Over the past two years, employees across Canada and around the world have been rethinking the role of work in their lives and what they need from employers to be both successful at work and happy outside of work.

We’ve already seen signals of change from many organizations, such as more flexible hours, a stronger focus on well-being and a greater emphasis on culture. Now, as many longstanding coronavirus pandemic restrictions begin to lift and Canadian organizations announce their official return-to-office policies, business and human resources leaders must carefully consider what’s required to make hybrid work actually “work.”

Read: Q&A with Microsoft Canada’s Carolyn Byer

Throughout the pandemic, Microsoft has continuously worked on ways to evolve the employee experience by prioritizing health and well-being. This includes introducing paid pandemic school and childcare closure leave during the height of the pandemic, increasing vacation allotment for new hires and increasing psychological and paramedical coverage. However, we recognize it will take much more than elevated workplace perks and new employee benefits to get full buy-in from employees when it comes to embracing a truly hybrid culture.

Make the workplace “worth it” for employees

As business leaders, it’s imperative we understand that the people who went home to work in 2020 are not the same people returning to the office in 2022. The pandemic has fundamentally reshaped our priorities, identities and worldviews, ultimately distinguishing what’s important — health, family, time, purpose — and what’s not. As a result, employees’ “worth it” equation — what people want from work and what they’re willing to give in return — has changed.

Read: Half of Canadian employees prioritizing health, well-being ahead of work: survey

According to Microsoft’s second annual work trend index, 50 per cent of Canadian employees are now more likely to prioritize their health and well-being over work than before the pandemic. Our data shows that beyond pay, the top five aspects of work that employees view as very important for an employer to provide are: positive culture, mental-health and well-being benefits, a sense of purpose and meaning, flexible work hours and more than the standard two weeks of paid vacation time each year. After the pandemic forced many of us to dig deep and re-evaluate what means most to us, it’s clear that flexibility and well-being are non-negotiables that companies can’t afford to ignore.

Act with intention

Shifting fully into hybrid work also presents a prime opportunity for business leaders to reimagine the role of the office and create clarity around why, when and how often teams should gather in person. Microsoft’s research found 31 per cent of Canadian hybrid employees said their biggest challenge is knowing when and why to come into the office, yet only 20 per cent of leaders in Canada have created new team agreements for hybrid work. Therefore, making the office work for every employee will take radical intentionality.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, so employers are encouraged to experiment with concepts like “Team Tuesdays,” in-person office hours or even quarterly “offsites” that bring dispersed teammates together regularly. The key is for managers to provide clear guidance to employees as they experiment and learn what works for the team.

Read: Remote, hybrid or in-office work? Marketing agency lets staff decide

Creating new team norms that ensure time spent together is intentional also extends to hybrid meetings. In addition to equipping workforces with the right hardware and software, it’s crucial for employers to create new cultural etiquette and norms for hybrid meetings that help everyone feel included and able to contribute no matter where they’re located. Those that fail to grasp the new intentionality required to define the role of the office risk missing out on the true benefits of hybrid work.

When it comes to making it “worth it” for employees — or acting with intention — meeting these new expectations will require a mindset shift that takes into consideration the experience of the past two years. Organizations that succeed will be the ones that embrace a culture of flexibility and well-being, understanding that these elements are a competitive advantage to build a thriving workforce and drive long-term growth.

Carolyn Byer is the head of HR for Microsoft Canada.