5 minute read 1 Sep 2023
Hybrid team boardroom meeting

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

By Liz Collins


Workforce advisory leader consulting the world’s leading organizations on strategic talent initiatives, transformations and transactions. Wife, mother of two boys, marathon runner, and ski enthusiast.

5 minute read 1 Sep 2023

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?

  • 1. Evaluate job function

    As future of work models continue to shift, so do the perceived physical requirements that we place on a role. Evaluate whether your workforce has the proper risk exposure, management and oversight, tools and technology, including knowledge sharing and learning practices to perform in their roles to effectively meet the needs of your customers and stakeholders. Much of the value we place on in-person work precedes that the work being performed requires physical work interdependence, and/or deep brainstorming and collaboration. While many roles require physical work interdependence, most white-collar roles do not require it five days a week with research estimates indicating close to 40% of all jobs can be done from home.⁴ Providing the tools for leaders and their teams to evaluate role needs will enable organizations to take an informed approach to empowering employees while meeting their varied needs and desires for flexibility in addition to meeting the needs of your customers and stakeholders.

  • 2. Prepare your leaders and frontline managers to lead

    Leaders have tremendous influence on driving company culture, employee experiences and outcomes. The key to any successful future of work model is empowering and equipping leaders with the right development opportunities, skills and capabilities to lead their teams in an evolving environment. Twenty-seven percent of employer respondents indicated it is one of their top priorities to build out their leader and manager capabilities to manage a remote workforce and support productivity.⁵

    Leading teams to work more flexibly, healthily, and effectively means more inclusive, accessible, intentional and considerate leadership. It requires a fundamental change in the skills leaders need to succeed and to bring out the best in themselves and their teams. Leaders need to be equipped with the ability to inspire new ways of working, supercharge people engagement, orchestrate collaboration, enable healthy work and deepen trust to effectively lead with purpose in a dynamic environment

  • 3. Listen to your employees

    While you may think you know what your employees want, it is important to take the time to evaluate how well you are listening and whether you really understand your employees’ experiences. Employees want to be heard; 56% of employees would stay with a company that emphasized their needs.⁶ Employers often listen closely to employees during onboarding and again when they are about to leave, missing several key opportunities to collect real-time, valuable insights throughout their entire journey. Create a continuous, two-way listening strategy to successfully tap into what people are experiencing to adjust and anticipate ever-changing needs. For example, if your employees want to work fully remote or remote several days per week, and their job function does not require them to be in the office, consider establishing principles that give your employees the flexibility and autonomy to choose when/where they work while supporting them with the right training and tools. Providing this level of flexibility and trust should result in a more motivated, higher-performing workforce and ultimately enable you to attract the leading talent in the future workplace. Companies will need to activate multiple, real-time listening channels to understand how workforce priorities, behaviors and values are changing, and ultimately paint a coherent picture of what employees are experiencing.

  • 4. Rethink employee performance

    During the pandemic, high-performing employees proved that with clear goals, support and autonomy, they can achieve strong outcomes. Leadership needs to recognize that outcomes are more important than output, and long hours in the office do not always equal better work or higher productivity. Define success criteria to measure those outputs against. But what about low performers dragging down productivity and lacking engagement? Consider their job function and what kind of training and skill development may be needed. Not everyone is as prepared or equipped for remote work as others, and employers will need to invest in their people to develop their skills, improve upon any gaps and support them in adapting to these new standards or align them elsewhere.

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.

  • Show references#Hide references

    ¹ “Work Reimagined Survey,” EY, April 2022.

    ² Ibid.

    ³ Ibid.

    ⁴ Travers, Mark, “What Percentage of Workers Can Realistically Work From Home? New Data From Norway Offer Clues,” Forbes, April 2, 2020,

    ⁵ “Work Reimagined Survey,” EY, April 2022.

    ⁶ “How to create an engaging Employee Experience and keep it,” EY-Seren Limited, 2018.


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.

About this article

By Liz Collins


Workforce advisory leader consulting the world’s leading organizations on strategic talent initiatives, transformations and transactions. Wife, mother of two boys, marathon runner, and ski enthusiast.