Still Unsure About Your Remote Work Policy? If You Love Your Employees, Set Them Free

The way we work has changed forever. Even prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, employees in a wide variety of roles and industries sought greater autonomy and flexibility in their work experiences. An alarmingly large percentage of workers reported feeling disengaged or unhappy in the workplace. According to global aggregate data collected by Gallup, a mere 15 per cent of workers were engaged with their jobs, a trend that had remained stable for over a decade.

Flexibility in the workplace is on the rise

But the events of 2020 transformed nearly every aspect of how we get work done. With the widespread adoption of remote work and new technology-enabled collaborative and digital business processes, today’s organisations have an unprecedented opportunity to reinvent workplace experience. What’s more, this is what their employees now expect of them. People want their employers to increase workplace social cohesion, support professional development and promote engagement – no matter where employees are working     . 

The importance and benefits of a flexible workforce cannot be understated for organisations: research shows that highly engaged employees are 17 per cent more productive than their less-engaged peers, and their employers are as much as 21 per cent more profitable.

To take advantage of these opportunities and build strong, employee-centric workplace cultures, however, organisations will need to listen to their employees. The Centre for Evidence-Based Management (CEBMa) has identified three factors that are particularly important for maximising the productivity of teams of knowledge workers in hybrid, flexible, and remote work environments. These are:

  • social cohesion
  • trust, and
  • information sharing.

All are interrelated. Only when employees feel a sense of camaraderie with managers and colleagues are they able to form trusting and open relationships. Only when such relationships exist can candid and honest information sharing take place. And only when employees feel that their perspective has been listened to, heard and validated by their employers will they feel safe, confident and ready to engage.

Today’s changing workforce dynamics

The pandemic has demonstrated that employees can be just as productive when working from home as they are when in the office. In fact, nearly 44 per cent of workers were logging longer hours during the lockdowns of 2020 than they did previously when working in-office. 

This doesn’t mean that they’re happier or more engaged, though. In fact, levels of reported employee engagement took a rollercoaster ride in 2020 and 2021, reaching all-time highs — particularly in the U.S. — in midyear before seeing a precipitous drop. 

Indeed, it appears that for some employees, hybrid and remote working models are vastly preferable than the traditional office-based model; however, for others, the exact opposite is true. As outlined in The New Workplace Report: A Business Balancing Act, our own research backs this up: after surveying more than 10,000 office-based workers across eight European countries and 12 industry sectors, we found that there are nearly as many diverse viewpoints about remote work as there are individual employees. People in different demographics tend to have different perspectives, with, for instance, nearly twice as many men as women reporting that working from home has positively impacted their careers. 

There’s no single workplace model that’s best for everyone. In fact, the size of the groups at opposite ends of the spectrum are nearly the same: 17 per cent of European office workers would like to work from home permanently, while 19 per cent would choose to work in the office five days per week if that option were available to them.

Meeting employees’ needs in dynamic business and work environments

If employee preferences about remote work are widely varied, they’re also strongly held. The same is true for safety measures to mitigate the risk of COVID infection when workers do return to the office. While 32 per cent of employees would like social distancing measures in place, 30 per cent support office capacity reductions, and 28 per cent are in favour of mask mandates, 17 per cent would like to see compulsory vaccine passports. Nearly as many (13 per cent) believe that disclosing one’s vaccination status should be optional.

How can organisations be certain that they’re meeting employees’ needs when these are so varied? How can they best adapt to widely diverse and rapidly changing preferences? 

One way to answer this question is to look at how other companies have done this successfully. For example, the Big Four consultancy firm Deloitte not only conducted an internal survey of more than 15,000 of its employees, but it took their responses to heart. When more than 90 per cent of workers said that “choice” and “flexibility” should be at the heart of how the business operates in the future, the company decided that it would no longer obligate employees to work from the office for a minimum number of days or hours per week in the future. 

Deloitte will still maintain physical offices, and will offer new recruits and long-time team members alike the choice to work wherever they believe they’ll be able to do their best work and balance their personal and professional responsibilities. 

Here at Okta, we’re following a similar approach. We recently conducted an internal survey and found that more than 80 per cent of our employees would like to retain the freedom and flexibility they experienced during the time when the COVID-19 pandemic made work-from-home mandatory. Because more than 30 per cent of our workforce was remote even before 2020, we’d already put a great deal of thought into how to optimise distributed workforce experiences.

Our model, which we call Dynamic Work, is grounded in new ways of thinking about agility and flexibility – for the benefit of today’s workforce as well as the needs of future employees. We strive to hire the very best talent, regardless of location, and to provide employees with the freedom to work from wherever they’ll be most productive, whether that’s in an office, at home or elsewhere. But we also strive to provide employees with comparable benefits, flexible schedules and equivalent work environments and experiences, no matter where they’re located. We encourage our hires to choose the healthcare, fitness and benefits packages that best suit their needs – and those of their families – so that we can support high levels of engagement, employee satisfaction and productivity, while hiring from a much broader and more diverse talent pool.

Trust: The strongest foundation for productivity in the new, flexible normal

Surveying employees and leveraging that feedback to guide your return-to-the-office (or not) strategies is one way to demonstrate your trust in your organisation’s workforce. Listening to employees shows them that their perspective is valued; and acting on your learnings lets them see that their comfort, health and safety is of the utmost importance.

Another key strategy is to implement technologies that facilitate success in both remote and in-office work by making access to business applications both seamless and secure. Early in the pandemic, as cybercriminals hastened to take advantage of vulnerabilities created during the sudden shift to remote work, 38 per cent of employees were more wary of data breaches and 37 per cent feared phishing attacks. 

Now that distributed and hybrid work models are better established, organisations must implement technologies like single sign-on (SSO) and multi-factor authentication (MFA) (demonstrated to reduce the risk of security breaches by 25 per cent) if they’re to bolster their security posture while reducing friction for end users.

Tomorrow’s workforce will increasingly depend upon technology not just to get work done, but to enable the collaborative relationships that make cohesive organisational cultures possible. When they’re able to securely connect to the right technologies at the right time, employees’ trust in the business is strengthened. And when people feel trusting — as well as trusted — they’re able to bring their best selves to work.

For access to all the insights that our research into the current state of the workplace, check out the full New Workplace Report hereIf you are looking for more information on why identity is key to building trust and empowering your remote employees, click here.