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Interview: Rachel Phillips, vice-president UK&I, Okta

Hybrid working is the new normal for many, but while it offers many benefits, it has also introduced complications, explains Okta’s Rachel Phillips

Since the Covid-19 pandemic forced many people to work from home in 2020 and beyond, spending five days a week in a dedicated office space is no longer the norm.

According to research from identity access management company Okta, 72% of business leaders have now adopted hybrid working, whereas more than half of employees were in an office full-time before the pandemic.

While the flexibility offered by hybrid working comes with many benefits, it has also presented difficulties, including what Rachel Phillips, vice-president UK&I at Okta, refers to as “proximity bias”.

Hybrid working means staff only interact with those they need to interact with, she says, whether that’s virtually or in the office. “In a full office environment, we bump into people who are not necessarily in our meetings or in the office all the time. We get to know people in a different dynamic,” adds Phillips.

Essentially, staff only get to know the people they interact with the most, and because the shift to hybrid working means many now only connect with people when completely necessary for a role, it’s harder to get to know people as individuals.

A new bias is born

In its research, Okta found that 19% of UK businesses are concerned about those working in an office receiving more favourable treatment than those who work remotely.

“We have got to rethink our views of the organisation, we’ve got to rethink our views of talent, and we have to think very carefully about bias – all biases”
Rachel Phillips, Okta

This can play into things like performance reviews. Phillips points out that while managers will consider “the holistic person and all the performance information” they have, due to the new way of working they may not know people that well, adding another element of bias to the mix. When there is an opportunity to grow or progress, those without that personal connection may not be the first to spring to mind.

Unconscious bias training is one of the most common tactics deployed by firms to make managers aware of any preconceived negative opinions they many have about particular individuals based on their differences, and Phillips says as the world of work changes, workplaces need to be aware of new possible biases that may arise, such as proximity bias.

“We have got to rethink our views of the organisation, we’ve got to rethink our views of talent, and we have to think very carefully about bias – all biases, by the way – but we have a new bias to bring to the thinking,” she says. “We must also look at every individual in terms of performance, in terms of career progression, in terms of training.”

Read more about hybrid working

Over 40% of leaders are looking at ways of reducing proximity bias, including sustaining good workplace culture in the changing work landscape.

Phillips also suggests creating “moments that matter” to help teams “connect, collaborate and congratulate” each other. This breaks down some of the barriers that arise as a result of having hybrid teams, allowing people to get to know each other outside of the interaction necessary for their roles.

Highlights of hybrid

Phillips said one of the most difficult things about being a tech leader coming out of the pandemic has been “motivating people to continue to work to be productive in a changing environment”, as well as encouraging teams to collaborate when some are in the office and some are remote.

Okta’s research found 61% of business leaders think remote working will make their employees more productive, but 15% believe it won’t, which Phillips says “comes down to trust”. The remaining 24% claim it will make no difference.

If individuals feel working from home is beneficial and more productive for them, managers need to make sure “nobody’s differentiated on just because of the choice they’ve made”.

“Flexible working is extremely important to me as an individual, and if it’s important to me, it’s probably important to the majority of my teams”
Rachel Phillips, Okta

The main benefit of hybrid working is offering people a “personalised and flexible work experience”, which adds to the pressure for leadership to understand individuals who may work remotely, but takes the pressure off of individuals trying to juggle work and home life.

From a personal perspective, Phillips is a single mother of two, so flexibility is important to her to be able to work to her full potential. “Flexible working is extremely important to me as an individual, and if it’s important to me, it’s probably important to the majority of my teams,” she says.

For some, lockdown and the subsequent shift to hybrid working acted as an equaliser. For Phillips, it took away some of the social pressures of a typical office job, such as drinks after work or client dinners, afforded her the time she needed to put being a mother first and allowed her to pursue her fitness goals.

“It’s been incredibly important for me to have that flexible working environment, which I’ve always believed was possible but lockdown actually enabled,” she says. “For all those primary carers and people who need it, it was the final proof that work is what we give and the output we provide, not the hours we put in.”

For Phillips, there is no doubt that hybrid working is “the future” – and with Okta finding many businesses planning to prioritise investments into tools for conferencing, productivity, collaboration and employee engagement, it’s clear the wider tech workplace thinks so too.

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