Friday, March 11, 2022

It’s official—flexible and remote work are here to stay, say empowered employees

The world’s office workers have more clout and influence now than ever over where and how they do their jobs. Those who have worked from home and want to continue are spurring on their employers to do more than just embrace hybrid work. They’re seeking to reinvent the very nature of employment.

Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes. Read a full transcript or download a copy.

Stay with BriefingsDirect as we explore new research into how innovations such as contingent labor exchanges and intelligent workspaces are changing the future of work forever.

To learn more about how flexible work models are the new normal for workers and businesses alike, please welcome Andrew Bartolini, Founder and Chief Research Officer at Ardent Partners in Boston, and Tim Minahan, Executive Vice President of Business Strategy at Citrix, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The discussion is moderated by Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions.

Here are some excerpts:

Gardner: Tim, COVID-19 or not, workers seem to have spoken adamantly when it comes to flexible work. What are they saying and why is flexible work here to stay?

Minahan: If you think about major historical moments throughout the ages that have kind of reset how we live and how we work, certainly the pandemic will go down in history as one of those. While no one would ever wish the pandemic to occur again, if there’s any iota of a silver lining, it’s this rapidly accelerated digital transformation which has caused employees and employers to dramatically rethink the way they work, where they work, how they work, and who does the work.


We’ve been studying this dynamic for several years from an executive and IT perspective and the knowledge-worker perspective. The latest poll of 13,000 knowledge workers around the globe clearly indicated that folks are not going back to the office five days a week. They’ve proven that they can engage and be productive anywhere, and they’re not going back. In fact, nearly 90 percent of those who participated in the poll said they plan to work on flexible models in the year ahead, with the majority of them indicating that they plan to remain fully remote.

Gardner: Is there a back and forth in how companies have been responding to this? And, of course, it’s very hard to predict what’s going to happen in two weeks, never mind two months, but is this creating some confusion, some angst? Is that contributing to what some people are calling the Great Revelation of why workers are seeking something new?

Workers want out of the office

Minahan: Certainly, there’s a near-term part of it where companies haven’t even figured out how to get folks back safely in a condition that’s conducive to working. But more realistically, it’s been a major reset. We’ve talked about the Great Resignation but also, I have heard it defined differently as the Great Revelation.

In fact, a similar study of 1,500 knowledge workers across North America shows that as many as 50 percent of workers in the U.S. have left or plan to leave their jobs. There are several different reasons, but it really boils down to three things: burnout, opt-out, and time out.

Well over a third of knowledge workers surveyed said they left their jobs because they're burned out by the stress of working in this prolonged pandemic environment as well as over the demands in the workplace.

From a burnout perspective, well over a third said they left their jobs because they’re just burned out by the stress of working in this prolonged pandemic environment as well as over the demands in the workplace. From an opt-out part, a lot of folks either took time during the pandemic to retrain themselves, to get new skills, or they just wanted a new challenge. They’ve been working at their employer for a while and they’re looking for a promotion or they literally just want to take on a new challenge.

An interesting part of the study is a number of respondents said they ditched their jobs really to feel like they can get some control over their lives, which had somewhat gotten out of control. The last part of the study is time out, and you think about the dynamics of the workforce. We often forget, but if we can think back, unfortunately 48, 50 months ago we had a global talent shortage. McKinsey was estimating that we had a shortage of 95 million medium- to high-skilled workers, especially those with the most in-demand skills, such as cloud, artificial intelligence (AI), and security, skills needed to digitize and modernize your business. And guess what? That hasn’t gone away. So, these are the dynamics that are really causing a complete reset of the workplace.

Gardner: Andrew, it sounds as though workers have learned a few lessons through this whole experiment during the last couple of years. What’s working best for them when it comes to getting things done and how different is that from just two years ago?

Bartolini: Right. I mean this has been a dramatic, radical shift. Necessity is the mother of invention and at the core, people are resilient. They evolved when they had to. When we go back to March of 2020, there was no choice, but people found a way to keep working. Maybe they had a home office but more frequently, people were working from their kitchen tables and from their bedrooms.


How workers and teams were able to maintain productivity was amazing, but it wasn’t necessarily easy. Some part of our research focuses on the contingent workforce but also on the supply chain. I remember speaking to the number-two person for a Fortune 50 pharma company a couple of weeks after the shutdown. She was talking to me about how they were completely retooling several Asian factories to start manufacturing hand sanitizer because they clearly saw a huge demand or future demand coming.

We started to drill into the weeds, and I was talking about the challenges of the global supply chain. She paused and said, “The biggest challenge for us has been in dealing with the team working from home.” This was sort of at the height of uncertainty around the risks of COVID-19 and the impact there. And as someone who’s been generally working virtually for about 20 years now, I almost forgot that. I live in Boston where the rush-hour traffic is terrible because most people work in an office environment. Overnight, that changed.

It sounds odd, but the pandemic, because it helped minimize distractions -- you can’t go to a movie, you can’t go to a mall-- helped people focus on the work at hand. I think that the pandemic unified teams, I mean especially for those with family responsibilities. When you bring the office into your home, you erase the lines between work and home and things blend into each other, particularly for people with young children at home.

And so, I think the reaction to that was that team leaders and leaders of large organizations understood that they needed to instill greater levels of communication and collaboration. Really, as the leaders themselves, many chief procurement officers (CPOs) talked about having much better scheduling and interacting more with the people on their teams as well as their direct reports in a virtual environment than they had in the preceding years. So, I think it’s all part of having to learn on the fly. I think by and large, organizations were sort of able to get through the challenging time and are now settling into this period of greater uncertainty. 

Gardner: Well, it seems as though the workers get it. The workers have found how to be productive and gain balance in their whole lives quickly, but employers seem to be still thinking we’re going back to the nine-to-five and the cubicles thing. Are employers lagging in their perceptions? Why haven’t they learned the same lessons of how this can work so well?

Mind the management-employee gap

Bartolini: Yes, I do think there’s always been a gap between sort of the workers and their views and management if you will. I don’t think that the gap, at least in our research, is necessarily related to the pandemic itself. When we were looking at it sort of pre-pandemic, maybe around 21 percent of the workforce was remote. We’re doing a study right now and the early indications are that post-pandemic, fewer than 10 percent maybe even fewer than 5 percent of all businesses plan to revert to the way things were, doing that nine-to-five thing.

Workers Speak: Remote Work is Here to Stay.

Now You Can Enable it in a Secure, Reliable Way.

So, I think that the gap is a larger, more general one. I mean, Great Resignation, Great Revelation right there. When you look at the shift in power from employer to employee over the past couple of years -- the McKinsey study that Tim just quoted being one great example -- we’re really dealing with the market where there’s this Great Resignation plus a huge demand for talent. There’s extremely low rates of unemployment and we’re really experiencing what we would call a talent revolution. It’s a revolution that’s hitting workers of all types. It’s hitting white collar, blue collar, and the contingents as well. It impacts their voice and what they’re looking for from an employer, whether that’s flexibility or a sort of greater alignment between the companies that you work for and the purpose of those companies. 

There’s strong demand for engagement with corporate culture. This is really across the blended workforce. Look at the blue-collar workers seeking safer and better work conditions. Workers seek the intrinsic rewards, such as better pay, better benefits, but also the extrinsic benefits. There’s been that gap and employers have been slower to respond to that, but by necessity again, they’re going to need to start to craft engagement models and employment models that allow them to attract the best talent.

Gardner: Tim, what do these employees need to do to close this gap functionally even if they get it, even if they want to? What’s missing from a lot of employers in terms of making the accommodations to keep their employees happy, productive, and flexible?

Redefine where, who, and how talent works

Minahan: Now, the savvy employers recognize that this is an opportunity to drive greater innovation to recruit and retain the best skill set. They need to use a lot of the same tactics that they used out of necessity during the pandemic, such as allowing people to work more flexibly and remotely and arming them with more effective productivity and collaboration tools. They need to be able to rethink their workforce strategies. Whereas before they had to compete with folks down the street in major metropolitan areas such as San Francisco and New York, now they can hire the best talent by empowering the work wherever they want.

When they're doing thoughtful research, maybe it's time for them to be remote. When it comes to brainstorming and strategic planning, maybe its better for them to come together.

When you think about what this post-pandemic world of work is going to look like, there’s really three categories. One is what we’ve talked about and that you hear about in the press, which is where work gets done. It’s much more transcendent than just does Sam or Susie come back in the office three days a week, five days a week, or not at all? Really, it is about, “Gee, how do I create and maybe even rethink the role that the office plays? How do we create a work environment and a toolset that allows employees to perform the different types of work they do in the best way possible?” When they’re doing kind of thoughtful, meaningful research and other work, maybe it’s better for them to be remote. When it comes time for brainstorming, planning, strategic planning, that type of thing, maybe it’s better for them to come together.

Then you begin to look at your real-estate footprint. “Do we have a big office in a major metropolitan area, or do we downscale? Do we transform that office from one where everyone goes into the office, punches a virtual clock and closes the door into more of a collaboration space where they come together for very discrete moments and activities, or into a customer-experience space where we can invest more in those high-traffic metropolitan areas and create an engaging experience such as you might experience in an Apple store?” That’s the “where.”

Then, there’s the “who.” Smart companies recognize that they can use what they learn through the pandemic around remote work to go out and recruit new talent. In other areas, they’re not beholden to a commuting distance to one of their office hubs. Also, thinking about rebalancing the workforce where they might not be able to secure that developer or designer when competing with Amazon or Google on a full-time basis, there’s a whole host of very skilled and talented freelance workers and free agents who have that skill that are willing and interested in taking the projects that they want. So, you can get the top talent.

And then the last part is the “how they work.” Over the several past few decades, we’ve been amassed a massive amount of tech debt. We’ve deployed a whole host of individual devices and applications that on their own were designed to solve a particular business process whether that’s automating the procurement process or something else, right, Andrew?

Bartolini: Right.

Minahan: However, when you stack them all on top of each other, there’s a cacophony of technology now that disrupts an employee’s day. So, having a digital workspace allows an employee to have access to all the work resources they need in a very secure way, no matter where work gets done, and layers it with automation and productivity and collaboration tools that allow them to work at their best. It allows for more efficient work execution and collaboration across all of these systems so that they’re not being disrupted throughout the day, but they actually quickly can get work done, quickly find the information they need, and do their best most meaningful work.

Gardner: Andrew, Tim just laid out some interesting things around where and who and how but the “who” kind of jumps out at me. It seems to me that a full-time employee (FTE) isn’t the only option. You don’t always need to know where they are, but maybe you also don’t need an FTE for every type of process or productivity. So, what is the future of work exchange and how should we think about the types of labor categories differently while we’re re-examining everything else at the same time?

Flexible work here, there, and everywhere

Bartolini: Tim is exactly right, and I think your question is absolutely on point. So, the future of work exchange is a web site that our partners launched only last year. We’ve been tracking the growth and expansion of the contingent workforce since the start for the past 13 years. They’ve really focused on what we define as the future of work and we think about that as the strategic optimization of how work gets done through the evolution of talent engagement, the advent of new technology and innovative tools, and the transformation of business standards.

And the reason why we’ve invested greater resources in this area is because the growth and expansion of the contingent workforce, the extended workforce -- it’s called a lot of different things today-- has grown dramatically over the past decade. Our research shows that 47 percent of all workers working for a company today are not FTEs. So almost half of all workers are contingent workers. They’re the independent contractors and consultants.

A decade ago, that number was 25 percent, and we expect that number to climb above 50 percent. We expect there’s probably a natural ceiling that will be hit at some point in a world where talent continues to be a major differentiator. But as organizations start to be more focused on “how” work gets done, rather than “who” does it, there’s been a shift. We’ve erased many of the geographic constraints that companies have traditionally had when trying to staff projects and to find the best talent. That’s been removed by technology and the advent of digital marketplaces where people can find the talent and do matching.

Workers Are on the Move. Here Are Five Things

To Keep Your Business Moving With Them.

There’s been a shift in the way that organizations are thinking about what it is that they need to do to get their projects done, to get their work done, and it’s moved from the old view where the contingent worker was the temporary employee. Somebody’s going on vacation, somebody’s going out on maternity leave, we need to find somebody to fill a tactical position. Now, the expanded view of who we can bring in to do work and what that work is, much more strategic projects. It’s an evolving mindset that has been accelerated by the pandemic. It’s an interesting and exciting time for those working in procurement and HR to get their hands around what does their total workforce look like as they go forward.

Gardner: Tim, Ardent Partners reports that almost half of the workforce is no longer full-time. That means when they start working for a company, they’re not onboarded in the same way. They don’t get, “Here’s your 15 applications. Here’s your laptop. You have now 45 different sign-ons to deal with.” Now, you need to do all that on a more granular basis, maybe focused on a process or a project, not on an employee definition. How can technology support this interesting new mix of types of workers when it comes to getting things done?

Minahan: You’re absolutely right. That is something that companies had to grapple with throughout the pandemic. I’m thinking of some of our financial services customers that saw, as you might expect, a dramatic uptick in their remote financial advisory services.

One was telling me that they hired 3,000 new employees during the pandemic, and they needed to onboard them all remotely. They needed to get them technology very quickly, they needed to get them access to the applications and information they required and that was where they kind of really embraced a secure digital workspace strategy, leveraging in this case our desktop as a service offering to be able to quickly stand up a desktop that had a personalized workspace for that employee.

Thanks to virtual desktop-as-a-service, employees were able to get all the onboarding materials delivered in a reliable and secure manner so they could ensure the corporate information remained private and secure.

In some cases, they would send out a thin client device like a Chromebook to allow that employee to have access to a device. Or, in other cases, at least early on throughout the pandemic, they would allow them to use their home device. Because they had a virtual desktop-as-a-service offering, they were able to ensure that not only did their employee have reliable access to all the onboarding materials, all the applications, all the training, all the information needed, but also that it was delivered in a reliable and very secure way so they could ensure that their corporate information remained secure.

This is offering a whole new flexibility particularly as we look at who does the work. As we’ve transitioned virtual desktop delivery from on-premises to the cloud, it’s opened up and made desktop delivery much more turnkey and much more practical for a broader set of use cases. So, not just FTEs, but contingent workers, seasonal workers, temp labor, these freelancers that we’ve talked about, designers and the like, it’s allowed companies to stand up and empower and onboard these employees very quickly without putting their corporate resources at risk.

One great example of this is a customer and innovation partner of ours, Major League Baseball (MLB), which, throughout the pandemic in the full spotlight, had to grapple with how to put the season on, how to keep the players and employees safe, how to empower them. But at the same time, everyone was seeing rising incidents of cybersecurity threats. They were able to empower not just this employee base but also their supply chain with desktop services.

A lot of their supply chain partners are small partners and they needed to step up their security requirements and they just didn’t have a large IT department. So, MLB basically extended this desktop service to that supply chain so that they could be compliant, continue to deliver the high grade of innovative and quality services that MLB needed while meeting the stepped-up security requirements. And so, I think we’re going to see a massive shift if we believe that flexible work is here to stay. The only consistent place that an employee is going to work is going to be their digital workspace.

Gardner: Andrew, sometimes I think we get complacent about how important a role this technology is playing in allowing this all to happen. One of the ways for me to wrap my head around how essential and innovative and powerful the technology is, is to say, well, what if this pandemic hit 10 or even 15 years ago? If this had happened 10 or 15 years ago and we didn’t have cloud computing, we didn’t have desktop as a service, and virtualization was just starting out, where would we have been? It seems to me that we lucked out, right? We got just over the line on where this technology is capable enough to allow people to work remotely almost anywhere on the planet. This technology is, I think, underappreciated. 

Tech enables transition to digital workspace

Bartolini: Yeah, I would say, no doubt. I mean, there’s been a long steady march towards driving improved communication whether that’s among teams and the capability to chat or among trading partners as well. I mean, that’s another piece. If you think about the growth of the global supply chain, that’s been a technology-enabled phenomenon as much as anything else, when it comes to the workers and to the workforce, right?

If this was 10 or 15 years ago, I’d like to think that we would have seen many of today’s innovations come along much sooner. But from a workforce management standpoint, when you’re dealing with a workforce that is not full-time, that is much more transient in how it engages and how you engage, your approach to that workforce necessarily has to change. From a technology standpoint, if you have your old HR playbook of how you onboard a traditional employee, you need that same playbook now for the freelancers, for the temps, and you need to have those things codified and smooth because there’s a war for talent that’s going on right now.

And so, it’s not just the FTEs that are picking and choosing when and how they engage. It’s the independents as well. It is this extended workforce. And so, you as an organization have to be at the ready. You have to be the employer of choice whether that’s a short-term project or the long-term employer of still 50 percent of the workforce.

So, yes, technology has been absolutely critical, and it is only going to play a greater role. When I speak to procurement leaders, CPOs and directors of sourcing, there’s been a shift that has happened and it’s going to continue to happen. As you see company offices and the investment in corporate real estate shrink, that money is redeployed to productivity tools, to technology that can create the digital workspaces that Tim has just been talking about. So, there is this transition, and the technology has absolutely played a key role.

Gardner: And Tim, we talked a little earlier about employers needing to close the gap between recognizing a flexible workforce future. It seems to me that this has forced them to appreciate how impactful the technology can be, and in many ways, we’re only scratching the surface of what the technology is capable of. So, is the silver lining here that we’ve created a catalyst to technology adoption and therefore also a catalyst to further technology development?

Minahan: Yes, Dana. I think it’s the combination. Certainly, the pandemic has expedited everything as folks are looking at accelerating their digital transformation and the shift to more flexible work models. That is causing companies to think not just about how to deliver all the work resources, all the applications, all the content, all the collaboration tools that employees need to be productive and do it securely so they can work anywhere, but also looking at, “Gee, how do I help them work better?”

At the top of the list for prioritized investments for IT are collaboration tools that foster more efficient work execution across all these distributed work environments.

If you look at any of the analyst studies out there, at the top of the list of prioritized investments for IT this year are collaboration tools. Tools that foster more efficient work execution and collaboration across these distributed work environments. Some of them are actual tools such as whiteboarding tools, project management tools. And some of them are actually, this role in robotic process automation (RPA) or automation providing a way for frontline business analysts and business users to knit together all of the source systems to complete a single business process so that employees can actually not be burdened by technology but can drive differentiated business processes. That’s a key opportunity as companies are looking at, “Gee, a lot of the stuff I invested in out of necessity during the pandemic is now allowing me to drive new business processes and innovation in my business that I couldn’t think through before.”

But all of this needs to be accompanied by changes in policy and ultimately culture. So, if you think about our experience during the pandemic including on this podcast here whether we’re using Zoom or Teams or whatever, it was really the great equalizer. We all have the same size box, we all have the same access to the same tools, the same information but as we rotate back to what a lot of folks are trying to work out as hybrid work, it opens up the opportunity to create a high level of inequity in the workplace where you have these battles between the office-first culture and the remote culture and how you run meetings.

Gardner: We used to call them road warriors, remember?

Equality essential for hybrid workmates

Minahan: Exactly. And it’s a big shift that we need to talk about. How do you create equity in the workplace? You just assume that you’re going to have a planning meeting, a work environment where you’re going to have remote workers and in the office workers and how do you create that equality? So, as we talk about this hybrid work model, companies really have an opportunity now to figure it out.

Here at Citrix, for example, we are retrofitting all of our conference rooms to be hybrid oriented. We’ve got cameras now in the middle of the table. We’re operating on Teams whenever we have a meeting. We’ve got cameras on the whiteboard and we’re trying to develop protocols or policies that include remote people participating in a meeting. For example, they get to respond or ask the first questions. Those types of things which we haven’t really thought through need to be thought through, in addition to the technology infrastructure that enables such work.

What is the Future of Digital Workspaces?

Tune in to The Future of Work Podcast.

Gardner: Andrew, companies right now are sort of dealing with some tough, thorny problems around flexible work models and also the talent shortage. What does your research tell you about what they should do sooner rather than later in terms of how to best adjust to this? What is the research telling you are sort of the fast-track things that people should be doing to be best prepared for our strategic approach to these problems?

Bartolini: The new flexible work model, the extended or contingent workforce and its growth in size and in strategic impact really has changed the way that organizations need to engage talent. So, if you are a hiring manager, if you lead a large organization, hiring is now a 24/7, 365-day activity because workers’ duration and the amount of time that they’re staying with a single employee also has shortened dramatically.

And so, you need to be developing and building a talent pipeline and maintaining that pipeline in an ongoing fashion. You need to be working to become the employer of choice. The research that we’ve seen and the strategies that organizations should be employing, if they haven’t already, include that there needs to be a more empathetic approach to how you manage your people. I think that the workforce today, because of the labor shortage or the low unemployment and the high demand for talent really has allowed employees to spend more time seeking out the jobs with employers that match their own sensibilities.

Is there a purpose that the company can communicate to their candidates and to their current workers? What is the culture of the organization and how is that culture manifested when you’re dealing with people that are in a distributed environment and not meeting face to face? How are you thinking about the benefits and how are you trying to better understand what it is that your workers need from a flexibility standpoint?

I think all of those things sort of go back to how do you engage your talent? And that’s the talent that you’re trying to recruit to bring into your organization and the talent that you have now that you’re trying to retain.

Gardner: Similar question for you, Tim. As companies are grappling with flexible work and talent shortage issues that are critical, what does Citrix’s research and its product development efforts tell you that they should be doing now tactically in order to be set up strategically for this cultural shift as we’ve termed it?

Minahan: The number one thing, if you look at it, is that 90 percent of employees plan to use a flexible work model this year. And 80 percent prefer to continue on in that fashion. Companies really need to think about their workforce strategies in different ways. They need to be open to flexible work arrangements to secure the top talent and the modern skills that they need, but also to retain their existing talent who are increasingly looking for new opportunities in this hot job market.

Secondly, they need to create an environment from a technology standpoint that is conducive to allowing employees to do their best work. Before, if everyone was coming into the office, your technology investment was pretty systematic. Now, you have to look at what it is going to take to empower an employee to work from their own device while protecting corporate resources, while ensuring that they have the collaboration, communication, and productivity tools that they need to foster more efficient work execution and collaboration across this distributed environment.

Those are the types of things folks need to think about. But they need to be coupled with a change in policy and culture. One that is forward thinking about, “Okay, if I have a new workforce strategy that is a balance between FTEs and contractors to make sure we have the right skills on the right project and people who are managing things in much greater pools of talent. What are the policies that we need to put in place to make that most effective?

If I know my employees and assume that we’re always going to be in a work environment where we’ve got to have in-person and distributed folks participating in the same meeting, what am I doing to foster an environment that makes it a meaningful experience for everyone involved, not just those who are sitting in the room? And then finally, what am I doing culturally to ensure that development opportunities and career advancement opportunities are not hindered by the choice of where an employee works?

There’s a major reset that companies need to think through. In order to be competitive, to be able to secure the top talent, tame the top talent, and drive and modernize your business with this talent, you need to adjust on those three vectors.

Gardner: Tim, I really respect the amount of research that you’re doing there at Citrix. You’re being empirical and not just using gut instinct on this and that’s great. And you’re also sharing this research, so where can people go to learn more? Where can I find some of the resources that Citrix is providing?

Minahan: I appreciate the feedback, Dana. You can go to Fieldwork by Citrix where we incorporate and make our research available. We also have our own kind of remote-work podcast there. Go to to check it out.

Gardner: Andrew, where can people learn more about Ardent Partners, their research, and the future of work exchange?

Bartolini: Go to, that’s our site that’s got all of our current research and innovative ideas and tools. Tim even has a few articles up on the site there, too, which we appreciate.

Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes. Read a full transcript or download a copy. Sponsor: Citrix.

You may also be interested in: