week were returning reluctantly. Just over half (55%) said they would prefer to work flexibly at least part of the time. Knowledge workers who say their company does not allow flexible work are 20% more likely to look for a new job in the next year, compared with those who have the option to work outside the office on a full-time basis.

Future Forum warned that such a gap between expectations and reality poses a looming challenge for employers who have mandated that employees return to the office.

“Leaders need to move away from dictating days in the office and rigid nine-to-five schedules, and focus instead on aligning their teams around a common purpose and leading by example,” said Brian Elliott, executive leader of the Future Forum. “Trusting your teams with the flexibility to work where and when works best for them will lead to better business results and happier employees.”

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