The work culture has changed drastically in the last two years, accelerated by the pandemic and related disruptions.
The corporate world is witnessing the sharpest-ever divide between employers and employees, often with diametrically opposite opinions. Whether it is gig working, work-from-home/anywhere, every issue is causing a new rift between these two groups. The latest conflict is over productivity. While employers feel that productivity is slipping, employees argue that it the reality is quite the opposite and that they are working harder than before.
With each passing day, it is clear that HR has been blindsided by these post-pandemic people issues and their existing tools of employee engagement are simply not enough to meet these fresh challenges. The Future of Work seems to arrive a bit too early for corporates and HR teams.
Cracks in HR research
The current tensions are revealing cracks in HR research, which said that organizations had efficiently handled the pandemic crisis and its aftermath. Recent research by Oxford Economics and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), partnering with SAP SuccessFactors, reported that Indian organizations felt confident in their response to the pandemic: 88% said their organization has effectively handled new ways of working, and 86% said their organization is well prepared to address the changing work environment.
Most Indian respondents (86%) said their company has the technology it needs to navigate the changing work environment but acknowledge that reskilling the workforce to work with new technologies will be a top challenge (60% say this will be a top-three challenge for businesses after COVID-19). Yet just 35% say most of their workers can work remotely and have the necessary technology and environment to do so effectively. Most agree their office workers, facilities/field workers (85%), and hourly and salaried workers (82%) had very different experiences during the lockdown.
The productivity conflict
A Microsoft survey carried out this month found that people are working more than ever, while leaders— already worried by signals of macroeconomic decline—are questioning if their employees are being productive. Most employees (87%) report being productive at work, and productivity signals across Microsoft 365 continue to climb.
This spring, the survey found that the number of weekly meetings had increased by 153% globally for the average Microsoft Teams user since the start of the pandemic. There is still no indication that this trend has reversed, suggesting this peak could become the new baseline. On top of an already high meeting load, overlapping meetings (being double-booked) increased by 46% per person in the past year. And users are flooded with meeting invites—even as the overall meeting acceptance rate has remained fairly steady (growing by only 3%), declines and tentative RSVPs have soared in the past two years (84% and 216% growth, respectively).
A trust issue
The strain is clear: in an average week, 42% of participants multitask during meetings by actively sending an email or ping—and that doesn’t include practices like reading incoming emails and pings, working in non-meeting files, or web activity. At the same time, 85% of leaders say that the shift to hybrid work has made it challenging to have confidence that employees are being productive. And as some organizations use technology to track activity rather than impact, employees lack context on how and why they’re being tracked, which can undermine trust and lead to “productivity theatre.” This paradox has led to productivity paranoia: where leaders fear that lost productivity is due to employees not working, even though hours worked, the number of meetings and other activity metrics have increased.
Many leaders and managers are missing the old visual cues of what it means to be productive because they can’t “see” who is hard at work by walking down the hall or past the conference room. Indeed, compared to in-person managers, hybrid managers are more likely to say they struggle to trust their employees to do their best work (49% vs 36%) and report that they have less visibility into their employees’ work (54% vs 38%). And as employees feel the pressure to “prove” they’re working, digital overwhelm is soaring.
Productivity paranoia risks making hybrid work unsustainable. Leaders need to pivot from worrying about whether their people are working enough to helping them focus on the most important work. 81% of employees say it’s important that their managers help them prioritize their workload, but less than a third (31%) say their managers have ever given clear guidance during one-on-ones.
Solving this issue needs to start at the top: 74% of people managers say more guidance on prioritizing their work would help their performance, and 80% say they’d personally benefit from more clarity from senior leadership on impactful priorities. 48% of employees and 53% of managers report that they’re already burned out at work, so prioritization must go beyond simply reordering an overflowing to-do list. Leaders must create clarity and purpose for their people, aligning work with the company mission and team goals. And defining what work doesn’t matter is just as important as defining what does—in a world where everything is important, nothing is. We’ve reached a point of diminishing returns due to overwork and overwhelm—if leaders don’t intervene, they jeopardise productivity.
Showing employees you care
Showing employees that you care requires creating a continuous feedback loop— listening and taking action consistently. Only 43% of employees can confidently say their company solicits employee feedback at least once a year—meaning over half of the companies (57%) may rarely if ever, ask and hear about their employees’ experience at work. And even if their company is collecting feedback, 75% of employees (and 80% of managers) think it’s not often enough, and 75% of business decision-makers say it’s not actionable enough. In an era of ongoing volatility, timely, actionable employee insights are critical to gaining and maintaining a competitive edge.
To ensure that decisions are driven by the most up-to-date information, leaders must consistently reflect on how their employees are doing. Closing the feedback loop is key to retaining talent. Employees who feel their companies use employee feedback to drive change are more satisfied (90% vs 69%) and engaged (89% vs 73%) compared to those who believe their companies don’t drive change. And the employees who don’t think their companies drive change based on feedback? They’re more than twice as likely to consider leaving in the next year (16% vs 7%) compared to those who do. And it’s not a one-way street. To build trust and participation in feedback systems, leaders should regularly share what they hear, how they respond, and why.
(Abhijit Roy is a technology explainer and business journalist. He has worked with Strait Times of Singapore, Business Today, Economic Times and The Telegraph. Also worked with PwC, IBM, Wipro, Ericsson.)
(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Autofintechs.com. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.)