The tumultuous shift over the past year to nearly all-digital and frequently at-home work has amounted to a rapid-fire experiment in human adaptability.
While there are many successful aspects to the home-exodus experiment, as with all disruption to human behavior, there are also some significant and highly personal downsides.
The next BriefingsDirect work-from-home strategies discussion explores the current state of employee well-being and examines how new pressures and complexity from distance working may need new forms of employer support, too.
To learn more about coping in an age of unprecedented change in blended work and home life, we’re now joined by Carolina Milanesi, Principal Analyst at Creative Strategies and founder at The Heart of Tech; Amy Haworth, Senior Director, Employee Experience at Citrix, and Ray Wolf, Chief Executive Officer at A2K Partners. The panel discussion is moderated by Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions.
Here are some excerpts:
Gardner: Amy, how are predominantly digital work habits adding to employee pressures and complexities? And at this point, is it okay not to be okay with all of these issues and new ways of doing things?
Haworth: Thanks, Dana. It’s such an important question. What we have witnessed in the last 12 months is an unfolding of the humanness of a very powerful transformational experience in the world. It is absolutely okay not to be okay. To be able to come alongside those who are courageous enough to admit it is one of the most important roles that organizations are being called upon to play in the lives of our employees.
Oftentimes, I think about what’s happened in 2020 and 2021. It’s as if the tide went out. It exposes fissures in our connectedness in the way organizations operate — even in the support systems we have in place for employees.
We’ve learned that unless employees are okay, our organizational health is at risk, too. Taking care of employees and enabling employees to take care of themselves shifts the conversation to new, innovative ways of doing that.
The last 12 months have shown us that we’ve never faced something like this before, so it’s only natural that we lacked a lot of the support systems and mechanisms to enable us to get through it.
There has been some amazing innovation to help close that gap. But it’s also been as if we’ve been flying the plane, while also figuring out how to do this all better. So, absolutely, yes, there are new challenges — but also a lot of growth. Being able to come alongside and being able to raise the white flag when needed makes it worth doing.
Gardner: Carolina, the idea for corporations of where their responsibility is has shifted a great deal. It used to be that employees would drive out of the parking lot — and they’d be off on their way, and there was no further connection. But when they’re working at home and facing new forms of fatigue or emotional turmoil, the company is part of that process, too. Do you see companies recognizing that?
Milanesi: Absolutely. To be honest with you, it’s been a long time in coming because although I might drive away from the parking lot — for a lot of employees — that’s not when the work stops.
Either because you’re working across different time zones or because you’re on call, if you’re a knowledge worker, chances are that your days are not a nine-to-five kind of experience. That had not been fully understood. The balance that people have to find in working and their private life has been under strain for quite some time.
Now that we’ve been at home, there’s no escape [from work]. That’s the realization companies have come to — that we are in this changed world and we are all at home. It’s not just that I decided to be a remote worker, and it’s just me. It’s me and whoever else is living with me — a partner, or maybe parents that I’m looking after, and children, all co-sharing apartments and all of that.
So, the stress is not just mine. It’s the stress of all of the people living with me. That is where more attentiveness needs to come in, to understand the personal situations that individuals are in — especially for under-represented groups.
For example, if you think about women and how they feel about talking — or not talking — about their children or caregiver responsibilities, they often shy away from talking about it. They may think it reflects badly on them.
All of those stresses were there before, but they became exacerbated during the pandemic. This has made organizations realize how much weight is on the shoulders of their employees, who are human beings after all.
Gardner: Ray at A2K Partners, you probably find yourself between the companies and their employees, helping with the technology that joins them and makes them productive. How are you seeing the reaction of both the employees and the businesses? Are they coming together around this — or are we just starting that process?
Wolf: I think we’re only in the second inning here, Dana. In our conversations with chief human resources officers (CHROs), they come to the conversation saying, “Ray, is there a better way? Do we really need to live with the way things are for our employees, particularly with the way they interface with technology and the applications that we give them to get their jobs done?”
We’re able to reassure them that, yes, there is a better way. The level of dissatisfaction and anxiety that employees have working with technology doesn’t have to be there anymore. What’s different now is that people are not accepting the status quo. They’re asking for a better way forward. The great news — and we’ll get into this a little bit later — is there are a lot of things that can be done.
The concept of work-life balance, right? It’s no longer two elements at the end of a see-saw that’s in balance. It looks more like a puzzle, where you’re shifting in and out — often in 15-minute or 30-minute intervals — between your personal life and your work life.
So how can technology better facilitate that? How can we put people into their flow state so they have a clear cognitive view of what they need to get done, set the priorities, and lead them into a good state when they need to return to their family activities and duties?
Gardner: Amy, what hasn’t changed is the fundamental components of this are people, process, and technology. The people part, the human resources (HR) part, perhaps needs to change because of what we’ve seen in the last year.
Do you see the role of HR changing? Is it even being elevated in importance within the organization?
Empowered employees blend life, work
Haworth: The role of HR really has elevated. I see it as an amplification of employee voice. HR is the employee advocate and the employee’s voice into the organization.
It’s one thing to be the voice when no one’s listening. It’s much more interesting to be the voice when people are listening and to steer the organization in the direction that puts talent at the center, with talent first.
We’re having discussions and dialog about what’s needed to create the most powerful employee experience, one where employees are seen or heard and feel included in the path forward. One thing that’s so clear is we are shaping this all together, collectively. We are together shaping the future in which we will all live.
Being able to include that employee voice as we craft what it means to go to work or to do work in the years ahead means in many ways that it’s an open canvas. There are many ways to do hybrid work.
Being able to include that employee voice as we craft what it means to go to work or to do work in the years ahead means in many ways that it’s an open canvas. There are many ways to do hybrid work, which clearly seems to be the direction most organizations are going. Hybrid is quite possibly the future direction education is heading, too.
A lot of rethinking is happening. As we harness that collective voice, HR’s leadership is bringing that to the table, bringing it into decisions, and entering into a more experimental mindset. Where we are looking to in the future and how we find ways to innovate around hybrid work is increasingly important.
Gardner: Carolina, when we look at the role of technology in all of this, how should an HR organization such as Amy’s use technology to help — rather than contribute to the problem?
Milanesi: That’s the key question, right? Technology cannot come as another burden that I have to deal with when it comes to employees.
I love Ray’s analogy of the puzzle of the life we live. I stopped talking about work-and-life balance years ago and started talking instead about working-life-blend because if you blend there’s room to maneuver and change. You can compromise and put less stress on one area versus the other.
So, technology needs to come in to help us create that blend – and it has to be very personal. The most important thing for me is that one size doesn’t fit all. We’re all individuals, we’re all different. And although we might share some commonalities, the way that my workflow is setup is very different from yours. It has to speak to me because otherwise it becomes another burden.
So, one part is helping with that blend. Another part for technology to play is not making me feel that the tool I’m using is an overseer. There are a lot of concerns when it comes to remote working, that organizations are giving you tools to manage you — versus help you. That’s where the difference lies, right? For me, as an employee, I need to make sure that the tool is there to just help me do my work.
It doesn’t have to be difficult. It has to be straightforward. It keeps me in the flow, and helps me with my blended life. I also think that the technology needs to be context-aware. For example, what I need in the office is different from what I need when I’m at home or when I’m at the airport — or wherever I might be to doing work.
The idea that your task is dependent or is influenced by the context you’re in is important as well. But simplicity, security, and my privacy are all three components that are important to me and should be important to my organization.
Gardner: Ray, Carolina just mentioned a few key words: context, feelings, and the idea of an experience rather than fitting into what the coder had in mind. It wasn’t that long ago that applications pretty much forced people to behave in certain ways in order to fit set processes.
What I’m hearing, though, is that we have to have more adaptable processes and technologies to account for a person’s experiences and feelings. Is that not possible? Or is it pie-in-the-sky to bring the human factor and the technology together?
Technology helps workers work better
Wolf: Dana, the great news is the technology is here today with the capability to that. The sad part is the benchmark is still pretty low. The fact is when it comes to providing technology to enable workers to get their jobs done, there is really very little forethought as to how it’s architected and orchestrated.
People are often simply given login information to the multiple applications that they need to use to get things done during the day. The most that we do in terms of consideration for these employees is create a single sign-on. So, for the first five minutes of your day, we have a streamlined, productive, and secure way to login — but then it’s a free for all. Processes are standard across employee types. There’s no consideration for how the individual employee wants to get work done, of what works best for them.
We subject very highly talented and creative people to a lot of low-value, repetitive tasks. Citrix Workspace allows you to automate out those mundane tasks, allowing workers to contribute more to critical business needs.
In addition, we subject very highly talented and creative people to a lot of low-value, repetitive tasks. One of the things that CHROs bring up to me all the time is, “How can I get my employees working at the top of their skills range, as opposed to the bottom of their skills range?”
Today there are platforms such as Citrix Workspace that allow you to automate out those mundane tasks, take into consideration where the employees should be spending their time, and allowing them to contribute more to the critical business needs of an organization.
Gardner: Amy, to that point of the way employees perceive of their work value, are you seeing people mired in doing task-based work? Or are you seeing the opportunity for people to move past that and for the organization to support them so that they can do the work they feel most empowered by? How are organizations helping them move past task to talent?
Haworth: Great question, and I love how you phrase that move from task to talent. So a couple things come to mind. Number one, organizations are looking to take friction out of the work-day. That friction is energy, and that energy could be better spent for an employee doing something they love to do — something that is their core skill set or why they were hired into that organization to start with.
A recent statistic I heard was that average workflow tends to involve at least four different stops along an application’s path. Think about what it takes to submit an expense report.
As much as possible, we’re looking for ways that take friction out of those interactions so employees get a sense of progress at the end of the day. The energy they’re expending in their jobs and roles should feel like it’s coming back threefold.
Ray touched on the idea of flow, but the conversation in 2021, based on the data we’ve seen, shows that employees feel fatigued because of the workload. What emerged from a lot of the survey work across multiple research firms last year was this sense of fatigue. You know, “My workload doesn’t match the hours that I have in the day.”
So, in HR circles, we’re beginning to think about, “Well, what do we do about that?” Is this a conversation more about energy and energetic spend? Initially [in the pandemic] there was a lot of energy spent just transforming how things were done. And now we get to think about when things are done. When do I have the most energy to do that hard thing? And then, “How is the technology helping me to do it? And is it telling me when it’s probably time to take a break?”
At Citrix we’ve recently introduced some really interesting notifications to help with this idea of well-being so that integration of technology into the workday helps as an employee manages their energy – to take, for example, a five-minute meditation break because they have been working solid for three hours. That might be a really good idea rather than that cup of coffee, for example.
So we’re starting to see a combination of the helpfulness of technology in a way that’s invited by employees. Carolina makes a great point about the privacy concerns, and so it comes in a way that’s invited by employees. That ultimately enables a state of flow and that feeling of progress and good use of the talent that each employee brings into the organization.
Gardner: Carolina, when we think about technology of 10 or more years ago, oftentimes developers would generate a set of requirements, create the application, and throw it over the wall. People would then use it.
But what I just heard from Amy was much more about the employee having agency in how they use the technology, maybe even designing the flow and processes based on what works for them.
Have we gotten to the point where the technology is adaptive and people have a role in how services — maybe micro-services — are assembled? Are people becoming more like developers, rather than waiting for developers to give them the technology to use?
Optimize app workflows
Milanesi: Absolutely. Not everybody is in that kind of no-code environment yet to create their own applications from scratch, but certainly a lot of people are using micro-apps that come together into a workflow in both their private and work lives.
Smartphone growth marked the first time that each of us started to be more in control of the applications that create workflows in a private way. The arrival of your own device into enterprise also meant bringing your own applications into enterprise.
As you know, it was a bit of the Wild West for a while, and then we harnessed that. Organizations that are most successful are the ones that stopped fighting this change and actually embraced it. To Amy’s point, there are ways to diminish and lower the friction that we feel as employees when we want to work in a certain way and to use all of the applications and tools, even ones that an IT department may not want us to.
There is more friction and time loss in someone trying to go around that problem and creating back doors that bypass IT than for IT to empower me to do that work, as long as my assets and data are secure. As long as it’s secure, I should have a list of applications and tools that I can choose from and create my own best workflows.
Gardner: Ray, how do you see that balance between employee-agency and -agility and what the IT department allows? How do we keep the creativity flowing from the user, but at the same time put in the necessary guardrails?
Wolf: You can achieve both. This is not employee workflow at the sacrifice of security. That’s the state of technology today. Just in terms of where to get started with the idea of employees designing their workflows, this is exactly how we’re going about it with many customers today.
I mean, what an ironic thought: To actually ask the people involved in the day-to-day work what’s working for them and what’s not. What’s causing you frustration and is high-value to the company? So you can easily identify five places to go get started to automate and streamline.
What an ironic thought: To actually ask the people in the day-to-day work what’s working for them and what’s not. What’s causing you frustration and is high-value to the company?
And the beautiful thing about it is when you ask the worker where that frustration is, and you solve it, two things happen. One, they have ownership and the adoption is very high as opposed to leadership-driven decisions. And we see this happening everyday today. It’s kind of the “smart guy in the room” syndrome where the people who don’t actually have to do the work are telling everybody what and how the workers actually want to get things done. It doesn’t work that way.
The second is, once employees see — with as little as two to three changes in their daily workflow — what’s possible, their minds open up in terms of all the automation capabilities, all the streamlining that can occur, and they feel invigorated and energized. They become a much more productive and engaged member of the team. And we’re seeing this happen. It’s really an amazing process overall.
We used to think of work as 9 am to 5 pm — eight hours out of your awake hours. Today, work occurs across every waking hour. This is something that remote workers have known for a long time. But now some 45 percent to 50 percent of the workforce is remote. Now it’s coming to light. Many more people are feeling like they need to do something about it.
So we need to sense what’s going on with those employees. Some of the technology that we’re working on is evaluating and looking at someone’s schedule. How many back-to-back meetings have they had? And then enforcing a cognitive break in their schedules so people can take a breather — maybe take care of something in their personal lives.
And then, even beyond that — with today’s technology such as smart watches — we could look at things such as blood pressure and heart rates and decide if the anxiety level is too high or if an employee is in their proper flow. Again, we can then make adjustments to schedules, block out times on their calendars — or, you know, even schedule some well-being visits with someone who could help them through the stresses in their lives.
Gardner: Amy, building on Ray’s point of enhancing well-being, if we begin using technology to allow employees to be productive, in their flow, but also gain inference information to support them in new ways — how does that change the relationship between the organization and the employee? And how do you see technology becoming part of the solution to support well-being?
Trust enhances well-being
Haworth: There’s so much interesting data coming out over the last year about how the contract between employees and the organization is changing. There has been, in many cases, a greater level of trust.
According to the research, many employees have trusted what their organizations have been telling them about the pandemic — more than they trusted state and local governments or even national governments. I think that’s something we need to pay attention to.
Trust is that very-hard-to-quantify organizational benefit that fuels everything else. When we think about attraction, retention, engagement, and commitment — some in HR believe that higher organizational commitment is the real driver to discretionary effort, loyalty, and tenure.
As we think about the role of the organization when it comes to well-being and how we build on trust where it’s healthy — how can we uphold that with high regard? How can we better bridge that into a different employer-employee relationship — perhaps one that’s better than we’ve ever seen before?
If we stand up and say, “Our talent is truly the human capital that will be front-and-center to helping organizations achieve their goals,” then we need to think about this. What is our new role? According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it’s hard to think about being a high-performing employee if things are falling apart on the home front, and if we’re not able to cope.
For our organization, at Citrix, we are thinking about not only our existing programs and bolstering those, but we’re also looking for other partners who are truly experts in the well-being space. We can perhaps bring that new information into the organization in a way that integrates with and intersects into an employee’s day.
For us at Citrix, that is done through Citrix Workspace, and in many cases with the rapport of a managerial capability. That’s because we know so much of the trust relationship is between the employee and the manager, and it is human first and foremost.
Then we also need to think about how we continue to evolve and learn as we go. So much of this is uncharted. We want to make sure we’re open to learning. We’re continuing to invest. We’re measuring how things are working. And we’re inviting that employee voice in — to help co-create.
Gardner: Carolina, from what we just heard from Amy, it sounds like there’s a richer, more intertwined relationship between the talent pool and the organization. And that they are connected at the hip, so to speak, digitally. It sounds like there’s a great opportunity for new companies and a solutions ecosystem to develop around this employee well-being category.
Do you see this as a growth opportunity for new companies and for organizations within existing enterprises? It strikes me that there’s a huge new opportunity.
Tech and the human touch
Milanesi: I do think there’s a huge opportunity. And that’s good and bad in my view because obviously, when there’s a lot of opportunity, there also tends to be fragmentation.
Many different things are going to be tried. And not everybody has the expertise to help. There needs to be an approach from the organization’s perspective so that these solutions are vetted.
But what is exciting is the role that companies like Citrix are taking on to become a platform for that. So there might be a start-up that has a great idea and then leverages the Citrix Workspace platform to deliver that idea.
Then you have the opportunity to use the expertise that Citrix brings to the table. They have been focused on workflows and employee empowerment for many years. What I’m excited to see is organizations that come out and offer that platform to make the emerging ecosystem even richer.
I also love what Amy said about human trust as first-and-foremost. That’s what I caution people to make it all about. Technology should not be a crutch, where technology comes in to try and make you suffer less, but still does not solve the problem. And technology should not be the only solution you adopt.
I might have a technological check-in that tells me that I’m taking on too many meetings or that I should take a break, but there is nothing better than a manager giving you a call or sending you an email to let you know you are seen as a human, that your work is seen by other humans.
I love what you were saying earlier about the difference between the task and the talent. That’s another part where — if we have more technology that helps us with the mundane stuff and we can focus on what we enjoy doing — that also helps us showcase the value that we bring as an employee and then the value of the task, not just the output.
A lot of times, some of these technology solutions that are delivered are about making me more productive. I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t wake up in the morning and say, “I want to be more productive today.” I wake up and want to get through the day. I want to enjoy myself; I want to make a contribution and to feel that I make a difference for the company I’m working for.
And that’s what technology should be able to do: Come in and take away the mundane, take away the repetitive, and help me focus on what makes a difference — and what makes me feel like I’m contributing to the success within my company.
Gardner: Ray, I would like to visit the idea of consequences of the remote-work era. Just as people can work from anywhere, that also means they can work for just about anyone.
If you’re working for a company that doesn’t seem to have your well-being as a priority and doesn’t seem to be interested in your talents as much as your tasks, you can probably find a few other employers quite easily from the very same spot that you’re in.
How has the competitive landscape shifted here? Do companies do this because it’s a nice thing to do? Or will they perhaps find themselves lacking the talent if the talent wants to work for someone who better supports them?
Employees choose work support
Wolf: Dana, that ultimately is the consequence. Once we get through this immediate situation from the pandemic, and digest the new learning about working remote, we will have choices.
Employers are paying attention to this in a number of ways. For example, I was just on the phone with a CHRO from a Fortune 50 company. They have added a range of well-being applications that help in the taking care of the employees there.
But there are also some cultural changes that need to occur. This CHRO was explaining to me that even though they have all these benefits — including 12 hours off a month or more so-called mental health days – they are struggling with some of the managers. They are having trouble getting managers, some of whom may be later on in their careers, to actually model these new behaviors and give the employees and workers permission to take advantage of the benefits from these well-being applications.
The ones who evolve culturally, and who pay attention to this change, are ultimately going to be the winners. It may be another 6 or 18 months, but we’ll get there.
So we have a way to go. But the ones who evolve culturally, and who pay attention to this change, are ultimately going to be the winners. It may be another 6 or 18 months, but we’ll definitely get there. In the interim, though, workers can do something for themselves.
There are a lot of ways to stay in-tune with how you’re feeling and give yourself a break and better scheduling of time. I know we would like to have technology that forces that into the schedule, but you can do that for yourself now as an interim step. And I think there are a lot of possibilities here — and more not that far in the future.
There are things that could be done immediately to bring a little bit of relief, help people see what’s possible, and then encourage them to continue working down this path of the intersection of well-being and employee workflow.