Some of the hurdles around identity and productivity have been cleared, but no one has the perfect solution, according to a roundtable of experts
In early 2023, three years since the start of the coronavirus pandemic that spurred work trends already trotting along, the pace of change continues at a frightening gallop. It’s been a bumpy ride for both employer and employee.
The hurdles of trust and security still loom large and must be cleared to improve Britain’s productivity growth, which has lagged behind G7 peers since the last financial crash.
The most recent Office for National Statistics, corrected in late January, calculated Britain’s average output per hour or per worker – a vital metric to gauge living standards and future wages – contracted 0.3% between 2020 and 2021 when the economy struggled under pandemic restrictions. Only France’s 0.5% decline was worse during the same period.
Last September, a Microsoft report, which surveyed 20,000 people across 11 countries, discerned a “productivity paranoia” suffered by leaders who worried their workers were underperforming despite increasing hours and meetings. While 87% of employees felt they were productive, 85% of senior leaders said the shift to hybrid work made it challenging to have confidence in staff performance.
However, a new study suggests a corner has been turned on trust, at least in the UK. The research, launched in late January by global identity and access management company Okta, found that of the 500-plus business leaders quizzed, 85% believed remote or hybrid working is not causing disappointing workforce output.
As encouraging as these results are for hybrid working evangelists, doubts linger, says Rachel Phillips, Okta’s vice president in the UK and Ireland. She points out that while 61% of the business leaders surveyed believe that remote workers are more productive, 15% still think that they are less so.
Karen Jacks, chief technology officer at Bird & Bird, whose 1,400 lawyers operate in 31 countries, identifies two critical problems with hybrid working, trust and productivity. She notes that measuring hybrid working output and performance in some industries is tricky, given there are intangible factors, such as brainstorming sessions or virtual check-in meetings.
“Because we are a professional services organisation, and lawyers record what they are working on, it’s straightforward to monitor productivity,” she says. Notably, throughout the pandemic, Bird & Bird’s productivity level increased. “It continues to be at a high level, with people encouraged to come into the office around 50% of their time.”
Chanuka Weerasinghe, chief technology officer at Hawes & Curtis and engyin.com, agrees that determining either employee engagement or output for a hybrid workforce is complex for many reasons. “There are certain things we can’t measure, or they are hard to measure,” he concedes. “Also, we could use monitoring software, but it is intrusive, and we don’t want to come across like we are spying on employees.”
Nefarious actors might be snooping, though. From a security perspective, hybrid working has multiplied attack vectors, says Andrew Tsonchev, cybersecurity firm Darktrace’s vice president of technology. But most organisations have responded to limited potential cyber threats. “It feels like we are now in a more stable era of hybrid working, and all of the significant changes that needed to happen have been made,” he says.
Regarding identity, Tsonchev is pleased that many businesses have, finally, embraced a zero trust model – “never trust, always verify” – to cybersecurity. “The conditions of hybrid work make concepts like zero trust non-optional, which is good,” he adds.
Another trust-related issue could be cultural for some organisations, says Jacks. If some leaders are sniffy about people working away from the office, more fool them. “We make sure our people know we trust them,” she says. “People used to say ‘oh, you’re working from home’ with quotation marks, but I think that attitude is changing.”
This insight chimes with Becky Wender, global head of culture, talent and learning at global cosmetics firm Avon. “At times, we have tried to legislate for everyone being bad as opposed to trusting people to do the right thing and then dealing with those who don’t,” she says.
Key to a culture of trust is connection and communication. Wender began her role in April 2020, at the start of the first lockdown. She turned to the company’s learning experience platform, Fuse, to ensure the workforce stayed connected. “Leaders ran events, and we had things like making hand sanitiser with our kids,” she says.
Buoyed by that early triumph, Wender created a “two-day virtual career festival” attended by 3,400 associates from the 39 markets in which Avon operates. “There were 69 learning sessions, and a huge success,” she says. “Now we are back in the office more, the question is: how do we use technology to help all our markets stay connected?”
Andy Hepworth, future of work transformation director at consulting and digital services company Sopra Steria, argues that flipping things around and asking employees what’s working, and what’s not, helps reconnect and reinvigorate a hybrid workforce.
“We invited everyone within the UK business to participate in workshops, one-to-one meetings, questionnaires, or just to drop suggestions through,” he says. “We collated and meticulously catalogued it all to assess where we were as a company. We looked at where the hotspots were and what we needed to prioritise to improve the lives of our colleagues because a one-size-fits-all approach to hybrid doesn’t work.”
Hepworth points out that those earlier on in their careers are often especially keen to be in the office to learn “through osmosis” from more experienced colleagues. But he stresses that managers and leaders have an essential role to play here. “There is a dependency on reciprocation; otherwise, people coming in to learn will be stuck in a vacuum,” he warns.
Again, the solution lies in reframing the potential issue. Hence, lots of in-person events are organised at the Sopra Steria offices around what Hepworth neatly calls the “three Cs”. He explains: “We get together to connect, collaborate or congratulate.”
Similarly, Okta’s Phillips makes herself available to her team members for ask-me-anything sessions and encourages in-office get-togethers for “moments that matter”. She is conscious of how some young or vulnerable employees might struggle without physical interaction with colleagues.
Additionally, Phillips references Gartner data that reveals the bonds between remote-working teams have strengthened, but relationships outside that bubble are weaker due to infrequent contact. “We are siloed by video-conferencing and tend to engage with the same people daily.”
Phillips adds: “Hybrid working is not going away, so how do we enable people within that environment to be as impactful as possible?”
No one has the perfect answer, yet.
This article was first published by Raconteur, as part of the Future of Work special report in The Times, in February 2023