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Research: Flexible Work Is Having a Mixed Impact on Employee Well-Being and Productivity

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Editor's Note: SHRM has partnered with Harvard Business Review to bring you relevant articles on key HR topics and strategies. 

Flexible work is having an impact on employee well-being, according to recent Gallup data. In our 2023 Global State of the Workplace Report, which represents more than 140 countries, employed individuals who were working remotely either full time or part time (hybrid) said they were experiencing more stress and more anger than employees who were working onsite full time.

We also asked HR leaders at Fortune 500 companies, who are typically responsible for their company's health benefits, whether they thought employees' jobs were having a positive or negative impact on employee mental health. Only 27% of CHROs who offer the most flexibility (requiring zero days in the office) said they saw a positive impact on mental health, as compared to 29% of HR leaders who require one or two days per week in the office; 37% of HR leaders who require three days/week; and 47% of HR leaders who require four to five days/week.

At the same time, Gallup data shows that remote and hybrid employees across the world were consistently more engaged than onsite employees, which correlates with higher productivity and performance. Again, Fortune 500 HR leaders agree: 41% of HR leaders with the most flexible policies said their productivity had generally increased in the past year, as compared to 33% of HR leaders who required one or two days/week, 32% who require three days per week, and 32% of HR leaders who require four to five days per week.

This presents a complicated challenge for company leaders: Full flexibility means employee well-being might be in jeopardy. But if you're going to require employees to be in the office full time, you may need to mitigate lower engagement and lower productivity.

So what can organizations do to promote both well-being and productivity wherever employees are working?

Help people live their best lives with their definition of balance.

A common misperception leaders have about flexible work is that employees want to be mixing their work and personal lives during the day. But Gallup asked a representative sample of the U.S. workforce: In your best life imaginable, which of the following work schedules would you prefer Monday through Friday, whether at home or in the office?

  1. A job in which you work 9 AM to 5 PM and attend to other life activities before or after work (Gallup calls these employees "splitters")
  2. A job in which you alternate between work and other life activities throughout the day (Gallup calls these employees "blenders")

The results were surprising: 50% of the U.S. workforce want to be splitters and 50% want to be blenders. This varies somewhat by type of work: 45% of white-collar employees and 62% of blue-collar employees want to be splitters, whereas 55% of white-collar employees and 28% of blue-collar employees want to be blenders. Our survey of large-company CHROs found that HR leaders consistently underestimated the percent of workers who want to be splitters.

This matters quite a bit because when employees are not working in their preferred ways — meaning if they prefer to be a splitter, but their work requires them to be a blender (or the other way around) — they are less engaged, more likely to report burning out at work, and more likely to be watching for or actively seeking a new job.

employees who work in their preferred style are more engaged, less likely to seek a new job and are less likely to burn out

Leaders need to make sure they understand what their employees want before building solutions. Otherwise, mental health and productivity are both at risk.

Make sure your employees feel cared for.

When Gallup asked large-company CHROs if their organization cares about the well-being of its employees, 65% strongly agreed that this was the case. However, less than a quarter of U.S. employees could strongly agree their organization cares about their well-being.

Leaders may feel like their organization cares about their employees — but that doesn't matter if your employees don't feel like you care.

If your well-being strategy is based on programs that few people use, then you have failed to bridge the gap between your caring and your employees feeling cared for. Managers must not only understand what programs are available, they must also be trained on how to talk to employees about their well-being. While 72% of CHROs said their managers were trained on well-being programs, less than half (49%) said they were training managers how to have a conversation with their people about their well-being.

Require manager training on leading remote and hybrid teams.

Ninety-one percent of HR leaders said they have provided some sort of formal or informal training to their managers around leading remote and hybrid teams. Job done, right? Not quite. More than half — 57% — of U.S. managers told Gallup they had received zero formal or informal training on managing remote or hybrid teams.

One major issue is that trainings are often optional and often coupled with a message to "own your own development." In these situations, what managers and employees hear is: You are on your own. Help is not on the way, so figure it out by yourself.

Overwhelmed managers aren't likely to complete these kinds of trainings. Gallup research has found that managers leading hybrid teams are more likely to report they are burning out as compared to managers leading either remote or onsite teams. You might be thinking managers will figure it out, but what Gallup discovered is that they are not finding their way, but instead are losing themselves.

With mental health, engagement, productivity, and more on the line, leaders should require training on leading hybrid teams that also teaches managers how to put on their own oxygen masks before helping others — because their mental health is at just as much risk.

To be truly engaged and productive, your employees must thrive in both their work and their life. Organizations that help employees find their version of balance, prioritize their feelings of being cared for, and ensure managers are actually equipped to lead remote and hybrid teams have a good chance of improving both well-being and productivity in our new era of work.

Jeremie Brecheisen is a partner and managing director of The Gallup CHRO Roundtable.

This article is reprinted from Harvard Business Review with permission. © 2023 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group.


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