The ‘new normals’ of hybrid working

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(Image credit: Gorodenkoff / Shutterstock)

Prior to the pandemic, there were substantial factors driving the development of hybrid working. According to UK government figures, between January and December 2019, 12% of the UK workforce had worked at least one day from home in the previous week. 5% reported working mainly from home.

These patterns were mainly the result of a need to offer flexibility to specific working demographics. Some progressive companies were already assessing hybrid options to combat increasing property costs, reduce environmental impact and embrace productivity improvements.

The lockdowns imposed as part of the response to COVID-19 accelerated this steady pace of change. A frenzied spate of investment ensued and new working practices were implemented incredibly quickly.

The hangover of this intense, crisis-like mentality has now faded: but in its wake there is a range of new issues to consider as businesses recognize the ‘new normal’ or more accurately ‘normals’ of hybrid working.

What is normal anyway?

According to our 2023 Hybrid Work report, rates of hybrid work adoption vary across countries and industries, but most across Europe, organizations are currently allowing employees to work remotely as often as three days per week.

As a specific example: in the UK, the 5% who are working mainly from home, before the pandemic, can be compared with the 36% of UK businesses that now allow remote working for up to three days a week, and the further 12% that sanction unlimited remote working.

This itself stands against the 45% of European organizations that allow their employees to work remotely, for up to three days per week.

Ian Lowe

Ian Lowe is Head of Industry Solutions EMEA at Okta.

The broad church of hybrid

With such a volume of businesses embracing hybrid work, a diverse array of working patterns have developed: fully on-site, office-first, fixed or flexible hybrid, or 100% remote can all be seen throughout Europe. Our research has shown that ‘office-first’ (whereby the organization determines when individuals, departments or teams can work remotely) is the most common model.

But it must be remembered that these models are under constant review. Hybrid work is – by its nature – extremely fluid. Three quarters of businesses across Europe are set to review hybrid working policies within 12 months, and more than one in ten (13%) have it under constant reassessment.

Within such turbulence, two issues have come to define hybrid thinking – productivity and employee wellbeing.

The new productivity normal

It can be difficult to assess the specific impact of post-pandemic hybrid working. There is a profound shift of context. Pre-pandemic studies are based on a context of the employee requesting remote working. Consequently, it is reasonable to assume that the employee workforce was actively invested in making the arrangement work. By comparison, lockdowns were enforced, and pandemic-specific studies cannot – yet - establish longer-term differences in outcomes.

However, our study (like many others) has shown that across Europe, remote workers are generally considered more productive than their in-office counterparts. 63% of respondents stated that they associate remote work with higher productivity and productivity is the second biggest diver for embracing hybrid working, across the Continent.

The UK government has collated self-reported surveys identifying that around two-thirds or more of employees working at home say they got as much, or more, done as they did pre-pandemic, confined to the workplace.

Our findings suggest that around 85% of businesses in the UK now believe remote working achieves the same or higher levels of productivity compared to working in the office. This rises to 93% if we look at the European average.

The new wellbeing normal

There is already no shortage of studies which examine both the positive and negative impacts of hybrid working. Confusingly, studies have contradictory findings. For example, in the UK, ONS data from 2022 showed that 78% of those who work from home reported an improved work-life balance . However, the same survey also showed that hybrid working can lead to feelings of pressure to be continually available online, increased unpaid overtime, and use technologies that made it difficult for workers to ‘switch off’; ultimately, worsening work-life balance.

There is also a need to recognize powerful changes within the HR landscape. These include the great resignation, ‘quiet quitting’ and a turbulent labor marketplace that has seen 42% of European employees leaving their current employer in search of a better workplace experience elsewhere (according to IDC ). Consequently, any hybrid working consideration needs to include wellbeing just as much as productivity.

The good news is that most companies across Europe understand this. Our study shows that 42% of businesses cite employee wellbeing as the main driver for hybrid working and that these companies are not just paying lip service to the idea. 77% of those surveyed said that their organization had adopted flexible working hours, with an additional 21% open to more employee-centric scheduling. Other investments include access to training, paying for home office equipment and expenses, and providing access to corporate subscriptions and wellness tools to enhance the experience of their work-from-anywhere employees.

Up close and personal: proximity bias

However, one of these challenges gets a special mention – proximity bias. This is the tendency among leaders to favor workers who are physically closer to them within the workplace . This is worthy of note because COVID has not only shone a light on the issue but also gone a substantial way to solving it.

Before the pandemic, people who worked mainly remotely were less likely to be promoted and to have access to training opportunities. In a tellingly different phrase, this was called ‘flexibility stigma’.

There are now indications that the COVID-19 lockdowns have reduced this stigma. Our research shows that, across Europe, nearly three-fourths of companies are currently enforcing measures to prevent remote workers from being disadvantaged in organizational processes . This may include steps such as developing a remote-first culture, using asynchronous tools for collaboration as well as video-conferencing, and increasing the frequency of one-to-one meetings if needed.

Overcoming the challenges of hybrid growth

Our survey found that across Europe, cybersecurity is reported as the main challenge of hybrid working and that companies are prioritizing it accordingly . With such progress made in terms of productivity and wellbeing, there is a pressing need to ensure that remote and hybrid workers do not become synonymous with the ‘weak links’ in a security chain. Businesses understand this as security and privacy technologies are set to dominate digital investment for the next three years.

An identity-first approach to zero trust has gained traction as businesses seek to eliminate common cyber threats by applying strong authentication for every user. The businesses that will succeed at building long-term, employee-centric hybrid work strategies will be those best able to balance security with frictionless access to applications, data, and resources. These will be the organisations whose workers have equitable, sustainable and rewarding experiences – regardless of whether or not that’s a set, physical ‘place’. Identity will be the currency that these companies use to make hybrid work as secure and productive as possible.

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Ian Lowe is Head of Industry Solutions EMEA at Okta.