Coaxing employees back to the office may become the defining workplace challenge of 2022 for businesses that saw much of their workforce go remote during the pandemic. In what’s being called the Great Disconnect, employers and employees are seemingly not in agreement about which work model to use for the future of work: full-time on-site, full-time remote, or a hybrid arrangement.

In Microsoft’s 2022 Work Trend Index, half of business leaders surveyed said they already require or plan to require employees to return to full-time, on-site work by the end of the year. Making headlines are managers like Elon Musk who point out the productivity gains that come from the social connection, culture keeping, and idea generation that they say can only be created in a shared workspace. But others disagree: several senior executives attending the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2022 in Davos, Switzerland, spoke out in favor of a hybrid work model, saying it was the most realistic approach for attracting and retaining talent.

Employees are pushing back on a mandated return to office, emboldened by newfound bargaining power as a result of the record job openings and worker resignations of the Great Reshuffle. Studies reveal that up to half of employees say they will quit or look for a new job if expected to return to the office full time.

Flex Work Models Up for Debate

Lost in the debate that is playing out in the media is valuable scientific research on the effects of different work models on worker productivity. This discussion is largely being driven by subjective impressions and entrenched ideas based on the “old normal,” said Dr. Gabriela Burlacu, talent research manager at Accenture, speaking at the recently held annual conference of the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychologists (SIOP).

Joining her for the session “Where Will We Work? I-O Psychology Puts Flexible Work Models on Trial” were industrial and organizational (I-O) psychologists Dr. Benjamin Granger, head of Employee Experience Advisory Services at Qualtrics, and Dr. Kristen Shockley, associate professor of Psychology at the University of Georgia. Joshua Acosta, a research analyst with SAP SuccessFactors, also later provided insights from the recent SAP SuccessFactors report “The Evolution of HR Meta-Trends: What to Know for 2022.”

Autonomy Fuels Motivation for Greater Productivity

“If we think about theories in I-O psychology, autonomy and control permeate a lot of these theories,” said Shockley, who pointed out that “autonomy as motivation for sustained effort” is a frequent theme in I-O literature. “Autonomy is a fundamental need and when you allow people to work remote, it inherently gives them more of this autonomy. That is something which relates to a host of outcomes, like productivity and well-being.”

The psychologists agreed that the optimal work model for the average global employee is a hybrid work arrangement. They noted, however, that this is not necessarily the best model for every individual or organization. For those organizations that opt for a hybrid model, they emphasized that the work needs to be structured so that collaborative tasks, like brainstorming, are done on-site and more analytical tasks are done remotely. “I am very pro the hybrid model, with the caveat that it does need to be intentionally and holistically designed,” said Burlacu.

Workers Expect Flex Work after Pandemic Productivity Sprint

A Future of Work study by Accenture, which surveyed 10,000 workers in 12 industries in 12 countries in 2021, found that 83% of workers identified a hybrid model as optimal for them. Those already in hybrid environments reported better mental health and stronger work relationships, and felt they were doing better work for their organizations.

The WFH Research Group, which studies work-from-home arrangements and attitudes, tracked the productivity of remote workers from April 2020 to January 2022. It found that on average people were 7% more productive in remote work arrangements, even with the added stressors of the pandemic.

For the 2022 Employee Experience Trends Report, Qualtrics carried out a study of 14,000 employees in 22 industries across 27 countries to look at general job attitudes, engagement, inclusion, and well-being. Employees generally felt more energized at work – compared to the previous year – with half saying their physical and mental well-being actually improved while working remotely.

“Many organizations haven’t lost step in terms of productivity,” said Acosta from SAP SuccessFactors, citing the latest research from SAP SuccessFactors, which found that workers’ attitudes are shifting to expect hybrid arrangements. “If people are working in a hybrid setting or home setting, we’re seeing they’re often just as productive as when they’re in the office. It’s our perspective that hybrid work isn’t going away anytime soon.”

Hybrid Work Moves from Contingency to Certainty

If 2021 was the year hybrid work was utilized for health and safety, then researchers at SAP SuccessFactors predict that 2022 will be the year that it moves from contingency to certainty. This means that organizations will need to establish policies, practices, and cultural norms to operationalize hybrid work arrangements. Acosta noted this will look different across all organizations, depending on the composition of the workforce.

Accenture’s study revealed that a number of demographic factors influence workers’ decisions about where to work, including age and gender demographics and where they live. For example, Gen X women said they could be more productive in remote work, while Gen Z men felt strongly about being on-site. Urban dwellers felt they would be more productive in the office, while people living in rural areas preferred remote work.

“All of that together suggests that if you let people choose, you will end up with demographically very different workforces on-site versus remotely,” Burlacu said. “That wouldn’t be a problem if you created equitable work experiences and equitable access to development and promotion opportunities.” She then followed up with a hard truth: “But the issue of equitable access has never been properly resolved in the workplace.”

Just ask deskless workers. This group – defined as employees who perform their jobs away from a desk – was largely absent from the discussion in 2021. In 2022, however, these workers are presenting more pronounced views, according to research by SAP SuccessFactors. With companies facing talent shortages in all job categories, Acosta said that organizations will need to seriously consider deskless workers’ changing expectations for autonomy and flexibility while balancing organizational and job demands.

Maybe It’s Time for a New Definition of Flexibility?

“A lot of times we assume workplace flexibility means where you work, but what’s become clear to us in our work is when employees define flexibility, they’re talking about where and when they work, and they’re also talking about how work gets measured and managed,” Granger said. “Employees are defining workplace flexibility much broader than many organizational leaders. We need to be more flexible in how we define workplace flexibility.”

Acosta agreed, saying “Organizations are going to need to be really thoughtful in operationalizing how they can deliver flexibility as well as autonomy, and perhaps even redesign not only where people work, but when and how work takes place.”