We’re on the brink of a disruption
We’re all learning as we go, but we know two things for sure: flexible work is here to stay, and the talent landscape has fundamentally shifted. Remote work has created new job opportunities for some, offered more family time, and provided options for whether or when to commute. But there are also challenges ahead. Teams have become more siloed this year and digital exhaustion is a real and unsustainable threat.
With over 40 percent of the global workforce considering leaving their employer this year, a thoughtful approach to hybrid work will be critical for attracting and retaining diverse talent. To help organizations through the transition, the 2021 Work Trend Index outlines findings from a study of more than 30,000 people in 31 countries and an analysis of trillions of productivity and labor signals across Microsoft 365 and LinkedIn. It also includes perspectives from experts who have spent decades studying collaboration, social capital, and space design at work.
Read on to explore how the year 2020 created lasting changes to the way we work, and the seven trends that will shape the future of a hybrid work world.
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The 2021 Work Trend Index
1. Flexible work is here to stay
Employees want the best of both worlds: over 70 percent of workers want flexible remote work options to continue, while over 65 percent are craving more in-person time with their teams. To prepare, 66 percent of business decision makers are considering redesigning physical spaces to better accommodate hybrid work environments. The data is clear: extreme flexibility and hybrid work will define the post-pandemic workplace.
“Over the past year, no area has undergone more rapid transformation than the way we work. Employee expectations are changing, and we will need to define productivity much more broadly — inclusive of collaboration, learning, and wellbeing to drive career advancement for every worker, including frontline and knowledge workers, as well as for new graduates and those who are in the workforce today. All this needs to be done with flexibility in when, where, and how people work.”
It’s equally important to note, however, that leaders may be too narrowly focused on where to invest. Even after a year of working from home, 42 percent of employees say they lack essential office supplies at home, and one in 10 don’t have an adequate internet connection to do their job. Yet, over 46 percent say their employer does not help them with remote work expenses.
Last year's move to remote work boosted feelings of inclusion for workers because everyone was in the same virtual room. The move to hybrid will break that mold and it will be a new and important objective to ensure employees are given the flexibility to work when and where they want, as well as the tools they need to equally contribute from wherever they happen to be.
Hybrid work is inevitable
Business leaders are on the brink of major updates to accommodate what employees want: the best of both worlds.
2. Leaders are out of touch with employees and need a wake-up call
Many business leaders are faring better than their employees. Sixty-one percent of leaders say they are “thriving” right now — 23 percentage points higher than those without decision-making authority. They also report building stronger relationships with colleagues (+11 percentage points) and leadership (+19 percentage points), earning higher incomes (+17 percentage points), and taking all or more of their allotted vacation days (+12 percentage points).
“Those impromptu encounters at the office help keep leaders honest. With remote work, there are fewer chances to ask employees, “Hey, how are you?” and then pick up on important cues as they respond. But the data is clear: our people are struggling. And we need to find new ways to help them.”
Business leaders surveyed were also more likely to be Millennials or Gen X, male, information workers, and farther along in their careers. In contrast, Gen Z, women, frontline workers, and those new to their careers reported struggling the most over the past year.
And workers feel the disconnect. Thirty-seven percent of the global workforce says their companies are asking too much of them at a time like this.
Business leaders are faring better than their employees
Most leaders in our study were male information workers with an established career – the near opposite of those struggling most.
3. High productivity is masking an exhausted workforce
In our survey, self-assessed productivity remained the same or higher for many employees (82 percent) over the past year, but at a human cost. One in five global survey respondents say their employer doesn’t care about their work-life balance. Fifty-four percent feel overworked. Thirty-nine percent feel exhausted. And trillions of productivity signals from Microsoft 365 quantify the precise digital exhaustion workers are feeling.
The digital intensity of workers’ days has increased substantially, with the average number of meetings and chats steadily increasing since last year. Specifically, when we compare collaboration trends in Microsoft 365 between February 2020 and February 2021:
Time spent in Microsoft Teams meetings has more than doubled (2.5X) globally and, aside from a holiday dip in December, continues to climb.
The average meeting is 10 minutes longer, increasing from 35 to 45 minutes.
The average Teams user is sending 45 percent more chats per week and 42 percent more chats per person after hours, with chats per week still on the rise.
The number of emails delivered to commercial and education customers in February, when compared to the same month last year, is up by 40.6 billion.1
And we’ve seen a 66 percent increase in the number of people working on documents.
This barrage of communications is unstructured and mostly unplanned, with 62 percent of calls and meetings unscheduled or conducted ad hoc. And workers are feeling the pressure to keep up. Despite meeting and chat overload, 50 percent of people respond to Teams chats within five minutes or less, a response time that has not changed year-over-year. This proves the intensity of our workday, and that what is expected of employees during this time, has increased significantly.
Digital overload is real and climbing
Even one year in, time spent in meetings and chats sent per person each week continue to climb.2
Start of global lockdown due to Covid-19
(Top) Meeting minutes per person
(Bottom) Chats per person
The holidays bring a much-needed break in activity
(Top) Meeting Minutes per Person
(Bottom) Chats per Person
Analysis of collaboration activity across Microsoft 365 tools from February 2020 to February 2021. This visualization is based on aggregated data, without personal or organization-identifying information.
4. Gen Z is at risk and will need to be re-energized
An overlooked demographic appears to be suffering right now: Gen Z. Sixty percent of this generation — those between the ages of 18 and 25 — say they are merely surviving or flat-out struggling right now.
“Networking as someone early in their career has gotten so much more daunting since the move to fully remote work — especially since switching to a totally different team during the pandemic. Without hallway conversations, chance encounters, and small talk over coffee, it's hard to feel connected even to my immediate team, much less build meaningful connections across the company.”
This generation is more likely to be single and early in their careers, making them more likely to feel the impacts of isolation, struggle with motivation at work, or lack the financial means to create proper workplaces at home. Survey respondents reported that they were more likely to struggle balancing work with life (+8 percentage points) and to feel exhausted after a typical day of work (+8 percentage points) when compared to older generations. Gen Z also reported difficulties feeling engaged or excited about work, getting a word in during meetings, and bringing new ideas to the table.
New generations offer fresh perspectives and challenge the status quo. Their contributions are critical, and as the first generation to start their jobs in a completely remote environment on such a widespread basis, their experience will set expectations and attitudes toward work moving forward. Ensuring that Gen Z feels a sense of purpose and wellbeing is an urgent imperative in the shift to hybrid.
Gen Z is struggling more than other generations
The last year has been more challenging for Gen Z in many ways — from bringing new ideas to the table, to simply feeling engaged or excited about work.
5. Shrinking networks are endangering innovation
The pandemic-driven isolation people feel in their personal lives is also happening at work.
Anonymized collaboration trends between billions of Outlook emails and Microsoft Teams meetings reveal a clear trend: the shift to remote shrunk our networks. At the onset of the pandemic, our analysis shows that interactions with our close networks at work increased, while interactions with our distant networks diminished. This suggests that, as we shifted into lockdowns, we clung to our immediate teams for support and let our broader network fall to the wayside.
Put simply, companies became more siloed than they were before the pandemic. And while interactions with our close networks are still more frequent than they were before the pandemic, the trend shows even these close team interactions have started to diminish over time.
Teams are more siloed in a digital work world
Collaboration trends in Microsoft Teams and Outlook show that interactions with our immediate team, or close network, strengthened with the move to remote work. However, our interactions outside of that team, or distant networks, have diminished.
“When you lose connections, you stop innovating. It’s harder for new ideas to get in and groupthink becomes a serious possibility.”
Thankfully, our analysis suggests that hybrid work may help revive our networks at work. For example, looking at New Zealand, we can see that team isolation — measured by a lack of communication with our distant network — spikes when lockdowns are issued. When lockdowns are eased, we see increased communication with our distant network. We saw this trend in other countries as well, including South Korea.
In New Zealand, eased lockdown restrictions improve workplace networks
Collaboration trends in New Zealand reveal a hopeful look at the future of hybrid work. As lockdown restrictions ease, team isolation improves.
As companies balance a mix of in-person and remote teams, it will be important to remember that remote work makes for more siloed teams. Leaders must look for ways to foster the social capital, cross-team collaboration, and spontaneous idea-sharing that’s been driving workplace innovation for decades.
6. Authenticity will spur productivity and wellbeing
As people navigated unprecedented stress on the frontlines, balanced childcare and homeschool, worked from living rooms, quieted barking dogs, and pushed away curious cats, something changed: work became more human.
One in five have met their colleagues’ pets or families virtually, and as we clung to each other to get through the year, one in six (17 percent) have cried with a colleague this year. This number was even higher for those in industries hit hardest during this time, like education (20 percent), travel and tourism (21 percent), and healthcare (23 percent).
“Before the pandemic, we encouraged people to ‘bring their whole self to work,’ but it was tough to truly empower them to do that. The shared vulnerability of this time has given us a huge opportunity to bring real authenticity to company culture and transform work for the better.”
These interactions with coworkers may help foster a workplace where people feel more comfortable to be themselves. Compared to one year ago, 39 percent of people say they’re more likely to be their full, authentic selves at work and 31 percent are less likely to feel embarrassed or ashamed when their home life shows up at work. And people who interacted with their coworkers more closely than before not only experienced stronger work relationships, but also reported higher productivity and better overall wellbeing.
It‘s important to note, however, that Black and U.S. Latino workers in the U.S. reported bigger challenges in building relationships, feeling included, and bringing their authentic selves to work than the broader population. Leaders and teammates should be aware and ensure their workplace interactions encourage authenticity among all groups, especially in hybrid environments.
A tough year may have made work more human
Coworkers leaned on each other in new ways to get through the last year. 1 in 6 (17 percent) has cried with a coworker, especially those in healthcare (23 percent), travel and tourism (21 percent), and education (20 percent).
7. Talent is everywhere in a hybrid work world
One of the brightest sides of the shift to remote work is that it widens the talent marketplace. Remote job postings on LinkedIn increased more than five times during the pandemic, and people are taking notice. Forty-six percent of remote workers we surveyed are planning to move to a new location this year because they can now work remotely. People no longer have to leave their desk, house or community to expand their career, and it will have profound impacts on the talent landscape.
“This shift is likely to stick, and it’s good for democratizing access to opportunity. Companies in major cities can hire talent from underrepresented groups that may not have the means or desire to move to a big city. And in smaller cities, companies will now have access to talent that may have a different set of skills than they had before.”
An analysis of the LinkedIn Economic Graph shows women, Gen Z, and those without a graduate degree as the groups most likely to apply for those jobs. And, in the U.S., our survey found that Black and U.S. Latino workers are more likely than white workers and men to say they prefer remote work.
Remote opportunities are more attractive to diverse applicants
On LinkedIn, women, Gen Z, and those without a graduate degree are more likely to apply for remote versus on-site positions.
What's at stake?
As the world opens up, more employees are evaluating their next move
Today, our research shows that 41 percent of the global workforce is likely to consider leaving their current employer within the next year, with 46 percent planning to make a major pivot or career transition.
According to global 2020 data collected by Glint, a people success platform acquired by LinkedIn, 71 percent of employees said they plan to be with their current employer in two years, a number nearly consistent with the previous year (69 percent).3 “We nearly have a doubling of job switching-intent,” says LinkedIn Senior Editor-at-Large George Anders. “People are going to try and compress into one year what they might ordinarily have done in two.”
With so much change upending people over the past year, employees are reevaluating priorities, home bases, and their entire lives. So, whether it’s due to fewer networking or career advancement opportunities, a new calling, pent-up demand, or a host of pandemic-related struggles, more people are considering their next move. The way companies approach the next phase of work — embracing the positives and learning from the challenges of this last year — will impact who stays, who goes, and who ultimately seeks to join your company.
Employees are at an inflection point
41% of employees are considering leaving their current employer this year and 46% say they’re likely to move because they can now work remotely.
The way forward
Taken together, these trends show that we are no longer bound to traditional notions of space and time to work together. Instead, we can set aside our long-held assumptions and shift our mental model to embrace extreme flexibility. And with these five strategies, business leaders can rewire their operating model for a successful shift to hybrid work.
Create a plan to empower people for extreme flexibility
Every organization will need a plan that encompasses policy, physical space, and technology. It starts with answering critical questions: How are people doing and what do they need? Who will be able to work remotely, and who might have to come in? How often? Codify the answers to these questions to formulate a plan to empower people for extreme flexibility, then provide guidance to employees as you experiment and learn.
Invest in space and technology to bridge the physical and digital worlds
Office space no longer stops at the office. Leaders must consider how to equip all workers with the tools they need to contribute — whether they’re working from home, the manufacturing floor, in the office, or on the go. Physical office space must be compelling enough to entice workers to commute in, and include a mix of collaboration and focus areas. Meeting rooms and team culture will need to evolve to ensure all voices are heard.
Combat digital exhaustion from the top
As we look to create a better future of work, addressing digital exhaustion must be a priority for leaders everywhere. It won’t be easy, but consider how to reduce employee workloads, embrace a balance of synchronous and asynchronous collaboration, and create a culture where breaks are encouraged and respected.
Prioritize rebuilding social capital and culture
Broadening our networks and building social capital takes effort in any work environment, but it’s even more difficult in a digital world. Teams must reframe network-building from a passive effort to a proactive one, encourage and reward managers to prioritize building social capital at work, and seek to create a culture where social support thrives.
Rethink employee experience to compete for the best and most diverse talent
The talent landscape has shifted, and employee expectations have changed. The best leaders will empathize with the unique needs of each group in their organization, and see remote work as a lever to attract the best and most diverse talent.
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