Current virtualized work design models are damaging employees’ well-being and productivity, according to Gartner, Inc. To succeed in a hybrid future, organizations must stop duplicating office-centric practices and shift to a human-centric model.

The pandemic has shifted many offices to remote or hybrid models as workers stayed home during the pandemic. For many businesses, this has meant largely recreating features of the office—virtualizing on-site practices, adding monitoring systems and increasing meetings—but data from Gartner’s 2021 Hybrid Work Employee Survey has found these methods are exacerbating existing fatigue among employees.

Gartner’s data shows that employers’ attempts to recreate visibility by investing in tracking systems has made employees nearly two times more likely to pretend to be working, exacerbating the “always on” phenomenon, and attempts to recreate serendipity by adding more meetings has led to virtual overload—employees who now spend more time in meetings are 1.24 times more likely to feel emotionally drained from their work.

“Force-fitting a design created for a different environment exacerbates fatigue, and fatigue impacts many talent outcomes,” says Alexia Cambon, director in the Gartner HR practice. “When employees experience high levels of fatigue, employee performance decreases by up to 33 percent, feelings of inclusion decrease by up to 44 percent and employees are up to 54 percent less likely to remain with their employer.”

Traditionally, work has been designed around employees who are co-located in a physical workplace. However, the Gartner survey revealed that only four percent of current hybrid or remote employees would choose to return fully on-site as their preferred option.

“Organizations have reacted to this crisis by recreating what they know, but rather than merely adapting principles from the on-site environment to the hybrid world, organizations need to unlearn old habits and fundamentally rethink work design,” says Jérôme Mackowiak, director, advisory, in the Gartner HR practice. “Forcing employees to go back to the on-site environment could result in employers losing up to 39 percent of their workforce.”

Gartner recommends that HR can increase employee performance and reduce fatigue by creating a hybrid work model that focuses on certain areas. One of the key suggestions is to provide employee-driven flexibility. Gartner says that employers should adopt an employee-driven approach to flexible working that empowers employees to choose where, when and how they work. To successfully make this shift, employers must destigmatize flexible working by making it the default—not the exception—and developing principles—not policies—around flexible working. Employee-driven flexibility enables individuals to integrate personal and professional obligations to achieve work-life harmonization. In fact, the Gartner survey found that organizations with high levels of flexibility are almost three times more likely to see high employee performance.

Office-centric design relies on the serendipitous “water-cooler” moments to drive innovation and organizations still reference this as the primary reason to return employees to the office. The Gartner survey showed that HR leaders believe synchronous work—individuals working together whether in-person or virtually—is most critical to drive innovation. But Gartner data shows that asynchronous work is just as important to achieving team innovation.

“Intentional collaboration democratizes access to all modes of working—focused not just on location, but time-spend—and is inclusive of both business and employee needs,” says Cambon. “Progressive organizations are relying less on innovation by chance, and more on innovation by design. Among employees whose organizations have high levels of intentional collaboration, 75 percent also report having high levels of team innovation.”

Shifting to a hybrid environment introduced new struggles faced by employees while also decreasing manager visibility. While employees report difficulty disconnecting from work, feeling overwhelmed by caretaking responsibilities and suffering from virtual fatigue, and 69 percent of HR leaders report that managers have less visibility into employee work patterns in today’s hybrid scenario.

While 89 percent of HR leaders agree managers must lead with empathy in the hybrid environment, Gartner research revealed that organizational investments in managers to enable empathy-based management are falling short. For instance, while 68 percent of HR leaders agree that many managers are overwhelmed by their responsibilities in today’s hybrid work model, only 14 percent of organizations have changed manager role design to reduce their responsibilities. Gartner’s HR practice notes that managing with empathy requires a shift away from performance by inputs toward performance by outcomes. However, with managers already overwhelmed by the demands of their role, HR leaders must adopt a holistic strategy that focuses on overcoming three common barriers to empathy: skill, mindset and capacity.