Shaping the future of employee experience

Organizations that are successful beyond 2023 will align individual performance to their strategy with a strong culture in a hybrid working environment.

Fifteen years ago, I was part of an organization that was shifting the way we worked. One of the goals was to reduce the organization’s real estate footprint, a second was to provide greater flexibility in where people worked and a third was to create a better framework for how people worked. We moved to a new building and 20 percent of the staff became fully or partially remote, meaning they didn’t have assigned desks. Sound familiar? It was a preview of the now common hybrid workplace.

The shift was inspired by one pioneered a few years earlier at Best Buy, called a results-only work environment (ROWE). As we moved to the new headquarters building three worker types were created. The largest group of employees was given desks. A second group, considered hybrid, were assigned a rolling filing cabinet they could wheel to an open desk when they came to the office. The third was fully remote, working from home, but able to work at an open desk when they desired. While there were a few early resistors, ultimately everyone settled into a new rhythm and work continued.

Given that this shift to hybrid has been happening for 20 years, it’s baffling why there’s such a struggle now. For those still working in an office at the end of 2019, the biggest change in the employee experience in the past three years has been a move to entirely remote and a re-shifting of remote/hybrid work. Some organizations have it down and are comfortable, while others struggle to figure it out. 

I’ve long said visibility does not equal productivity, which is one of the issues we’re battling, causing a division between employees and leaders. In his annual HR Predictions for 2023, Josh Bersin mentions “productivity paranoia” and defines it as “the disconnect between employee and employer perception of productivity.” According to one report, 87 percent of employees feel highly productive at work, while only 12 percent of leaders feel their employees are productive. 

This disparity is fascinating but not surprising. Managers often struggle to clearly define their employees’ expectations. At an event I attended a few weeks back, author and consultant Laurie Ruettimann said one thing that will be important in 2023 is performance management. She doesn’t mean managing poor performance—it’s about clearly defining expectations and providing feedback and assessment on progress. Doing so will help close the perceived performance gap mentioned above.

Josh Bersin further states, “…productivity creates employee engagement! When people feel productive, they love their jobs. When they feel they are wasting their time, they check out, quietly quit, or depart.” It is imperative for organizations that aren’t performing at the levels they want to get clear on expectations and engage their people.

When employees see no progress and need clarification on what to do about it, that leads to listlessness and burnout. The pandemic led to large numbers of people identifying with the terms languishing and burnout, the latter fueling the “Great Resignation” of 2021 and 2022. At the end of 2021, it’s reported up to 95 percent of workers had considered changing jobs.

According to a Deloitte Insights article, “…leaders should focus on the fundamental issue, which is the design and practice of the work itself, as the work will dictate the mix of physical and digital workplace required to meet business outcomes.” For this to happen, leaders need to be clear on performance measures and expected outcomes — and then let employees and teams figure out how, when and where those are best achieved.  

Organizations that are successful beyond 2023 will align individual performance to their strategy with a strong culture in a hybrid working environment. Strong culture can and must exist virtually. Stop relying on that ping pong table and build a culture based on respect, equity and psychological safety, all proven to attract and retain top talent.

As I read predictions on the future of the employee experience, one of the common themes is the idea of individual agency. All signs point to giving more autonomy to individuals and let them determine the best way to accomplish their work. One study found that 59 percent of respondents find “flexibility” more important than salary and 77 percent prefer flexibility in where they work. The same study also found that 59 percent wouldn’t work in a role that required them to work in office five days a week.

Once desired outcomes are clearly defined, individuals can determine how, when and where the work is best done. The struggle over hybrid, in-office, or fully virtual becomes moot as individuals and teams choose the best solution for them – and not because of a company mandate. “Mandates feel like a violation of autonomy, which is one of the most important intrinsic drivers of threat and reward in the brain.” 

The first step in this process is to revisit current performance management processes. This might be the year to overhaul antiquated processes to ones that adapt to the flow of work and clearly communicate a vision for the future. Many organizations are moving to an OKR process that ensures alignment throughout the organization as well as defines expectations in smaller sprints.

The second step is to invest in support for employees in a distributed team. What is needed to design the best work environment to accomplish the agreed goals and expectations? Think about tools for communicating and collaborating. Additionally, think about the support your managers need to effectively manage in a distributed environment. Not just technologically, but in their leadership skills.

Remember, we’re in a time of great transition and transformation. Even at the end of 2023, many will still be arguing over the best solutions. But those who are quick to figure it out will reap the rewards of creating an engaged and growing workforce.