For the previous six years, the annual State of Work report gave leaders compelling insights into how the digital workforce views and values work. But the 2021 report came together a little bit differently. Thanks to some fortunate timing, our research team conducted a survey in the first quarter (Q1) of 2020, just prior to the global COVID-19 pandemic and the near-overnight shift of employees working in an office to most working from home. Researchers fielded the same questions again in the fourth quarter (Q4) and compared the two data sets. These findings, mined from the surveys of 1,000 remote employees at large companies in the US, reveal profound opportunity and risk for employers looking to lead in this age of digital transformation.
Discovery #1: Digital workers are resilient
Amid the personal and professional challenges of the pandemic, workers’ confidence in key areas of work ranging from managing time, to learning new skills, to communicating ideas saw an uptick. Especially interesting is that digital workers gained capacity in two of the most difficult aspects of work: collaborating with colleagues across geographies, which rose by 4 points, and dealing with work-related conflict and hard conversations, which rose by 5 points.
Deprived of the energy and inspiration of in-person brainstorming and collaboration, remote workers turned to technology to support a variety of creative activities. The report shows a 9-point rise in reliance on technology to support creativity and innovation, and an 8-point rise in workers relying on technology to develop new ideas.
Discovery #2: Digital workers are even more engaged
Despite or perhaps because of this past year’s events, employee engagement is on the rise. The number of employees who reported feeling invested in their jobs grew from 79% to 81%. During this same period, the number who said doing their best work was more important than pay jumped by nearly 10 percentage points.
Discovery #3: Digital workers have new expectations
While remote employees are more engaged and invested in their jobs, they also have higher standards. One big reason: Digital employees know what a good customer experience feels like, and they bring those expectations to work. So, when technology makes their jobs harder or limits their success, they are willing to walk away. In fact, 49 percent of respondents said they will quit a job if the technology is out of date or hard to use.
Discovery #4: Generations are being impacted differently
Remote workers are not all the same, and are responding differently to the changes and challenges that have emerged over the past year and into the future. This is particularly true when comparing millennials, those between the ages of 25 and 40, and Gen Xers, who range in age from 41 to 56. According to the data, Gen Xers showed major gains in confidence around communication, including conflict resolution and their ability to build and reinforce trust in a new environment. Millennials, meanwhile, appear to be adapting at a slower pace, particularly with regard to trust. On that issue, millennials reported a 3-point drop compared to the Gen Xers’ 4-point rise.
Taking the lead
The future of work is distributed, flexible, and autonomous. Companies must prioritise technologies that make it easy for employees to collaborate, stay aligned across time zones and geographies, and work in the places and with the tools they love. Doing so will boost productivity, direct business outcomes, and help companies attract and keep the best talent, regardless of where or how they work.