Here is an excerpt from an article written by Bonnie Dowling, Drew Goldstein, Michael Park, and Holly Price for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out others, learn more about the firm, and sign up for email alerts, please click here.
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After the Great Resignation comes the Great Renegotiation. Over the past two years, millions of people and organizations around the world were forced into hybrid virtual work, many for the first time. Survey after survey has shown that employers eagerly hope their employees will return to the office as soon as possible. Employees? Not so much, for reasons including health, family, and the work–life balance. Now, vaccines and therapies hold out the promise of normalizing life under the coronavirus and its variants, but employees increasingly hold more bargaining chips in a great debate now underway over the future of workplace models.
Our latest research reinforces the idea that hybrid1 work is here to stay. More than four out of five survey respondents who worked in hybrid models over the past two years prefer retaining them going forward (see sidebar, “Our methodology”). At a time when organizations are plagued by burnout, mental-health issues, and record numbers of employees leaving their jobs, leaders who see in-person work as a return to normality must confront just how strongly employees feel about flexible workplace models and their growing leverage to pursue them. We found that more than two out of three employees who prefer hybrid models say they are likely to look for other opportunities if asked to return fully on-site. Despite such popular support, the experience of employees with hybrid work during the pandemic has varied widely in key areas, such as a sense of inclusion and the work–life balance. For some traditionally underrepresented identities, this variability is exacerbated.
As employers work to refit existing workplace models, they face a classic risk/reward choice. Hybrid work has the potential to offer a higher level of flexibility, a better work–life balance, and a more tailored employee experience. These can have a disproportionately positive impact on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts, as well as on performance. Hybrid work also has the potential to create an unequal playing field and to amplify in-group versus out-group dynamics, which can flip those advantages to the liabilities side of the ledger. For workplaces already challenged to diversify and retain employees, adopting ill-conceived hybrid work models could instead speed departures, decrease inclusion, and harm performance.
Make no mistake: tapping the benefits of a more inclusive hybrid work culture is difficult, delicate work. There’s scant evidence of companies that have mastered the challenge. What’s more, the practices needed to take it on can feel nebulous and elusive, especially for leaders who have never worked in a truly inclusive culture themselves. In this article, we share research that illuminates the dynamics that underlie efforts to build inclusion in a diverse, hybrid workforce and the three critical inclusion practices—work–life support, team building, and mutual respect—that leaders should treat as priorities.
A hard look at hybrid
Even before the pandemic, workers craved fluidity: in 2019, our research found that work–life flexibility was the number-one issue employees raised. As the economy navigates the reopening of offices in this next phase of the pandemic, executives often conflate “hybrid” with “flexibility,” especially the location of work. Moreover, today’s hybrid working models were not the product of measured strategic planning but, often, of desperate triage efforts spliced together when disaster struck. Some organizations forced into remote work addressed attrition, isolation, and mental-health woes better than others, but these ill effects remain prevalent across the business landscape, particularly for some traditionally underrepresented groups.
This reality obliges leaders to design better models. True flexibility must go beyond location to include the different preferences and needs of an increasingly diverse employee workforce. It demands a sharp focus on the reasons people have been leaving jobs, often without new job offers in hand: work–life balance and flexibility loom large, but employees also yearn for a greater sense of belonging and of feeling appreciated. Finding the sweet spot between hybrid work and strong inclusion can make an organization a highly attractive place to work but requires leaders, at all levels, to listen, to coach, and to think of flexibility not as an end point but as a set of evolving expectations, with regular adjustments, perhaps down to the level of individual employees.
Despite the variability of hybrid work, employees appear hooked on it and unwilling to let it go. In our survey, 75 percent of all respondents said that they prefer a hybrid working model (Exhibit 1). Only 25 percent said they prefer to be fully on-site.
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Bonnie Dowling is an expert associate partner in McKinsey’s Denver office, Drew Goldstein is a solution associate partner in the Miami office, Michael Park is a senior partner in the New York office, and Holly Price is a knowledge expert in the Houston office.
The authors would like to thank Shannon Cheng, Ruth Imose, Vidya Mahadevan, and Brooke Weddle for their contributions to this article.
This article was edited by Bill Javetski, an executive editor in the New Jersey office.