Microsoft: what Asia leaders need to know about hybrid work

Microsoft’s 2022 Work Trend Index guides Asia leaders to navigating a hybrid future – from making the office worth the commute to rebuilding social capital

It’s been two years since the shift to a completely different way of working took hold, fundamentally changing how we define the role of work in our lives. And after sitting on the cusp of hybrid work for more than a year, many companies are at a long-awaited inflection point – the lived-in experience of hybrid work.

Already, hybrid work is up seven points YoY, to 38%, and more than half (53%) of people are likely to consider transitioning to hybrid in the year ahead, and the Great Reshuffle is far from over.

That’s according to findings from the just-released Microsoft 2022 Work Trend Index, "Great Expectations: Making Hybrid Work Work” which reveals an urgent opportunity and responsibility for leaders to approach the transition with intention, or risk being left behind.

The challenge for every organisation is to meet employees' great new expectations head-on while balancing business outcomes in an unpredictable economy.

To help leaders across Asia navigate the challenges ahead, the report outlines five urgent trends which outlines findings from a study of 31,000 people across 31 countries, including 13 markets in Asia along with an analysis of trillions of productivity signals in Microsoft 365 and labour trends on LinkedIn.

From prioritising employee wellbeing and empowering managers to creating intentional team time to fostering close team bonds, these are the changes leaders can make to make hybrid a success.

1 Employees have a new ‘worth it’ equation

The findings 57% of employees in Asia, 4% more than the global average, say they are more likely to prioritise their health and wellbeing over work than before the pandemic. And they are acting on this. Last year, 18% left their jobs, with the top reasons, personal wellbeing, work-life balance and lack of flexible work hours.

And the Great Reshuffle isn't over yet. More than half (55%) of Gen Z and Millennials in Asia are likely to consider changing employers in the year ahead, more than 10% more than the global average for this age group.

For Gen Z, there’s no going back – flexibility, mobility and entrepreneurial freedom are non-negotiable. Gen Z and Millennials are more willing to change jobs to live in a different location, 44% and 38%, respectively, compared to 27% of Gen X and 17% of Boomers.

The takeaway Employees have new expectations and priorities, putting their own wellbeing over work and prioritising a company’s purpose when it comes to job selection. Beyond pay, employees are looking for a positive culture first and foremost in a new job, followed closely by mental health/wellbeing benefits, a sense of purpose/meaning, flexible work hours and extended paid holiday. For Gen Z, however, positive feedback and recognition is more important than flexible work hours and extended paid holiday.

The best leaders will create a culture that embraces flexibility and prioritises employee wellbeing, understanding that this is a competitive advantage to build thriving organisations and drive long-term growth.

"There's no erasing the lived experience and lasting impact of the past two years, as flexibility and well-being have become non-negotiables for employees," said Jared Spataro, corporate vice president, Modern Work, Microsoft. "By embracing and adapting to these new expectations, organisations can set their people and their business up for long-term success." 

2 Managers feel stuck between leadership and employee expectations

The findings 58% of leaders in Asia say their company is planning a return to full-time in-person work in the year ahead. 57% of managers in Asia say leadership at their company is out of touch with employee expectations and 78% of managers in Asia say they don't have the influence or resources to drive change for their team. 

The takeaway The past two years have shown that culture stands or falls with managers, but many feel stuck between leadership and new employee expectations, and feel powerless to drive change.

If empowered, managers hold the key to unlock the potential of hybrid work. Equip them with the resources and training they need to manage the transition. While policy is set at the top, leaders need to decentralise decision-making and empower managers to make change on behalf of their employees’ individual needs. Microsoft encourages managers to use this template to create team agreements for hybrid work.

“Empowering managers to adapt to new employee expectations helps set businesses up for long-term success,” says Spataro.

3 Leaders need to make the office worth the commute. 

The findings 41% of hybrid employees in Asia say their biggest challenge is knowing when and why to come into the office yet only 34% of leaders have created team agreements to define these new norms.   

While data suggests companies are making progress on investments in space and technology – monthly use of Microsoft Teams Rooms, optimised for hybrid collaboration, has more than doubled YoY, and 54% of leaders are currently redesigning meeting spaces for hybrid work – 44% of hybrid employees say they still do not feel included in meetings.

The takeaway As the world shifts more fully to hybrid work, the biggest opportunity for business leaders is to reimagine the role of the office and create clarity around why, when and how often teams should gather.

Very few firms have created a new team normal to ensure time together is intentional, and as such risk missing out on the true benefits of hybrid work.

Leaders must define the purpose of in-person collaboration, creating team agreements on when to come together in person, defining hybrid meeting etiquette, and rethinking how space can play a supporting role.

Microsoft recommends experimenting with ‘Team Tuesdays’ or in-person office hours between 12-2pm two days a week.

“You must design workplaces with enough flexibility to support every employee,” says Microsoft’s CVP of Global Workplace Services, Michael Ford, who points to a “mix of quiet places, collaboration areas, and touch-down locations” to help ensure everyone can be “connected, engaged and productive”.

4 Flexible work doesn't have to mean ‘always on’ 

The findings 56% of workers in Asia are open to using immersive digital spaces for meetings in the next year.  

Despite the increasing digital overload, people are making flexible work their own, taking control of their time and reshaping the workday. Productivity patterns in Outlook show people are becoming more intentional about taking breaks, avoiding double booking, and establishing meeting-free work blocks. Other data shows people are starting meetings later on Mondays and wrapping up earlier on Fridays, that there are fewer noon meetings, pointing to a possible midday break, and more employees are using their vacation time. And while meetings are up overall, they are getting shorter and more ad hoc.

The takeaway Data indicates that employees are doing what they can to make flexible work their own but making flexible work sustainable will require new teams to guard against being ‘always on’.

Teams need to create a new normal about flexible work to reduce time spent in meetings and empower people to hit the off switch. This should not be a solo effort, but a team-led movement to establish more sustainable hybrid work practices.

“Because everyone is working at different times and in different places, it’s important to shift as much work as you can to be asynchronous and get really intentional about the use of the synchronous time you have together,” says Jaime Teevan, Microsoft’s Chief Scientist.

5 Rebuilding social capital looks different in a hybrid world

The findings With 61% of hybrid workers in Asia considering a shift to full-remote in the year ahead, 10% more than the global average, companies cannot rely solely on the office to recoup the social capital lost over the past two years. Some 43% of leaders in Asia say relationship-building is the greatest challenge of having employees work hybrid or remote.   

One of the most felt aspects of remote and hybrid work is the impact it’s had on relationships, with 59% of employees having fewer work ‘friendships’ since going hybrid, resulting in feelings of loneliness, according to 55% of hybrid employees.

Building social capital is crucial for organizational success. Employees who have thriving relationships with their immediate team members report better wellbeing than those with poor relationships (76% versus 57%). They also report higher productivity (50% versus 36%) and are less likely to change employers in the year ahead (61% versus 39%).

The takeaway Leaders should not see a return to the office as the only solution for rebuilding the social capital lost over the past two years, but should prioritise time for people to connect, as this will ultimately benefit employee satisfaction and productivity. Without a new approach, employee isolation and disconnection will continue to grow.

As Nancy Baym, principal researcher for Microsoft Research explains, “when people trust one another and have [social] capital, you get a willingness to take risks, you get more innovation and creativity and less groupthink”.

Managers play a crucial role in fostering close team bonds and acting as dot connectors to help employees broaden their networks. They should prioritise time for relationship-building to happen in more deep and authentic ways beyond the to-do list and foster a culture that rewards psychological safety, so employees can be vulnerable and lean on each other for support when needed.

Read Microsoft’s 2022 Work Trend Index

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