The workplace has changed significantly in the past couple of years, and there’s unlikely to be any let up this year. But amid a lot of recent industry noise about a future “metaverse,” there are plenty of more immediate priorities for businesses.
The COVID-19 pandemic has already shaken up perceptions and expectations of what work should be, and most employees now expect greater flexibility over where and when they do their jobs. Adapting to a hybrid remote work strategy will continue to be a focus for many businesses in 2022 – and will create headaches for senior leaders and IT teams as more offices reopen and work modes are combined.
And support for flexible work is just one of the ways companies may seek to retain staff amidst a wave of resignations across a variety of industries – another trend that’s likely to impact businesses and influence strategies around technology investments.
Here are some of the ups and downs tech industry analysts envision for the year ahead.
Hybrid work to dominate as offices reopen, but many efforts will ‘fail’ at first
For many organisations, any long-term strategy around remote work remains a work in progress, but surveys indicate that some level of remote work will continue post-pandemic. This is good news for workers, who reap the benefits of an improved work-balance, and for employers, with surveys indicating an increase in productivity with remote workers.
A successful hybrid work strategy bridges both physical and virtual communication to connect employees no matter where they are located. That’s the overarching goal, at least; actually achieving this will be a challenge, according to Forrester.
The analyst firm predicts that around 10 per cent of companies will go entirely remote post-pandemic, while 30 per cent will opt for fully in-office. The remaining 60 per cent will take a hybrid approach. And of those that adopt hybrid work, a third will fail — at least in the first attempt, Forrester said in its report ‘Predictions 2022: The Future Of Work.’
“Of the three possible paths — back to the office, hybrid, and fully remote — hybrid is the most challenging,” James McQuivey, VP research director at Forrester, said in an interview.
Why is hybrid work so problematic?
While most companies now have almost two years’ experience handling a fully remote workforce — on top of many years’ experience working in the office — hybrid work is more of an unknown. Combining the two conflicting modes of working creates its own challenges.
“[It’s] a new thing for nearly everyone,” said McQuivey. “Sure, many organisations have supported distributed teams or have had a handful of fully remote workers in the past. But nothing has prepared the entire organisation to learn how to be in the office two to three days a week.”
The strategy raises new questions, such as who should be in the office on which days and for what purpose. “These are things companies are ill-prepared to answer,” he said. “The experiments companies will have to undergo to figure that out will take an entire year to sort through.”
And that, said McQuivey, assumes companies and corporate leaders have the patience and cultural flexibility to do so. “For organisations that do not, expect them to revert to all-office or all-remote polices mid-year,” he said.
Invasive monitoring tools to spur employee backlash, prompt legal action
With remote work likely to remain in some form, businesses will need to consider how they track worker productivity and wellbeing when physically removed from staff.
Analyst firm CCS Insight's 2022 prediction report forecasts that some organisations will go too far in their attempts to keep tabs on employees, resulting in a worker backlash in 2022. Specifically, CCS Insight predicts successful legal action against an employer, such as via a case of constructive dismissal.
Business interest in “bossware” style software that provides detailed analytics on employee actions has grown during the COVID-19 pandemic, drawing criticism from worker rights groups as overly intrusive. These tools can include regular screenshots of an employee’s laptop or keystroke-logging to track productivity levels. Depending on how they are implemented, such tools can seriously undermine trust, particularly when used without employee consultation.
It’s not only bossware tools that have raised concerns. The tech industry more generally is still figuring out how to balance the benefits of workplace data analytics with the need for worker privacy. For instance, the introduction of Microsoft’s Productivity Score last year drew controversy over its inclusion of individual employees’ data; Microsoft later took steps to ensure data was anonymised more effectively.
CCS Insight principal analyst Angela Ashenden said the major collaboration and productivity vendors are treading carefully around employee privacy concerns. But individual organisations will have to ensure they don’t overstep employee privacy laws — and employee perceptions — of how much monitoring is acceptable.
“If employers get it wrong, at best, this risks damaging employee trust, and at worst it could see — for example — employees suing for unfair dismissal as a result of the way these tracking tools are used,” Ashenden said.
Companies can take steps to avoid this scenario, said Ashenden. One is to anonymise employee data so it can’t be misused. More importantly, she said, businesses should carefully consider what they are tracking and why, and whether direct monitoring is even necessary or performance can be tracked in a less intrusive way.
At the least, employers should discuss why monitoring is necessary — should it be deemed so — and reassure staff that their privacy is protected and they won't be mistreated as a result of the monitoring, said Ashenden.
Staff shortages to prompt improved employee experience
One of the major workplace trends of the past year was the rise of staffing shortages across a number of industries, part the so-called “Great Resignation.” The situation is likely to continue into 2022, with employers struggling to hire the right staff — and investing to keep hold of those already employed.
“The realisation that so many employees are thinking about a change of path is triggering a renewed focus by business leaders on employee experience, and on what makes people want to work — and stay working — at the company,” said Ashenden.
This is expected to lead businesses to focus on three areas:
- Employee sentiment analysis to “ensure there's no imminent exodus of employees, and to address problems as they arise;”
- Improved internal communication and employee engagement;
- Investment in learning and development programmes “to give people the opportunity to develop their career - either on the same career path or in a completely new direction - without leaving the organisation.”
One way to retain staff will be to allow flexibility at work: organisations that decide to go back to a fully on-site arrangement could lose up to 39 per cent of their workforce, according to the 2021 Gartner Hybrid Work Employee Survey of 2,400 knowledge workers.
Forrester also predicts that concerns about employee retention will drive a “surge of spending” on “employee-centric initiatives and technologies” during 2022. This will lead to 20 per cent of HR budgets being allocated to employee experience initiatives, while the number of organisations with a formal employee experience program in place will rise from 48 per cent to 65 per cent in 2022. Employee recognition budgets will also go up, from 1 per cent of total compensation to as high as 2 per cent, Forrester predicts.
There will also be an effort to extract more value from technologies that were deployed to facilitate remote work in the past 18 months, said McQuivey. This will include spending on “leadership development, employee engagement monitoring, and careful calibration of the culture to match the new exigencies of the business,” he said.
Ultimately, it’s about creating a culture where workers feel valued and connected to the rest of the organisation. “[E]mployees who feel like they are effective in how they use their skills to make a difference are more engaged and more likely to stay with their employer,” said McQuivey.