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The future of work: one size doesn’t fit all

Employees’ work expectations have shifted, and employers are looking for the best way to achieve a sustainable future of work model.

In brief
  • What are employees’ new work expectations? What are the key success factors to designing a sustainable future of work model? 
  • How can organizations balance corporate guidelines with intra-team flexibility and employee autonomy?

The pandemic has shifted employees’ work expectations; employees expect to have autonomy in deciding where, when and how they will work. A one-size-fits-all approach dictating working practices is not only frustrating for employees, but it also emphasizes the fact that managers may be out of touch with how work gets done. In order to achieve a sustainable future of work model we must balance workforce preferences, business and role constraints, and the practical and realistic requirements of performing the work. 

A shift in expectations

Before the pandemic, remote work was permitted primarily on an exception-only basis, and the decision on where an employee worked on any given day was not readily available. The accelerated transition to remote and hybrid work models has shifted employees’ expectations permanently. Employees who never had the autonomy to choose where they work now expect that choice. The element of choice is a key to employee satisfaction, and employees are expecting flexibility going forward and are prepared to quit if they don’t get it.

  • Nine out of 10 employee respondents want flexibility in where and when they work¹
  • On average, employee respondents expect to work between two and three days remotely after the pandemic²

Flexibility mandates are being rejected


Flexibility is a major part of how employees think about the future of work, but people define flexibility in many ways. For some it means working from home a couple of days each week, whereas for others it means working from anywhere. 


Employees’ expectations for autonomy in deciding where and when they work are so strong that 54% of respondents are likely to quit if they aren’t offered the flexibility they want.³ Companies attempting to activate inflexible and stringent return to office policies are not only receiving significant employee pushback but may be at risk for retention or even face recruiting challenges.


This is a major shift from pre-pandemic settings where employees would not have had the same expectations for flexibility and remote work.


A new way to think about return to office strategy


With this shift in employee expectations and negative reactions to strict return to office or even hybrid working mandates, companies should consider employing a multitier approach to fully operationalize future of work models. 


Consider how a new hire might prefer to be in the office for face time with managers, coaches and team members. Alternatively, consider a working parent who wants proximity to home in order to better manage their family demands. These are just two examples of the potential variety of unique needs across employees within the same job function. It is up to employers and leaders to understand these nuances and consider where there can be flexibility in the guidelines to meet the needs of employees and the job function.


Teams that are effectively solving this are balancing corporate guidelines with intra-team flexibility and employee autonomy because a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work. So, how can you approach this with your workforce?

The views reflected in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ernst & Young LLP or other member firms of the global EY organization.


With the shift in employees’ expectations seeking more flexibility and autonomy in where and how they work, organizations should look to design a sustainable work model that balances workforce preferences, business and role constrains and requirements.

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