Solving the Hybrid-Work Paradox

Employees want more in-person time and flexible work arrangements. Best-selling author Dan Goleman explains what common thread can help connect these seemingly at-odds goals.

Daniel Goleman is a senior consultant at Goleman Consulting Group, author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence, and host of the podcast First Person Plural: Emotional Intelligence and Beyond. He is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. 

There’s a problem in many workplaces these days. In 2021, Microsoft’s Work Trend Index named it the Hybrid Paradox. The company found that while over 70% of workers wanted flexible work arrangements, more than 65% were craving more in-person time with their teams.

This paradox has many leaders struggling to balance autonomy and connection within their teams.

On the one hand, granting employees control around how and where they work has become an essential tool for recruiting and retaining top talent. One report, based on a survey of almost 2,000 job-seekers around the world, found that flexibility was the number-one priority for job candidates and that 33% of candidates had turned down a job because it lacked flexible or remote work options.

On the other hand, leaders must facilitate meaningful opportunities for their teams to come together and build rapport. It’s been shown that 94% of employees are more productive when they feel connected to their colleagues. As social creatures, our sense of trust, safety, and belonging continues to be a critical driver when it comes to our motivation, performance, and accountability.

While there are many strategies for addressing this paradox, Microsoft’s approach is striking. Karen Kocher, Microsoft’s global general manager of 21st century jobs, skills, and employability, says the firm offers a structured flexible-work model that allows individuals and teams to reference guidelines and decide for themselves. “It enables managers and employees to do what they believe is best for each individual’s unique needs, as well as each team’s success,” she says. According to Microsoft, the focus isn’t on how many hours employees are in the office, but on “moments that matter,” things like onboarding, project kickoffs, and any other time when in-person work can strengthen team cohesion.

This concept of zeroing in on the “moments that matter” creates a valuable opportunity to consider the role of purpose and meaning in the workplace. All of the examples Microsoft gives—such as the first days of a job or the first days of a product line—are moments when a company’s values and mission can come to the forefront. These are moments when shared values don’t just help connection, but catalyze a palpable sense of unity and togetherness.

According to Qualtrics, more than half of US employees said they would be willing to take a pay cut to work in a company with “better values” and an even greater amount wouldn’t even consider taking a role at an outfit that has values they disagree with. When we look at organizations with high employee engagement and high trust among teams, it’s not the working schedules that they have in common – it’s how they articulate and act upon what they believe in.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the 2023 Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list . Among the top five ranking companies are Cisco, Hilton, American Express, and Wegmans Food Markets – all different companies in different industries with different limitations and constraints. At each of these companies, what connects people is whether or not people feel cared for and bonded by something larger than their day-to-day tasks.

Microsoft’s concept of “moments that matter” could offer leaders a generative starting point to think about when, where, and how a sense of purpose is cultivated and strengthened. Maybe the conundrum isn’t so much about schedules and watercooler talk, but about the degree to which employees—in office or not—truly feel like they are part of something bigger.

Co-written by Elizabeth Solomon

Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence.