The way we work has changed drastically over the past year. The integration into our lives and our reliance on technology has also increased. We’ve reached the era of “tele-everything,” and virtual or hybrid work is now the new normal. As we settle into new routines before the new year, it’s important to take stock of where we’re headed in 2022.
Along those lines, below, I offer five predictions as a professor in business management and Fast Company contributor, for the upcoming year of work. To make the most of these predictions, organizations can adapt each to their own companies’ needs.
THE DEFINITION OF FLEXIBILITY IS EVOLVING
Employees want all sorts of things from their work. They want fair pay, opportunities to grow and develop, a positive organizational culture, and more. Over the last year, however, there has been a major shift in what employees want the most. While equitable compensation is consistently at the top, the newest employee priority is actually flexibility.
We used to think of flexibility as flexible work schedules; the ability to have half-day Fridays or rearrange hours across the workweek. This is outdated. Today, when employees say they want flexibility, what they really mean is that they want to be able to get their work done anytime and anywhere. It’s no longer about rearranging hours, but about throwing out the idea of hours altogether. Employees are essentially saying, tell me the deliverable and the due date, and I’ll get it done.
My prediction is that organizations that focus on flexibility will have a much easier time attracting and retaining talent. Some organizations are balking at the idea of such extreme flexibility. That is their strategic choice. It could be because their product or service requires a face-to-face workplace. It might also be because it produces a specific culture or interaction pattern for employees. It’s important to note, however, that purposefully ignoring flexibility will shrink the size of the talent pool.
THE CUSTOMIZATION OF HYBRID-WORK OPTIONS
During the pandemic, organizations were forced to send employees home so that they could work remotely. Employees, for the most part, enjoyed this virtual option. Well-being, work-life balance, and productivity all appeared to improve. Organizations were leery because they worried that employees would miss the interaction and collaboration that takes place when face-to-face. In turn, a compromise ensued: the hybrid work arrangement.
Hybrid is the new normal. However, there are as many variations of hybrid work as there are organizations. On one end of the spectrum, organizations can let employees work from home or the office whenever they see fit. On the other end of the spectrum, organizations require specific days for employees to be present, sometimes as many as four days a week.
Many organizations have started in the middle. The vast majority tend to ask specific teams, units, or departments to come into the office two or three days per week. The challenge here is that this team-based approach is oversimplified, and in some ways, counterproductive. For example, recent research suggests that virtual work leads to more, not less, within-team collaboration. The real challenge is that we miss out on cross-team collaboration, which leads to knowledge transfer and organizational innovation.
Each employee has a specific work-home situation and job function. Given these individual-level variables, team managers are already beginning to make custom arrangements for these employees. Although organizations have set the mandate across the organization—an equity-based approach—managers aren’t willing to lose key employees, and in turn, are willing to make idiosyncratic deals.
My hunch is that organization-level mandates will eventually turn into cultural suggestions, but the manager will ultimately have the final say. The manager, not the CEO, knows their team’s needs. Managers have a much clearer estimation of whether work location mandates will work or not. Let managers make the call.
Virtual communication will never replace face-to-face communication. In organizational behavior research, it outlines how the richness of communication differs by the medium. Asynchronous virtual communication works great for sharing information. Synchronous virtual communication works better for dissecting and clarifying information. However, face-to-face communication is ideal when the situation is complex. Interactions aren’t constrained by a 30-minute calendar invite, and participants can pick up on subtle, emotion-laden cues or body language. Additionally, face-to-face communication is better for building trust, a key component of any work setting.
Given these differences, my prediction is that organizations will start investing heavily in two things. The first is HR-tech. Many organizations are already using some form of surveying to uncover engagement and job satisfaction. Now, more than ever, organizations are also starting to invest in technology that allows virtual or hybrid employees to get to know each other better.
Without random run-ins and impromptu conversations, it’s hard for employees to get to know each other personally and get an update on what they do and what they are working on. For example, companies like Be Remote are infusing their technology into existing systems like Microsoft teams to ensure employees can get to know each other better. Similarly, companies like Cloverleaf offer daily coaching insights on team members to help ensure they work better together.
The second is high-quality off-sites. There is an art to formulating the perfect off-site, and organizations, especially virtual organizations and hybrid organizations, will need to figure this out. The off-site should include opportunities for leaders to engage in strategy or establishing a unifying vision, for teams to grapple with their toughest questions, as well as a hefty amount of team-building and rapport.
BEHAVIORAL TELEMEDICINE IS HERE TO STAY
Perhaps one of the few positive aspects of the pandemic was the increase in transparent and nonjudgmental conversations surrounding mental health. As the world experienced change and challenge, it caused many to experience worse mental health-related symptoms. Because medical facilities were closed, providers started investing heavily in telemedicine. Organizations realized that the only way to ensure that their employees had access to their providers was to start offering telemedicine options, which in many cases, includes behavioral telemedicine.
Pre-pandemic, employees would have to spend outlandish amounts of time and resources finding mental health providers that accepted insurance within driving distance. Now, instead, employees can receive behavioral telemedicine support within minutes. Investments in technology allowed employees to have conversations with trained professionals—immediately and at a fair price. This was a timely change. Moreover, one that I predict will stick for the long haul.
DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION WILL GET HARDER
Within hybrid-work arrangements, preliminary evidence suggests that females are more likely than males to opt for days at home. Unfortunately, within heterosexual dual-income couples, females still tend to engage in more domestic responsibilities than males. Thus, females might be opting for virtual work over in-office work so that they can more easily manage non-work responsibilities from home.
This is problematic. Hybrid organizations need to be aware of what’s called the “in-office advantage.” Employees that are physically present are more likely to build rapport with other colleagues. They are also more likely to be viewed as more productive because they are physically present. Such physical presence, in turn, can give these employees an advantage with respect to social capital and leadership opportunities. Along those lines, my prediction is that diversity and inclusion personnel have another variable to evaluate, which will be work location.