The Future of Work – activity, not place, is the new normal and that has implications for all

Profile picture for user mbanks By Martin Banks March 1, 2021
If digital nomads are the ‘new normal’, planning for the human aspects is going to need a more complex and diverse set of skills.

future of work

Work must now be considered as an activity, not a place, and this changes the rules for everyone.

Two themes will emerge from the COVID crisis. Firstly it will drive change well beyond 2021; secondly, a displaced workforce is a given that all businesses must face up to and accommodate.

That was the essence of the message from Darren Fields, VP of Cloud Networking at Citrix, during the opening day of the company’s recent conference on the Future of Work.

Fields noted that those businesses that haven’t adapted quickly to these two realities have already started to feel the impact, one that will only grow, whereas those that have started to adapt are looking towards platforms on which to build out for the future:

Those who procure technology to support remote working are not looking for products. They're looking for us to give them solutions. They're looking for us to help them navigate all the complexities associated with it. I'm clearly biased as I work in applications, delivery and security, but whatever point of view you're coming from, you have to be looking at it from a solutions approach.

This does mean that every business now has to look at the issue from a range of perspectives. From one point of view this involves seeing staff digital nomads able to perform to  the highest levels, no matter their location. That requires thinking about more than just acquiring the appropriate technology, but rather, accommodating what would in an office environment be unacceptable, such as video conference interruptions by children at home or room service in hotels.

This changes the rules for vendors, for they can no longer just sell technology. For example, Fields sees the role of Citrix changing to become far more involved in educating its customers to deliver a different employee experience. This will need to be far more flexible, allowing staff to work from anywhere, on any device, at any time and ensuring business continuity at all times.

It also means becoming involved in wider issues such as employee health, playing a part in providing a healthy, secure and safe environment for the employee to work in, he adds:

Helping customers to reassess how they're going to manage their technology going forward and provide that positive experience for their employees. How can we help them provide employees with that separation between work and home. Sharing learnings and best practices will also help foster the way to improve productivity and security. What we absolutely have to do is continue to create that balance between personal and workspace.

HR and the ’human stuff’

There will also be pressure on businesses to confront what constitutes a workspace. Fields observed that there has already been speculation in the US media that with remote working now becoming the new normal, we will start to see the `work-ation’ becoming an integral part of it.

Thinking such as this is likely to become a sub-text of the remote working/digital nomad/gig economy environment as it evolves and is likely a far harder nut to crack than decisions about what technologies should be used.

Sarah Nelson, Senior Director of Human Resources for EMEA at Citrix, has something of a head start on most companies here, in that around 60% of Citrix employees are already working at least partly remotely.

At the start of lockdown, the company culture was already that anyone can work anywhere, with technology provided to staff to enable that. But Nelson soon discovered that the change still threw up unexpected issues, ones that can often get forgotten in a time of crisis.

One example she came across early on was around onboarding and hiring new people.As with many tech-oriented businesses, the hiring process within Citrix is crucial and one that is only likely to become even more important and difficult to manage as the remote working model extends. Access to talent is obvious important, but the corollary of remote working on a full time contract with an employer is likely to be the gig economy, where specific talent is no longer hired but instead contracted for specific projects. Nelson explained:

The quality of our talent is everything. So, just within EMEA, we've hired almost 350 new people in the last two years. The big takeaway for me is that we need to do two things really well. One is the efficiency and consistency of our processes; the other is we need to stand out from other employers.

Process thinking

On the processes front, the aim is to ensure incoming candidates and new hires see and feel the same processes everywhere at the same time. So whether they are applying for a role in Asia, France, UK or the United States, they need to see and feel the same experience. It also helps to demonstrate the company culture. But it does mean that all people involved in hiring process will need to devote a lot more time to the process, which now needs to extend over several months beyond the initial onboarding process:

For somebody to feel that they're really part of an organization quickly, within the first few months they need to feel part of something, a part of the culture, part of a team, so that if they got a better offer within the first few weeks at a new company, they wouldn't be just changing their badge and their laptop to go somewhere else.

This extra effort should not be at the expense of existing employees, of course. Short term crises are not unusual, but this is a long term shift and many of the after effects will be permanent. This, Nelson said, means that a really big part of the new set of competencies needed is the ability to stay close to people. This has to be invested in:

Competencies needed are around how to manage remote teams; it’s not the same as managing an on-site team. Navigating ambiguity is a big competency that we don't necessarily have innately, whether that's in HR teams or managerial teams. It needs to be learned, financed and nurtured. And then there is organizational agility - how do you connect people into other parts of the organization? It's about building courses, building skills, building networks.

There is also a growing need to make sure employees are supported in their new daily lives, which for many will be challenging. The Citrix experience here has included building out a lot more programs of company-funded support and benefits to help employees with counselling, parent and child support. It also includes starting mentoring programs, recognising that these times are extremely challenging for all, be they employees, managers or leaders.

A further point she addressed was the issue of employee productivity. A number of recent studies suggest that remote productivity is at least as good, if not better in some cases. But with remote working, where individual time flexibility is essential, measurements based on 9-to-5 working are no longer appropriate:

I believe that the way we measure productivity should always actually be on output rather than input and I think that this is a time when this is even more relevant. It's not about time or effort, it's about the results you produce. The issues are around how we innovate this. The questions are around maintaining productivity, maintaining the quality of our innovation and how we come together to be creative, not just productive.

Another side issue of the move to remote working is that, while some staff may have homes and domestic arrangements that are easily adapted to the new environment, others do not. Younger employees in particular can really struggle with this, either still living at home or in shared accommodation or small flats/apartments. This means there is likely to be a need for the re-purposing of existing facilities or accepting that the cost of desk rental in shared office facilities is likely to be a new component in the cost-of-employment.

As a final aside, Nelson suggested that businesses should also consider the contribution remote working can contribute to both their sustainability and diversity/inclusion agendas. For example, carbon footprints can be greatly reduced by reduction on office space and resources, though that does then mean accepting that the costs and contributions are then being borne by the individual staff and still have to be accounted for.

There is, potentially, much to be gained for both sides of the diversity/inclusion equation. For business managers it opens up a potential gold mine of new talent for whom, through reasons of health or family circumstance, find the 9-to-5 go-to-work model untenable.

My take

The steps taken to control the pandemic are bringing a wider change to the nature of work than might have been expected – and it is a change that could make work for many a more interesting and challenging experience, as well as being one that blurs the edges between the traditional model of work versus ‘the rest of life’.