That flexible working is the future is not news by now. Predictions made last summer that most employees wouldn’t want a return to the daily commute were followed in the winter by concrete commitments from the likes of Google, Ford and Spotify to shift to hybrid models. But what should that reality look like?

Because, in truth, the challenges of hybrid work are yet to really be tested. That’s why Microsoft’s new study on the subject, based on the responses of more than 30,000 people in 31 countries, as well as an analysis of trillions of productivity and labor signals across Microsoft 365 and LinkedIn, is worth paying attention to. 

From a spatial design perspective, one of the most important takeaways is the apparent misapplication of funds and energy by employers. While the research shows that 66 per cent of business decision-makers were looking at how they should adapt their offices to better facilitate hybrid work, home work environments are still falling short. Almost half (42%) of employees claim they lack essential office supplies at home, while one-tenth don’t have adequate internet to do their jobs. Despite this, 46 per cent say their employer still doesn’t cover expenses for remote working. 

While most employees welcome the flexibility of remote work options, they’re also missing the sort of interaction that comes with shared workspaces, with 65 per cent admitting that they crave more in-person time with their teams. That's having a direct impact on innovation, with collaboration trends drawn from an aggregated 122 billion email conversations and 2.3 billion meeting interactions in Microsoft Teams and Outlook showing that our professional networks have shrunk. As a result, companies are becoming more internally siloed. ‘When you lose connections, you stop innovating,' says Dr Nancy Baym, Senior Principal Researcher at Microsoft. 'It’s harder for new ideas to get in and groupthink becomes a serious possibility.'

This is not just a question of productivity, but also of community, camaraderie and mutual support. Across all demographics other than business leaders, workers reported they they were either struggling or merely surviving as opposed to thriving. Over a third (37%) say their companies are asking too much of them at a time like this.

‘Those impromptu encounters at the office help keep leaders honest,’ argues Jared Spataro, CVP at Microsoft 365. ‘With remote work, there are fewer chances to ask employees, “Hey, how are you?” and then pick up on important cues as they respond. But the data is clear: our people are struggling. And we need to find new ways to help them.’ 

Hero image: Microsoft says its recently opened 46,000-sq-m campus in Herzliya, Israel, is perfectly suited to accommodating flexible working patterns.