Working from home has changed the way people live and work © Freepik

Exploring the post-pandemic work from home transformation
How has the UN adapted to the new hybrid working climate?
1 Jun 2024

The UN Secretariat has transformed in the last four years, since COVID-19 broke out in March 2020. In many offices, Microsoft Teams has pretty much replaced the telephone. Hard copy memos seem to have vanished. The proliferation of Work From Home(WFH) – mostly in ‘hybrid’ schedules – results in days when conversations surround you in the office, while on others, quiet abounds.

The ability to work from home at least part of the time has dramatically affected our lives. It has led to different work habits, relationships and productivity patterns. On the home front, WFH has affected parenting, real estate purchases, exercise habits and more. Due to the many tentacles of WFH, and the high value many staff place on it, it is important for the organization to understand staff sentiment about it. 

In October 2023, as part of a sabbatical research project, a staff survey was developed to collect data on this topic. A key purpose was to understand connections between the ability to work from home and staff engagement. The survey was sent to approximately 35,000 global Secretariat staff and 4,550 responses were received over a two-week period.

Where are our staff working?

As a starting point, it is important to understand the breakdown of working arrangements among global staff.  The largest group of survey respondents – 54% reported that they work in a hybrid format – defined as at least one day per week in the office. The second largest group, or 43%, reported that they work full-time in the office, five days a week.

What is working well?

Results from several survey questions indicated that the organization has a successful implementation of Flexible Working Arrangements (FWA). For example, 69% of all survey respondents reported that they were satisfied with their current arrangements. This is a bellwether result; one could argue that when nearly three-quarters of a population are satisfied with anything, success has been reached.

When analyzing this data by respondents’ work arrangements however, we see that those who work in a hybrid format were at 75% positivity and the full-time in office group had a much lower positivity rate at 60%.

Another positive sign came from a question about managerial support of FWA, as 66% of respondents reported that their managers are “generally supportive of FWA.”  This indicates an overall strong level of trust in managers on this topic. It is important to highlight, however, that while some managers may be supportive of FWA, they may not be able to allow their staff to use them due to local directives.

What needs attention?

A key complaint that emerged was that many staff lack access to FWA and feel frustrated about it. This was expressed in free-response comments from respondents, especially those in peacekeeping missions. Some complained of duty-station directives that prohibit FWA, especially theWFH option, while others complained that WFH was allowed but rarely, and required multiple layers of approvals at senior levels.   

Lower use of WFH in field missions (peacekeeping/political/humanitarian) was seen in responses about working arrangements. 

UN Survey on Flexible Working Arrangements, 2023

As shown in the figure above, 84% of field mission respondents work full-time in the office and only 13% of them have hybrid arrangements. These represent differences of thirty percentage points compared to the overall survey sample.

This trend could make it more difficult for the organization to acquire talent for peacekeeping missions and other types of field offices.

The survey also highlighted a challenge related to work arrangements and family life. Respondents who work full-time in the office feel much less positive than hybrid respondents about their ability to “care for and connect with family.” This was especially evident for full-time in office respondents who are parents.

UN Survey on Flexible Working Arrangements, 2023

As shown in the positivity ratings chart above, 74% of women parents and 75% of men parents in the hybrid group felt that their arrangements contribute positively to caring for/connecting with family. In contrast, in the full-time in office group, only 38% of the women parents and 48% of the men parents group feel that way.

The magnitude of this disparity warrants attention. Given that many people place a high value on their ability to care for family, the Secretariat should further explore the perspectives of the full-time in office group. Perhaps there are ways to accommodate more flexibility.

A complex picture emerged from the survey in terms of connections between the ability to work from home and staff engagement. Engagement levels can be measured and interpreted in many ways. Responses vary depending on the type of question asked, who is being asked and what type of work they do, among other factors. Staff that are in full-time are more engaged in some ways, and those who work at home part of the time are more engaged in other ways.

There is a lot at stake in figuring out the FWA and WFH puzzles. The UN needs to continually prove its productivity to member states. It needs to remain a competitive employer in a new workforce landscape. Opportunities to work from home abound across public and private sectors. These opportunities are driving changes in how organizations hire, compensate and provide benefits for their staff. The UN can attract and retain a highly skilled and motivated workforce by paying close attention to this dimension of modern work and exploring how to maximize its power. 

* Kate Doyle is a Programme Management Officer in a shared coordination office for the Departments of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and Peace Operations.
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