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Future of Work

There’s a Growing Divide Between Companies and Workers

Workers want empathy, autonomy, understanding, opportunity, and a bigger voice in decision-making. Companies want them back in the office, and can only offer so much while trying to grow in an uncertain time.

man stands alone with briefcase
The return to the workplace is a chance to create a new, more effective operating model that works for companies and people navigating a world of increasing uncertainty. [®Bruce and Rebecca Meissner/Stocksy United]

There’s a growing disconnect between employers and employees that extends beyond return-to-the-office policies. It’s about fairness, what employees value versus what employers think they value, and, more broadly, how each envisions the future of work. 

This disconnect has been brought to the fore by the once-in-a-lifetime upheaval of the workplace, and the shifting power dynamics between employers and employees. Workers are demanding more from their bosses, and not just perks and a bigger paycheck. They want empathy, autonomy, understanding, opportunity, and a bigger voice in decision-making. 

Those are things not every company has provided or is capable of providing, especially if they prioritize business growth above all else.

“There’s a gap between needs and expectations,” said Pooja Jain-Link, executive vice president of Coqual, a think tank and advisory helping companies uncover barriers to advancement for underrepresented populations. “How do organizations support the individual needs of workers and their own business needs? 

Employers plan to offer only about half as many work-from-home days as employees say they want.

Friedman Becker Institute at the University of Chicago

In a July report, McKinsey wrote, “The return to the workplace is a chance to create a new, more effective operating model that works for companies and people navigating a world of increasing uncertainty. However … employers must confront the broadening disconnect between how they and their employees see the future.” 

But before they map out a future, employers must acknowledge and deal with a huge issue confronting them right now: the disconnect regarding returning to the office. 

Many employers expect workers to return to the office en masse despite surveys showing workers prefer to work remotely or in the office only a few days a week. Even among companies that plan to offer more flexibility than they did pre-pandemic, their plans often don’t align with what workers want. A July 2021 working paper by the Friedman Becker Institute at the University of Chicago found that employers plan to offer only about half as many work-from-home days (1.2) as workers say they want (2.4). 

“It’s not obvious whether and how fully employers will accommodate newfound employee desires to work from home,” wrote the paper’s authors. In the meantime, they added, “Anecdotal evidence suggests that desires for remote work are contributing to high quit rates and labor shortages in leisure, hospitality, and other parts of the economy.”

Amid return to the office, workers reevaluate the nature of work

Business leaders continue to face unprecedented uncertainty, and employees are no doubt experiencing whiplash from the constantly evolving guidance around office reopenings, masking, and more. Against this backdrop, it’s more important than ever for employers to understand exactly what motivates employees, what they want, and what they value. 

That’s because workers are reevaluating their relationships with employers, which McKinsey says is surfacing discordant views on returning to work. Left unaddressed, these views “may well surface reduced engagement, greater unwillingness to work longer hours, and attrition,” the report said. 

Bridging the divide

Kimberly Merriman is a business professor at University of Massachusetts, Lowell specializing in workplace analytics. She said that in order to bridge the divide, business leaders need to ensure equity and fairness, listen to what employees want, and be flexible. 

Be fair

Merriman said at times of uncertainty, “People have their radar up for signs of fairness, and fairness violations, as a proxy for trust.” Does the person who works in the office get the promotion? A bigger raise? The better assignment? Faster access to important information? Do employees trust that their employer will treat everyone equally regardless of their work circumstance, or will unconscious bias drive a wedge between employer and employee? 

“Fairness is probably something that managers have not had to consider before,” Merriman said. To ensure equity, organizations need to analyze the treatment and engagement of remote workers, the same as they do for women, minorities and underrepresented groups. “The numbers don’t lie,” she said. “This data has to be churned so you can understand salary, promotion, turnover, hiring, and more. Remote workers are another group to look at in terms of equity.”

It’s important for organizations to study the impact and outcomes on their remote workers. Is a white woman working from home having a different career outcome than a Black woman?

Pooja Jain-link, executive vice president of Coqual

Diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) are foundational to the return to the office. Jain-Link said organizations need to know who will opt in to work remotely and, more importantly, what their motivations are for doing so. For example, she said, “Black women may be less likely to experience microaggressions while working remotely, so they might not be eager to return to the office.” 

She said it’s important for organizations to study the impact and outcomes on their remote workers. For example, she said, “Is a white woman working from home having a different career outcome than a Black woman?” 

More companies are likely to share this kind of information about remote workers in the not-too-distant future. That’s because in 2020, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued a rule that publicly traded companies must disclose material information about their human capital. The SEC, for now, gives organizations wide latitude about what is considered material and what to disclose, but the transparency will likely force more accountability around all aspects of employee engagement, including fairness. 

“The more transparency there is, the more the disconnect [between employer and employee] matters,” said Merriman, who likened it to disclosures on sustainability. (Ninety percent of companies in the S&P 500 publish annual sustainability reports.)

Listen to employees, and engage them as a partner

Lots of companies have circulated employee surveys during the pandemic, or more frequent pulse surveys to take the temperature of the workplace. But are they really listening and acting on it? 

“Success comes by talking it out with employees,” said Merriman. That means reevaluating the relationship between employer and employee; the former should provide rationale for decisions that impact employees, and the latter should have a say in the design of new policies and procedures. 

Managers should get in the habit of regularly checking in with team members during one-on-one meetings, and not just about work priorities. What’s working? What’s not? What do they need to feel more supported, motivated, and fulfilled? McKinsey noted that listening at this level is a kind of early intervention that can prevent more serious issues — such as attrition, apathy or disengagement — in the future. Companies should focus on upskilling managers — the first line of defense between organizational structure and execution of policy — to facilitate meaningful and ongoing conversations with employees. 

“The bottom line is if organizations focus more on supporting worker needs and less on measuring facetime, the culture will benefit,” said Merriman. 

Be flexible, but consistent

Business leaders should acknowledge there’s a lot they don’t know about how the future of work will play out. The sure thing is that there is no finish line and, as with all aspects of business, the organization needs to be adaptable to change. 

“There’s a tendency for leaders to just get a decision made, and to put out the memo and be done,” Merriman said. “But this is not a quick fix.” 

Indeed, McKinsey said “Communicating that some magical finish line is just around the corner isn’t going to eliminate the disconnect that some employees feel between themselves and their employers.” 

Rather, leaders need to acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers, and strive to meet the needs of their employees today. “We’re not going to come up with a plan or policy today that will work for the next 50 years,” said Jain-Link. 

At the same time, consistent messaging that applies to all workers can provide a sense of stability and unification. 

Some business leaders have mandated that all employees return to the office five days a week, drawing some flak for being hard-liners. But Merriman said consistency and commitment to a plan, whatever it is, is better than hedging or employees not knowing what the concrete plan is. 

The disconnect between employers and employees could serve as the creative tension point that will power a customer-focused, employee-led operating model designed for today and tomorrow.

Mckinsey

It’s important for leaders to be upfront about their expectations, even if they might seem unpopular. “You can’t delegate to managers or team leaders to decide who gets to work from home. There’s too much room for inequity,” she said. “It’s better to be very clear. Being wishy-washy adds to the uncertainty.” 

No more “us versus them”

Businesses must embrace a perspective of “all of us” to move forward and succeed collectively. ADP noted in a research report on the workplace “me we versus mindset,” that a “we perspective leads employers to neglect the importance of day-to-day experiences of workers. Companies that can bridge this disconnect between management and employee expectations … will be better positioned in an increasingly competitive era to recruit and retain global talent.” 

Save for open floor plans and pockets of telecommuting, the nature and essence of work has remained largely unchanged for generations. Senior leaders made the rules, managers enforced them, and employees followed along. There was clear delineation between workers as individuals with human needs, and workers doing a job. 

The current climate presents organizations with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to start with a clean slate, to question what they’ve done in the past. The current disconnect, McKinsey wrote, “could serve as the creative tension point that will power a customer-focused, employee-led operating model designed for today and tomorrow.” 

As Merriman said, “It’s a bad time to have a disconnect, but a good time to correct it.” 

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