Talent   //   January 25, 2024  ■  3 min read

Why your responsibilities and expectations at work really are getting less clear

If you’re not sure exactly what’s expected of you at work, you’re not alone. Fewer workers today than even a couple years ago are able to say their roles and responsibilities on the job are clear, according to a recent report from Gallup based on survey responses from about 20,000 U.S. workers.

Organizations have faced major changes in the past few years, moving from remote to hybrid working arrangements, dealing with the great resignation and heightened turnover and dealing with layoffs and the restructuring of teams — all factors contributing to declined clarity around who is supposed to do what at work.  

Workers with unclear expectations are less productive, less efficient and more likely to become frustrated with (and leave) their jobs, said Jim Harter, chief scientist of workplace management and wellbeing at Gallup. “Most people come to work wanting to make a difference and wanting to have a clear role,” Harter said.

“It’s a huge issue because it’s the most fundamental part of employee engagement. When people hear words like employee satisfaction or employee engagement, they’re just thinking about whether people are happy or not, but it really comes down to some of these fundamentals,” he said.

"They might either be unsustainably overworking to try to keep up their performance, or they might just stop giving their best efforts at their jobs."
Kayla Velnoskey, senior principal for research at Gartner.

When workers aren’t sure what’s expected of them, they typically are left to take one of two paths: “they might either be unsustainably overworking to try to keep up their performance, or they might just stop giving their best efforts at their jobs,” said Kayla Velnoskey, senior principal for research at Gartner.

In 2020, about 60% of fully remote workers said they know what’s expected of them at work. That dropped to 47% in 2023, the Gallup report found. And about 55% of hybrid workers said they know what’s expected of them at work in 2020, dropping to 41% in 2023.

In new work settings and hybrid setups, managers need to get their teams on the same page by setting clear expectations as a group around who is responsible for what and that they’ll be held accountable. “You can’t really have an environment of high autonomy without high accountability also,” Harter said. 

“You can’t really have an environment of high autonomy without high accountability also."
Jim Harter, chief scientist of workplace management and wellbeing at Gallup.

An example could be getting together to establish group norms to “help everybody agree, this is how we’re going to work, and also we’re going to hold people accountable for it, because we all spelled out these norms explicitly as a group,” Velnoskey said.

Another way to give staff more clarity around what’s expected of them is to give more frequent recognition when someone is doing a good job. The biggest decline associated with the drop in clear expectations was the extent to which employees thought that they have had meaningful feedback in the past week, the Gallup report found. 

“What we found works really well is using more real time rewards, and giving it in the moment when great performance happens. So don’t just wait till the year end review and decide if someone’s a high performer, but figure out ways through things like spot bonuses or recognition, to really tie recognition and rewards to the moment something great happens to reinforce you’re on the right track,” Velnoskey said. 

“It’s not more conversations, It’s more real time confirmations,” she said. 

During the conversations they do have though, managers should make sure staff are always  aware if any goals or priorities have changed, as they often do. “With goals changing so frequently, even when you had these conversations, people still had this sense of anxiety that they weren’t doing enough,” Velnoskey said.