The Covid pandemic has changed our working lives. Office workers now expect to be offered a certain degree of flexibility. In the search for the best talent, companies are starting to overbid each other when it comes to offering employees the opportunity to work from home. But this trend has created a paradox.
Current research shows that even though working from home is seen as a benefit, it does not increase the likelihood that employees will remain loyal. In fact, the opposite is true. So, what should your manager be doing about it?
As researchers in this field, we would like to offer some advice on this issue. But first, what lies behind the paradox? We can start by reflecting on one of the most famous opening sentences in classical literature.
Many factors have to be in place
“All happy families resemble one another, and each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. This is the opening sentence of Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece, Anna Karenina. Many factors have to be in place if a family is to be happy. Good health, robust finances and mutual respect are just three. But the absence of even one of these factors may be enough to make the family unhappy.
In many ways, the same applies to a company’s workforce. Many factors have to come together to ensure that an organisation is happy and running as it should. Employers have to offer their employees a range of benefits and at the same time promote values that cultivate loyalty and a sense of belonging.
Many factors have to come together to ensure that an organisation is happy and running as it should.
However, new research findings published by Harvard professor Amy Edmondson and the Singapore-based Mark Mortensen are showing that a recent, single change has succeeded in disrupting this finely-tuned balance. We’re talking about flexible working and the opportunity to work from home.
Easier to switch jobs
The findings made by these two researchers, which concur with the results of a comprehensive American survey, indicate that the opportunity of flexible working does not necessarily make employees more loyal.
In fact, it actually serves to erode loyalty among many.
We don’t form as close friendships with our colleagues when we work a lot from home.
One of the reasons for this is that we don’t form as close friendships with our colleagues when we work a lot from home. This, combined with the greater potential for online job interviews, makes it much easier for employees to switch jobs.
Dribble like Messi
But there is no doubt that flexible working is here to stay. Flexibility offers major benefits to employer and employee alike, such as increased productivity, a better work-life balance and lower greenhouse gas emissions.
The challenge for employers is to ensure that offers of flexible working do not serve to undermine other values that companies need to promote in order to attract and retain their employees. Unemployment is currently at historically low levels and labour is in great demand. Companies have to be on their guard if they want to retain the best talent.
Just like Messi, managers must learn to master the art of dribbling. It doesn’t help to be brilliant dancing around the first orange cone (the offer of flexible working) if you get so flushed with success that you knock over the next one.
What should your manager be doing?
So, what does your manager have to do to succeed with his or her dribbling exercise? Research findings now offer employers three pieces of advice:
Consider the balance between all the ‘happiness factors’ that you offer your employees, and make sure that one particular benefit doesn’t reduce the value of the others.
- Avoid putting all your eggs in the basket of offering highest flexibility and the most days working from home. Consider the balance between all the ‘happiness factors’ that you offer your employees, and make sure that one particular benefit doesn’t reduce the value of the others.
- Keep updated on which of your jobseekers’ needs are most relevant to your business. For example, some recent studies have shown that young, newly-qualified employees working a lot from home have a particular need to be recognised and acknowledged by their managers. Consider how your business can meet these needs.
- Be aware that flexible working is not something that employees determine on their own. Working from home arrangements will be discussed with their departments and within their teams and, just as in Tolstoy’s families, new members will have to adapt to the needs of the group.
Trust and a sense of belonging are key
Some of the criteria that employers must meet to ensure that their employees are content are identical to a family’s happiness factors. These include trusting relationships, as well as feelings of security and respect.
Others are more specifically linked to the workplace. We are talking about identification with corporate goals, social affinity, meaningful tasks, personal development and learning. Not to mention material benefits such as a company car and, in Norway, holiday cabins.
But key among all these factors is the feeling of mutual trust between employees and a sense of belonging, and it can take many years to build these up.
In contrast, working from home is a benefit that is easy to copy. It also does not confer any real advantage on the employer in the battle to procure the best talent.
However, according to the findings made by Edmondson and Mortensen, working from home and flexible working have now taken precedence over the other benefits that employers feel they can offer their employees.
This is unfortunate because it is clear that frequent working from home serves only to weaken the two important foundations of group happiness – not only an employee’s sense of belonging and ability to form friendships, but also mutual trust between employees. Many working under so-called hybrid arrangements are now asking: “are my colleagues really working when they’re at home.“?
Turn the conversation
All this is currently threatening to displace many employees from Tolstoy’s ‘happy family’ into a state of unhappiness and out into the job market.
Research results from Stanford University show that the negative impact of flexible working on loyalty is most noticeable among the young and new recruits. This concurs well with findings that we have made in our studies of major Norwegian businesses.
Flexible ways of working benefit everyone, but opportunities offered to employees must be seen in the context of other key factors. We must move on from discussing the number of days working from home to examining how we can create better workplaces. In our discussions about working life today, we need to realise that flexible working is just one of many relevant issues.
This feature article was first published in the newspaper VG on 29 November 2022 and is reproduced here with the permission of the paper.