To Thrive in Hybrid Work, Build a Culture of Trust and Flexibility

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Microsoft employee survey data shows the importance of embracing different work styles—and the power of simple conversations


Microsoft has more than 180,000 employees* in over 100 countries around the world. Our ongoing listening system reaches employees via a variety of channels. Each day, we conduct an opt-in survey of a random sample of 2,500 global employees on a range of topics. We survey our employees intermittently on their return-to-office plans and also conduct an annual company-wide poll. These have allowed us to better understand the ever-evolving way we work as an organization and to hear firsthand from employees about what is and isn’t working. We’re sharing what we’re learning from our own employees—a potential microcosm of what others may be experiencing—in an effort to help organizations navigate two trends reshaping the workforce: the Hybrid Paradox and the Great Reshuffle.

Key takeaways

  • Microsoft employee survey data shows feelings of inclusion and manager support are at all-time highs, while self-reported productivity levels remain consistent.
  • A successful shift to hybrid work will depend on embracing the “hybrid paradox,” in which people want the flexibility to work from anywhere, but simultaneously crave more in-person connection.
  • There’s no one-size-fits-all approach: some employees cite work-life balance, focus time, and meetings as reasons to go into the office. Others see those as reasons to stay home.
  • The role of the manager becomes even more important in hybrid work. Our findings show a gap between manager and employee expectations, but one-on-one conversations create trust and give people the confidence to embrace their version of flexible hybrid work.

Amid this uncertainty, we are also experiencing monumental shifts in the ways we work. Our annual Work Trend Index survey data exposed what our CEO, Satya Nadella, calls the Hybrid Paradox: People want the flexibility to work from anywhere, but they simultaneously crave more in-person connection.

But it goes deeper. Sending everyone home to work was a catalyst for people to reexamine their relationship with work, resulting in deep, structural changes to employee expectations. As employees learned to work differently over the past 18 months, they are rethinking not only how, when, and where they work, but why. A new relationship between employer and employees is emerging: a new social contract. While some jobs will be lost and many others created, almost all will change—resulting in what LinkedIn has dubbed the Great Reshuffle.


No “One-size-fits-all”

How Microsoft employees feel about hybrid work, in their own words

Microsoft employees share how hybrid work impacts their lives. 
Hear more Microsoft employee stories.

We believe the data we’ve gathered may help guide organizations through these complexities, just as it’s helping us. This Work Trend Index Pulse Report features insights from surveys conducted among our own employees. By listening to our people, we’ve reached a better understanding of the opportunities and challenges of remote work, important differences in work styles, and gaps in employees’ and managers’ expectations. The results also point to some simple yet powerful tactics that may help unlock the flexibility and trust organizations must cultivate to be successful in hybrid work.

We don’t have all the answers. As our chief scientist, Jaime Teevan, says, “We’re having to make long-term decisions with short-term data.” But we’re sharing what we know now as a way to get started.

Where we stand as an organization

Looking back on the last year, our survey data shows where we’ve done well as an organization—and what we’ll need to do moving forward to hold on to those successes. It also reflects the challenges we’ve faced, like so many others, and the work left to do.

First, the most positive news. In the face of so much uncertainty, we were able to retain high positive sentiment from employees (90 percent) on inclusion, a record for the company.


90% of Microsoft

employees say they

feel included in their work


 

“It’s completely understandable that there was such a strong sense of inclusion during the pandemic,” says Dr. David Rock, a neuroscientist and CEO of the NeuroLeadership Institute, a cognitive science consultancy that we have worked hand in hand with when creating our culture and leadership principles. “Over the last year, teams have created an intense bond derived from a sense of mutual goals and shared experiences.”

While our focus to create an inclusive culture at Microsoft predates the move to remote work, this sentiment at a time like this is notable. As organizations sit on the cusp of more employees splitting their time between in-person and remote work, that sense of shared context will require greater effort and creativity to maintain.

Companies will need to actively build new habits and ensure that no matter where employees work, they feel like they belong, that they’re being included in conversations, and that managers support their diverse needs and work styles. This holds especially true for underrepresented groups across the U.S. workforce as a whole, who feel less included than others, according to our research.

In addition to inclusion, we uncovered another positive finding about the past year: Employees say their productivity hasn’t changed since going remote (77 percent in June 2021 versus 76 percent in June 2020).

When it comes to areas in need of improvement, while many Microsoft employees say they feel included and productive, a majority feel the strain of one of two things common with remote work: isolation and challenges to well-being. More specifically, employees reporting that they feel “satisfied with the quality of connection with their coworkers” dropped from 86 percent last June to 79 percent in June of this year. Our recent research also shows that remote work caused our employees’ networks to become more siloed and static, with people spending less of their collaboration time with their weak ties.

And while the data shows that employees’ satisfaction with “balance between work and personal life” has improved since the height of the pandemic (jumping 9 percentage points between November and June), our surveys show that achieving that balance continues to be an effort for many.


“I used to commute 45 minutes to an hour. Now I can choose what days I want to skip the commute to have breakfast with my family and go for a morning walk with my dog.”

– Matt Fisher, Principal Data and Applied Scientist Manager, Microsoft Cloud + AI, Kirkland, Washington

In sum, our findings indicate that remote work has had a range of impacts, both positive and negative. Moving forward into hybrid work, we are focusing our learning efforts on determining how organizations, including ours, can support flexibility while strengthening human connection and promoting well-being. We believe the answer lies in embracing our differences.


Different people, different styles, different needs

What is the ideal work style? Our findings confirm that there’s no one answer. Different people have different styles and different needs. The organizations that succeed will find ways to accommodate different work styles as the path to helping everyone do their best work.

We asked employees how often they plan to work from home versus in the office once a full return to in-person work becomes possible. We also asked them why.

Topping the list of reasons to work in the office was collaboration with coworkers (70 percent) and social interaction (61 percent). The preferred reasons to work from home were skipping the commute (61 percent) and maintaining a healthier work-life balance (59 percent). These numbers demonstrate the Hybrid Paradox in action: We’ve missed one another and what we can accomplish together in person. At the same time, we want to hold on to the perceived wellbeing benefits of working from home.


Different Styles, Different Needs

Reasons Microsoft employees cite for working at home and in-person


Some employees cite work-life balance, focus time, and collaboration as reasons to go 
into the office, while others cite those same things as reasons to stay home.

“Flexibility gives me the power to have a work style that fits my whole life—not just my work.

Melike Ceylan-Leamen, Azure Infrastructure Specialist, Brooklin, Ontario, Canada


Deeper in the data, however, employees’ reasons for working in one place versus another start to fragment and become contradictory. Some Microsoft employees (12 percent) cite work-life balance as a reason to come into the office, while others identify this as a reason to stay home (59 percent). Some (23 percent) say the ability to conduct online meetings makes working from home a desirable option, while others believe team collaboration is a reason to be together in person (70 percent). Among employees who say they plan to spend the highest share of their working time at the office (more than 90 percent), 58 percent cite “focused work” as a top reason. Meanwhile, among employees who say they plan to spend a similar share of their time working at home (more than 90 percent), an identical 58 percent cite “focused work” as the reason.


58% of employees who plan to spend the most and least time in the office plan to do so for the same reason: more focused work


 

In short, some employees cite work-life balance, focus time, and meetings as reasons to go into the office, while others cite those same considerations as reasons to stay home. Through polar opposite work styles, they’re seeking the same benefit.

In the Great Reshuffle, organizations that respect and empower these differences won’t just see greater success at recruiting and retaining talent. They’re likely to find that in enabling such autonomy, they’ll help everyone become more effective and productive in their work.

“The pandemic has challenged all of us to think, live, and work in new ways. Adapting to hybrid work has brought about complexities to leadership, communication, and culture—and as a result, flexibility, trust, and empowerment have become more important than ever,” says Microsoft Chief People Officer Kathleen Hogan.

The Manager-Employee Gap

In our findings, we also saw some notable differences between manager and nonmanagerial employees. It turns out that once offices are fully open, some employees are planning to come to the office more than managers expect them to.

  • 8 percent of employees say they plan to come to the office every day, while only 1 percent of managers expect the same of their team members.
  • 48 percent of employees say they plan to come to the office 3 to 4 times per week, while only 28 percent of managers have that expectation of their team.
  • 31 percent of employees say they plan to come to the office 1 to 2 times per week, closer to the 25 percent of managers who expect the same of their team.
  • Finally, 35 percent of managers say that, aside from the company policy, they have no personal preference for how often employees come to the office (only managers could select no preference).

Employee plans vs. manager expectations

Employees plan to spend more time in the office than managers expect.

We asked Microsoft 
employees how often
they plan to work 
in-person when 
offices are fully 
open. We asked 
managers how often 
they expect team 
members to come in.
Results show that 
employees surveyed 
plan to spend more 
time at the office 
than managers 
                                                               surveyed expect.

Another gap that surfaced in our research was that managers say they plan to spend a higher percentage of their working time in the office than non-managers (45 percent for managers versus 39 percent for non-managers).

While the data doesn’t necessarily represent a direct correlation between each manager and their employee, it highlights an important trend. Gaps between work styles and employee-manager expectations have the potential to create friction. How to overcome this? Our data suggests a straightforward answer: communication.

 


On average, managers intend to spend 45% of working time in-person, while non-managers intend to spend 39%.


 

Ninety-seven percent of Microsoft employees who’ve had a discussion with their manager about how they work best say their manager supports their desired work style (7 percentage points higher than among employees who have not yet had this conversation). Moreover, the managers who score higher on our annual survey are also more likely to have had these discussions with their employees (manager scores are 5 percent higher on average).

The lesson is clear: A one-on-one conversation between manager and employee creates trust, allows a shared understanding, and empowers people to embrace their own versions of flexible, hybrid work.

“As we face the biggest shift to how we work in our generation, it’s our managers who create the conditions and experiences that define what flexible work truly means,” says Joe Whittinghill, corporate vice president of Talent, Learning, and Insights at Microsoft. “We’ve empowered our over 20,000 managers to make decisions on what works best for their employees because we recognize that each team is different, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution.”


97% of employees who’ve talked with their manager about how they work best say their manager supports their desired work style.


 

From insights to action

More than anything, we believe this research underscores the immense importance of creating a culture of trust and the role of the manager as we transition from remote to hybrid work. Our data shows that during this time of unrest, our managers rose to the occasion. Three metrics of employee sentiment around their immediate managers hit all-time highs in our most recent surveys:

  • I have confidence in my immediate manager. (90 percent)
  • My manager treats me with respect and dignity. (96 percent)
  • I have a positive working relationship with my manager. (95 percent)

During all-remote work, “managers really had the weight of the world on their shoulders, and they stepped up,” says Dawn Klinghoffer, Microsoft’s head of people analytics. “As we move to hybrid, we have to continue to be intentional about everything. Employees are looking to their managers to see how they’re going to behave and respond.”

These listening systems allow us to better understand the ever-evolving way we work. As we look ahead, maintaining this sentiment requires enabling flexibility and keeping every employee on an equal footing regardless of location. It will depend on developing new best practices, embracing new technologies, and making new commitments to one another as team members. Here are the steps we’re taking at Microsoft:


  • Maintain a growth mindset: The unpredictable ups and downs of the pandemic require a growth mindset—a positive, forward-thinking approach that embraces every misstep as a learning opportunity, not as a failure. “None of us should try and pretend like we’ve got a perfect grasp of hybrid yet,” says Dr. Rock. “We’ve all got to get better. We’ve all got to improve.”
  • 1:1 conversations: We are asking all of our managers at Microsoft to prioritize dedicated 1:1 conversations with employees about how they would like to work in our new hybrid model. We’re encouraging managers to be curious about how each employee works best, to challenge assumptions, and to offer as much flexibility as possible.
  • Model, coach, care: We’re asking our managers to lean heavily on a manager framework we introduced at Microsoft about two years ago: “model, coach, care.” We train managers to model flexibility, well-being, and self-care; act like a coach, helping employees set priorities, removing roadblocks, and asking questions to help employees find solutions; and, finally, care for employees’ unique needs in and outside of work, as well as their career aspirations and goals.
  • Team agreements: Uncertainty breeds anxiety. Managers can’t promise certainty, but a proxy for certainty is clarity, Dr. Rock says. We’ve asked each team at Microsoft to create a set of agreements to make clear the ways they’d like to work together in a hybrid world. Teams can establish meeting-free days or plan a weekly in-person team meeting. Team agreements create clarity while making space for each team to decide how hybrid looks for them. You can see the template we use at Microsoft here.
  • Intentional hybrid meetings: If culture is made up of the small everyday actions of each employee, how we handle the deluge of hybrid meetings each day has never been more important. At Microsoft, we continue to evolve Microsoft Teams to help put everyone on equal footing in meetings. We’ve also developed hybrid meeting guidance to help ensure that remote and in-person meeting attendees feel equally empowered to participate. We will continue to evolve these best practices as we learn and experiment.
  • Don’t ignore the basics: Well-being is ultimately a function of biology and psychology. Everyone needs enough sleep, daily exercise, healthy food, and hydration. High-quality, loving connections with people outside of work must be a top priority. As we all navigate the ebb and flow of hybrid work, managers need to focus on keeping these foundational elements within reach of their teams—and themselves, explains Dr. Rock. He adds, “You have to prioritize your well-being now more than any time in your career.”

Taken together, we believe the Hybrid Paradox and the Great Reshuffle will redefine work as we know it. These trends may seem daunting. But they create an opportunity for organizations to build new workplace norms that not only lead to greater fulfillment for employees but also better business outcomes. There is no precedent, and we don’t have all the answers, but we hope that sharing what we are learning will help other companies consider what flexible work means for them in order to develop a culture that makes hybrid work, well, really work.

Methodology
Research highlighted in this Work Trend Index Pulse Report showcases anonymous insights gleaned from Microsoft’s listening system, which includes three opt-in surveys targeting Microsoft’s 180,000 full-time employees* in over 100 countries worldwide. Microsoft’s Daily Pulse survey covers various topics and is distributed to a random sample of 2,500 global employees each business day. MS Poll is Microsoft’s annual survey of all employees globally, conducted between late February to early March 2021. Microsoft’s Return to Workplace survey was fielded to more than 104,000 employees, with 49,485 responses representing 25 countries in early stages of reopening during June 2021.
*This year’s surveys reached more than 160,000 employees (LinkedIn, GitHub, 
and minimally integrated gaming studios conduct their own employee surveys).

 

 

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