Now that hybrid work models have been the norm for a year, what’s the long-term impact on worker productivity? Will the pandemic-induced shift to work from anywhere agility translate into increased employee benefits — and better business outcomes — over time?
The next BriefingsDirect workspace innovation discussion explores how a bellwether UK accounting services firm has shown how consistent, secure, and efficient digital work experiences lead to heightened team collaboration and creative new workflows.
To learn more about the ways that distributed work models fuel innovation, please welcome our guests, Chris Madden, Director of IT and Operations for Kreston Reeves, LLP in the UK, and Tim Minahan, Executive Vice President of Business Strategy and Chief Marketing Officer at Citrix. The discussion is moderated by Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions.
Here are some excerpts:
Gardner: Tim, we’ve been in a work-from-anywhere mode for a year. Is this panning out as so productive and creative that people are considering making it a permanent feature of their businesses?
Minahan: Dana, if there’s one small iota of a silver lining in this global crisis we’ve all been going through together it’s that it has shone a light on the importance of flexible and remote work models.
Companies are now rethinking their workforce strategies and work models — as well as the role the office will play in this new world of work. And employees are, too. They’re voting with their feet, moving out of high-cost, high-rent districts like San Francisco and New York because they realize they can not only do their work effectively remotely, but they can also be more productive and have a better work life.
A few data points that are important: This isn’t a temporary shift. The pandemic has opened folks’ eyes to what’s possible with remote work. In fact, in a recent Gartner study, 82 percent of executives surveyed plan to make remote work and flexible work a more permanent part of their workforce and cost-management strategies — and it’s for very good business reasons.
As the pandemic has proven, this distributed work model can significantly lower real estate and IT costs. But more importantly, the companies that we talk to, the most forward-looking ones, are realizing that flexible work models make them more attractive as an employer. And that prompts them to rethink their staffing strategies because they have access to new pools of talent and in-demand skills of workers that live well beyond commuting distance to one of their work hubs.
Businesses work from anywhere
Such flexible work models can also advance other key corporate initiatives like sustainability and diversity, which are increasingly becoming board-level priorities at most companies. Those companies that remain laggards — that are still somewhat reluctant to embrace remote work or flexible work as a more permanent part of their strategies — may soon be forced to change as their employees look for more flexible work approaches.
We’ve heard about the mass exodus from some of those large metropolitan areas to more suburban — and even rural locales. At Citrix, our own research of thousands of workers and IT and business executives finds that more than three-quarters of workers now prefer to shift to a more remote and flexible work model — even if it means taking a pay cut. And 80 percent of workers say that flexible work arrangements will be a top selection criterion when evaluating employers in the future.
Gardner: Chris, based on your experience at Kreston Reeves, do you agree that these changes to a more flexible and hybrid work location model are here to stay?
Companies Support Hybrid Work Models
Madden: I would. At Kreston Reeves, we are expecting to move permanently to a three- or two-days a week in an office with the remaining time working from home and away from the office. That’s for many of the reasons already covered, such as reduced commuter time, reduced commuting cost, more time at home with family, best work-life balance, and a lot better for the environment as well because of people travelling less and all those greenhouse gases not going up into the atmosphere.
Gardner: We certainly hear how there are benefits to the organization. But how about the end users, the customers? Have your experiences at Kreston Reeves led you to believe that you can maintain the quality of service to your customers and consumers?
Madden: It’s probably ultimately going to be a balance. I don’t think it will shift totally one way or go back to how it was. I think for our customers and clients, there are distinct advantages, depending on the type of work. There isn’t always a need to go and have a face-to-face meeting that can take a lot of time for people, time that they could spend elsewhere in their business.
Depending on the nature of the interactions, quite a lot will shift to video calling, which has become the norm overt the last year even as in the past people may have thought it impersonal.
Depending on the nature of the interactions, quite a lot will shift to video calling, which has become the norm over the last year even as in the past people may have thought it impersonal. So I think that will become a lot more accepted, and face-to-face meetings will be then kept for those meetings that really require everybody to sit down together.
Gardner: It sounds like we’re into a more fit-for-purpose approach. If it’s really necessary, that’s fine, we can do it. But if it’s not necessary, there are benefits to alleviating the pressure on people.
Tell us, Chris, about how your organization operates and how you reacted to the pandemic.
Madden: Yes, we began best part of 10 years ago, when we moved on to Citrix as the platform to distribute computer services to our users. Over the years, we have upgraded that and added on the remote-access solutions. And so, when it came to early 2020 and the pandemic, we were ready to take off. We could see where we were heading in terms of lockdowns and the pandemic, so we closed two or three of our offices — just to see how the system coped.
It was designed to do that, but would it really work when we actually closed the offices and everybody worked from home? Well, it worked brilliantly, and was very easy to deal with. And then a few days after that, the UK government announced the first national lockdown and everybody had to work from home within a day.
From our point of view, it worked really well. The only wrinkles in the whole process were to get everybody the appropriate apps on their phones to make sure they could have remote access using multifactor authentication. But otherwise, it was very seamless; the system was designed to cope with everybody working from anywhere — and it did.
Gardner: Chris, we often hear that there is a three-legged stool when it comes to supporting business process — as in people, technology, and process. Did you find that any of those three was primary? What led you to succeed in making such as rapid transition when it comes to the three pillars?
A new world of flexible work
Madden: I think it’s all three of those things. The technology is the enabler, but the people need to be taken with you, and the processes have to adapt for new ways of working. I don’t think any one of those three would lead. You have to do all three together.
Gardner: Tim, how does Citrix enable organizations to keep all three of those plates in the air spinning, if you will, especially on that point about the right applications on the right device at the right time?
Employee Work Environments
Minahan: What’s clear in our research — and what we’re seeing from our customers — is that we’re accelerating to a new world of work. And it’s a more hybrid and flexible world where that employee experience become a key differentiator.
To the point Chris was making, success is going to go to those organizations that can deliver a consistent and secure work experience across any and all work channels — all the Slacks, all of the apps, all the Teams, and in any work location.
Whether work needs to be done in the office, on the road, or at home, delivering that consistent and secure work experience — so employees have secure and reliable access to all their work resources — needs to come together to service end customers regardless of where they’re at.
Kreston Reeves is not alone in what they have experienced. We’re seeing this across every industry. In addition to the change in work models, we are also seeing a rapid acceleration of their digitization efforts, whether it is in the financial services sector, or other areas such as retail and healthcare. They may have had plans to digitize their business, but over the past year they’ve out of necessity had to digitize their business.
Kreston Reeves is not alone in what they have experienced. We’re seeing this across every industry. In addition to the change in work models, we are also seeing a rapid acceleration of digitization efforts. Over the past year out of necessity they have had to digitize their businesses.
For example, there’s the healthcare provider in your neck of the woods, up in the Boston area, Dana, that has seen a 27-times increase in monthly telemedicine visits. During the COVID crisis, they went from 9,000 virtual visits per month to over 250,000 per month — and they don’t think they’re ever going to go back.
In the financial services sector, we hear consistently customers hiring thousands of new advisors and loan officers in order to handle the demand — all in a remote and digital environment. What’s so exciting, as I said earlier, is as companies begin to use these approaches as key enablers, it becomes a liberator for them to rethink their workforce strategies and reach for new skills and new talent that’s well beyond commuting distance to one of their work hubs.
It’s not just about, “Should Sam or Suzy come back and work in the office full time?” That’s a component of the equation. It’s not even about, “Do Sam and Suzy perform at their best even when they’re working at home?” It’s about, “Hey, what should our workforce look like? Can we now reach skills and talent that were previously inaccessible to us because we can empower them with a consistent work experience through a digital workspace strategy?”
Gardner: How about that, Chris? Have you been simply repaving work-in-the-office paths with a different type of work from home? Or are you reinventing and exploring new business processes and workflows as a result of the flexibility?
Remote work retains trust, security
Madden: There is much more willingness amongst businesses and the people working in businesses to move quickly with technology. We’re past being cautious. With the pandemic, and the pressure that that brings, people are more willing to move faster — and be less concerned about understanding everything that they may want to know before embracing technology.
The other thing is with relationships with clients. There is a balance, to not go as far as some industries. Some never see their clients any longer because everything is done remotely, and everything is automated through apps and technology.
And the correct balance that we will be mindful of as we embrace remote working — and as we have more virtual meetings with clients — is that we still need to maintain the relationship of being a trusted advisor to the client — rather than commoditizing our product.
Gardner: I suppose one of the benefits to the way the technology is designed is that you can turn the knobs. You can experiment with those relationships. Perhaps one client will require a certain value toward in-person and face-to-face engagements. Another might not. But the fact is the technology can accommodate that dynamic shift. It gives us, I think, some powerful tools.
Madden: Absolutely. The key is that for those clients who really want to embrace the modern world and do everything digitally, there is a solution. If a client would still like to be very traditional and have lots of invoices and things on paper and send those into their accountant, that, too, can be accommodated.
But it is about moving the industry forward over time. And so, gradually I can see that technology will become a bigger contributor to the overall service that we provide and will probably do the basic accountancy work, producing an end result that a human then looks at provides the answer back to the client.
Gardner: Now, of course, the materials that you’re dealing with are often quite sensitive and there are business regulations. How did the reaction of your workforce and your customer base come down on the issues of privacy, control, and security?
Madden: The clients trust that we will get it right and therefore look to us to provide the secure solution for them. So, for example, there are clients who have an awful lot of information to send us and cannot come into an office to hand over whatever that is.
We can get them new technologies that they haven’t used in the past such as Citrix ShareFile to share those documents with us securely and efficiently, but in a way that allow us to bring those documents into our systems and into the software we need to use to produce the accounts and the audits for the clients.
Gardner: Tim, you mentioned earlier that sometimes when people are forced into a shift in behavior, it’s liberating. Has that been the case with people’s perceptions around privacy and security as well?
Companies Support Hybrid Work Models
Minahan: If you’re going to provide a consistent and secure work experience, the other thing folks are beginning to see as they embrace hybrid and more distributed work models is that their security posture needs to evolve too. People aren’t all coming into the office every day to sit at their desk on the corporate network, which had much better-defined parameters and arguably was easier to secure.
Now, in a truly distributed work environment, you need to not only provide a digital workspace that gives employees access to all the work resources they need — and that is not just their virtual desktops, but all of their software-as-a-service (SaaS) apps or web apps or mobile apps — it needs to be all in one unified experience that’s accessible across any location.
That is another dynamic we’re seeing. Companies are accelerating their embrace of new more contextual zero trust access security models as they look forward to a post-pandemic world.
It also needs to be secure. It needs to be wrapped in a holistic and contextual security model that fosters not just zero trust access into that workspace, but ongoing monitoring and app protection to detect and proactively remediate any access anomalies, whether initiated by a user, a bot, or another app.
And so, that is another dynamic we’re seeing. Companies are accelerating their embrace of new more contextual zero trust access security models as they look forward to preparing themselves for how they’re going to operate in a post-pandemic world.
Gardner: Chris, I suppose another challenge has been the heterogeneity of the various apps and data across the platforms and sources that you’re managing. How has working with a digital Workspace environment helped you provide a singular view for your employees and end customers? How do workspace environments help mitigate what had been a long-term integration issue for IT consumption?
Madden: For us, whether we are working from home remotely or are in an office, we are consuming the same desktop with the same software and apps as if we were sitting in an office. It’s really exactly the same. From a colleague’s point of view, whether they are working from home in a pandemic or sitting in their office in Central London, they are getting exactly the same experience with exactly the same tools.
And so for them, it’s been a very easy transition. They’re not having to learn the technology and different ways to access things. They can focus instead on doing the client work and making sure that their home arrangement is sorted out.
Gardner: Tim, regardless of whether it’s a SaaS app, cloud app, on-premises data — as long as that workspace is mobile and flexible — the complexity is hidden?
Workspace unifies and simplifies tasks
Minahan: Well, there is another challenge that the pandemic has shone a light on, which is this dirty little secret of the business world. And that is our work environment is too complex. For the past 30 years, we’ve been giving employees access to new applications and devices. And more recently, chat and collaboration tools — all with the intent to help get work done.
While on an independent basis, each of these tools adds value and efficiency, collectively they’ve created a highly fragmented and complex work environment that oftentimes interrupts, distracts, and stresses out employees. It keeps them possibly from getting their actual work done.
Just to give you a sense, with some real statistics: On any given workday, the typical employee uses more than 30 critical apps to get their work done, oftentimes needing to navigate four or more just to complete a single business process. They spend more than 20 percent of their time searching across all of these apps and all of these collaboration channels to find the information they need to make decisions to do their jobs.
Employee Work Environments
To make matters worse, now we’ve empowered these apps and these communication and collaboration channels. They’re all vying for our attention throughout the day, shouting at us about things we need to get done, and oftentimes distracting us from our core work. By some estimates, all of these notifications, chats, texts, and other disruptions interrupt us from our core work about every two minutes. That means the typical employee gets interrupted and forced to switch context between apps, emails, and other chat channels more than 350 times each day. Not surprisingly, what we are seeing is a huge productivity gap — and it is turning our top talent into task rabbits.
As companies think through this next phase of work, how do they provide a consistent and secure work experience and a digital workspace environment for employees no matter where they’re working? It not only be needs to be unified — giving them access to everything they need and security, ensuring that corporate information, applications, and networks remain secure no matter where employees are doing the work — but it also needs to be intelligent.
Leveraging intelligent capabilities such as machine learning (ML), artificial intelligence (AI) assistance, bots, and micro apps personalize and simplify work execution. It’s what I call adding an experience layer between an employee and their work resources. This simplifies their interactions and work execution across all of the enterprise apps, content, and other resources so employees are not overwhelmed and can perform at their best no matter where work needs to get done.
Gardner: Chris, are you interested in elevating people from task rabbits to a higher order of value to the business and their end users and customers? And is the digital environment and workplace a part of that?
Madden: Absolutely. There are lots of processes, many firms, and across multiple campuses. They have grown up over the years and they’ve always been done that way. This is a perfect time to reappraise how we do those things smarter digitally using some robotic process automation (RPA) tools and AI to take a lot of the rework and data from one system into another to produce the end result for the client.
We want to free up our people to do more value-added work — and it would be more interesting work for those people. It will give a better quality role for people, which will help us to attract better talent.
There is a lot of that on our radar for the coming year or two. We want to free our people up to do more value-added work — and it would be more interesting work for those people. It will give a better quality of role for people, which will help us to attract better talent. And given the fact that people now have a taste of a different work-life balance, there will be a lot of pressure on new recruits to our business to continue with that.
Gardner: Chris, now that your organization has been at this for a year — really thrust into much more remote flexible work habits — were there any unexpected and positive spins? Things that you didn’t anticipate, but you could only find out with 20–20 hindsight?
Virtual increases overall efficiency
Madden: Yes. One is the speed at which our clients were happy to switch to video meetings and virtual audits. Previously, on audits, we would send a team of people to a client’s premises and they would look through the paperwork, look at the stock in a warehouse, et cetera, and perform the audit physically. We were able to move quickly to doing that virtually.
For example, if we’re looking in a warehouse to check that a certain amount of stock is actually present, we can now do that by a video call and walk around the warehouse and explain what we’re looking for and see that on the screen and say, “Yes, okay, we know that that stock is actually available.” It was a really big shift in mindset for our regulators, for ourselves, and for our clients, which is a great positive because it means that we can become much more efficient going forward.
The other one that sticks out in my mind is the efficiency of our people. When you’re at home, focusing on the work and without the distractions of an office, the noise, and the conversations, people are generally more efficient. There is still the need for a balance because we don’t want everybody just sitting at home in silence staring at a screen. We miss out on some of the richness of business relationships and conversations with colleagues, but it was interesting how productivity generally increased during the lockdown.
Gardner: Tim, is that what you’re finding more generally around the globe among the Citrix installed base, that productivity has been on the uptick even after a 20- or 30-year period where, in many respects and measurements, productivity has been flat?
Minahan: Yes, that is a trend we have been seeing for decades. Despite the introduction of more technology, employee productivity continued to trend down, ironically, until the pandemic. We talked with employees, executives, and through our own research and it shows that more than 80 percent of employees feel that they’re as, if not more, productive when working from home — for a lot of the reasons that Chris mentions. What they’ve seen at Kreston Reeves has continued to be sustained.
It’s introduced the need for more collaborative work management tools in the work environment in order to foster and facilitate that higher level of engagement and that more efficient execution that we mentioned earlier. But overall, whether it’s the capability to avoid the lengthy commute or the ability to avoid distractions, employees are indeed seeing themselves as more productive.
In fact, we’re seeing a lot of customers now talk about how they need to rethink the very role of the office. Where it’s not just a place where people come to punch their virtual time cards, but is a place that’s more purpose-built for when you need to get together with a client or with other teammates to foster collaboration. You still keep the flexibility to work remotely to focus on innovation, creativity, and work execution that oftentimes, as Chris indicated, can be distracting or difficult to achieve strictly in an office environment.
Gardner: Chris, what’s interesting to me about your business is you’re in a relationship with so many client companies. And you were forced to go digital very rapidly — but so were they. Is there a digital transformation accelerant at work here? Because they all had to go digital at the same is there a network effect?
Because your customers have gone digital, Chris, could you then be better digital providers in your relationships together?
Madden: To an extent. It depends on the type of client industry that they’re in. In the UK, certain industries have been shut for a long time and therefore, they are not moving digitally. They are just stuck waiting until they are able to reopen. In the meantime, there’s probably very little going on in those businesses.
Those businesses that are open and working are very much embracing modern technology. So, one of the things that we’ve done for our audit clients, particularly, is providing different ways in which they can communicate with us. Previously, we probably had a straightforward, one-way approach. Now, we are giving clients three or four different ways they can communicate and collaborate with us, which helps everybody and moves things along a lot more quickly.
It is going to be interesting post-pandemic. Will people intrinsically go back to what they were always doing? Will what drove us forward keep us creating and becoming more digital or will the instinct be to go back to how it was because that’s how people are more comfortable?
Gardner: Yes, it will be interesting to see if there’s an advantage for those who embrace digital methods more and whether that causes a competitive advantage that the other organizations will have to react to. So we’re in for an interesting ride for a few more years yet.