After bending and stretching to fit our minds, bodies, and work schedules around new work routines and styles of the last two years, it seems the new normal is no normal at all.
That’s because businesses and employees are still working to find the optimal balance between working in the office, working remotely, and the best schedules for individual workers, companies, and locations. And now, the threat of new headwinds has arrived, adding even more uncertainty.
On top of a global pandemic still playing out, the ongoing shift toward hybrid work, and attendant increased cybersecurity risks, storm clouds in the form of threatening global recession have appeared on the horizon. Yet, what we’ve learned from the uncertainties of the past two years puts us in good stead for uncertainties to come, even as challenges stack up.
Those are some of the takeaways of new research GoTo commissioned from Frost & Sullivan for the GoTo State of Flexible Work Report: 2022.
The research outlines how IT departments at small and medium-sized businesses have adapted to flexible work. As the research shows, flex work is here to stay, although it’s still in flux, and in-house IT workloads have increased as IT professionals support distributed workforces.
The findings should help organizations navigate future uncertainty since they point to solutions for keeping businesses and their employees connected with the right tools and policies.
Defining flexible work
The mainstreaming of flexible work ushered changes already underway to the forefront as Covid-enforced lockdowns forced employees to work from home overnight, in record numbers. The tools and technologies required for the shift were largely in place before then, but mindsets still needed to change to take flexible work arrangements to the next level.
Much of that change has arrived. By now, 62% of workers at companies surveyed in the new study have worked fully remotely, and more than three-quarters (79%) have taken part in hybrid and other flexible work arrangements.
Flexible work means taking into account the unique needs of organizations and employees to manage the work, not the workers — as workplace researchers Moen and Kelly told us. Importantly, it doesn’t just mean working away from the office, although it can take in the ability to do so. It means adapting work to meet external challenges (i.e., pandemics and economic downturns) and accommodating individual needs and work styles.
To make it happen, especially on short notice, companies turned to tools they already had — and put new pressures on employees, who faced burnout and resigned in record numbers.
Clearly, new approaches were, and still are, needed.
The new survey reveals that 27% of small and medium-sized companies work remotely. Most (54%) have hybrid workplaces with a mix of remote and on-site work, and just 19% have everyone working in the office.
But the story is still being written. Eight in ten respondents (82%) plan to revisit their work models within the next year. Only 6% plan no changes. A spectrum of fully remote work at one extreme and fully office-based work at the other is emerging, with gradations of remote-first and remote-as-a-perk in between.
It falls to organizations whose leaders have made the shift in mindset and adopted the tools to embrace any possibilities that will deliver the best results for a given set of circumstances. Accordingly, the 1,000 business and IT leaders surveyed in the new study highlighted the importance of flexibility, in both company culture and technology options.
Lessons from 1,000 business and IT leaders
The survey points to the benefits of staying flexible rather than imposing one-size-fits-all solutions on workplaces. This attribute served organizations and their employees well during the fast pivot required by the Covid-19 crisis and should help them weather future storms.
Hybrid work increased productivity by an astonishing 75% from 2020 to 2021, according to respondents. Moreover, companies that stayed fully remote or fully office-bound saw the highest employee turnover (43% and 44%, respectively) vs. 22% for hybrid work environments. The lesson is clear: employees do their best work and when given choices for how and where to work.
Given these realities, it seems location-independent approaches to collaboration and getting things done work best. That comes down to mindset more than technology, as indicated by the survey results.
And offering choices about when and where to work need not come at the expense of leaders who feel their organizations function best with people in the office.
The survey found that show-up-at-the-office mandates get people in seats only a little more effectively than giving people a choice. Mandated employees worked at the office an average of 2.7 vs. 2.5 days for employees given a choice. The takeaway: people do want to interact face-to-face with colleagues; they just want to do it on their terms. Choice really does seem to be the key here, and it works best in dialogue with managers and employees.
Best practices are still evolving, however. And whatever direction they go, IT departments — the people giving people the tools they need to work — need support to make it all happen.
Towards a sustainable flex work future
The good news is flexible work can benefit employers and workers alike. As Global Workplace Analytics estimates, companies stand to save $11,000 per year per employee working remotely at least half the time, accounting for such factors as increased productivity, real estate savings, and lower turnover.
But to get those benefits, companies need to provide IT departments with the resources they need to support hybrid workers.
Nine in ten (93%) survey respondents named addressing the burden on IT a top priority. And no wonder: three-quarters of respondents (76%) say their IT workloads went up from 2020 to 2021. The major reason, cited by 49%: more challenges related to remote and hybrid work.
Nor are IT departments immune to the Great Resignation. More than a third of respondents (39%) cited increased IT team turnover as a reason for greater workloads.
The right tools can help, however. Most survey respondents (62%) named IT consolidation as one of their most important priorities. Such consolidation, including bundled SaaS subscriptions with central, cloud-based administration functions, simplifies the IT stack and reduces the burden on beleaguered IT departments. It also helps keep employees happily working rather than struggling with disjointed, cobbled-together tools.
For the SaaS-driven, location-independent workplace of the future, change will remain the name of the game. But flexibility, and the mindset and tools needed to support it, should help organizations and their employees weather approaching storms.