Wednesday, December 1, 2021

How Houwzer speeds growth and innovation for online real estate by gaining insights into API use and behavior

omplexity and security challenges can hobble the growth of financial transactions for private-data-laden, consumer-facing software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications. Add to that the need to deliver user experiences that are simple, intuitive, and personalized -- and you have a thorny thicket of software development challenges.

So how did streamlined and cost-efficient home-brokerage-enabler Houwzer construct a resilient application programming interface (API)-based platform as the heart of its services integration engine for buying and selling real estate online?

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

To gain the inside story of how Houwzer makes the most of APIs and protects its user data while preventing vulnerabilities, BriefingsDirect sat down with Greg Phillips, Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at Houwzer. The discussion is moderated by Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions.

Here are some excerpts:

Gardner: Greg, what does Houwzer do, and why is an API-intensive architecture core to your platform?

Phillips: We are more than just a real estate brokerage. We’re also a mortgage brokerage and a title agency. The secret sauce for that is our technology platform, which binds those services together and creates a seamless, end-to-end experience for our consumers, whether they are buying or selling a home.

Those services are typically fragmented among different companies, which can lead to an often-chaotic transaction. We streamline all of that into a much smoother experience with our salaried agents and a consistent technology platform across the whole transaction. We are rethinking how real estate transactions are done by making it a better experience across the board, inclusive of all those services.

Early on, we decided to build, essentially, a protocol for conducting real estate transactions. There are laws and regulations for how to conduct such transactions in different jurisdictions. Instead of having an unmanageable variety of local rules and regulations -- in one area they’re doing it one way, and in another area doing it another way – we looked for the common elements for doing real estate transactions, mortgages, and for titles.

We’ve built into our system these common elements around real estate transactions. From there, we can localize to the local jurisdictions to provide the end services. But we still have a consistent experience across the country in terms of offering services.

That’s why we began with an API-first architecture. We focused on the protocols and building-blocks of the platform that we offered to our agents, coordinators, and mortgage advisers for their services. Then we layered on the front end, which has a lot more localization and other services. So, we very intentionally thought about it as a protocol for conducting real estate transactions, rather than building an app to manage just specific types of real estate transactions in specific jurisdictions.

Gardner: When say API-first, what do you mean? Was that how you constructed your internal platform? How you deliver the services? Was it also for the third-party and internal integration points? All of the above?

Real estate transactions gain flexibility

Phillips: All of the above, yes. We wanted to build an API core that was flexible enough to support lots of variants within different types of real estate transactions. We’re already in seven states. And we’re still pretty early in our journey. We’re going to be adding more states and jurisdictions.

We wanted to build an API core that was flexible enough to support lots of variants within different types of real estate transactions. ... We put a lot of thought into our data model and our API platform.

So, we knew from the get-go that was our direction. We put a lot of thought into our data model and our API platform, such that we wouldn’t have to rewrite or break up the APIs every time we entered a new jurisdiction. We wanted a flexible underlying API that we could use to offer a finished product, even though it might look a bit different in Maryland than it does in Pennsylvania, for example.

Gardner: It’s evident that such flexibility, speed of development, and reuse of services are some of the good things about APIs. But are there any downsides? What can detract from that versatility when going API-first?

Phillips: One of the downsides of APIs is once you put it out there into the world, you are supporting that API, for better or worse. Things get built against it. And if you want to change or rethink what you do with that API, you have downstream dependencies reliant on that API.

It’s not like you’re a single code base, where if you want to refactor, you can use your idea to go discover all the things that might break if you change things. With the API model, it’s harder to know exactly who’s out there using it, or what might break if you change the API.

Learn More 

That means there’s a semi-permanence to an API. That’s somewhat unique in the software development realm where things typically move with a lot of flux. We have libraries that are updating all the time, especially in the JavaScript ecosystem. Things are going a mile a minute.

When you deliver an open API, you have to be more thoughtful about what you put out there ahead of time, because it is harder to change, harder to version, and harder to migrate. It’s by definition something you’ve chosen to set in stone, at least for some period of time, so people can build against it.

Our API interacts with third parties. The vast majority of the usage of our API is for our internal front-end application. It’s not like we have tons of different stakeholders on the API. But we need to factor for those third parties and partners. 

Obviously, then, security is another huge undertaking when you put an API out there. This is not an API that is just sitting behind a firewall. This is an API on the Internet for conducting real estate transactions, which are highly sensitive transactions. So, obviously, security is a huge concern when building an API.

Gardner: With so many different parties involved in real estate transactions, to get people to rely on Houwzer as a hub, there needs to be an element of trust. Not just trust about performance, but trust that the activity is going to be safe, and privacy is assured.

What did you do to bring that level of resiliency to your API? How did you troubleshoot your own API to make sure that others would view it favorably?

Keep data safe from start to finish

Phillips: From the very beginning, we’ve been really concerned with security. Even before we had any transactions running through the system -- and we were just in the design phases of the API -- we knew we’re in an industry that’s constantly under attack.

The most common and dangerous thing that happens in the real estate brokerage industry is when some non-public information about a transaction is somehow leaked. There are a lot of criminals out there who can use that information to attempt to exploit our customers. For example, if they find out information about when a closing is supposed to be in the name of the title company, they could pose as an agent of that title company and say, “Hey, for your upcoming closing, the wiring instructions have changed. You actually need to wire ‘here’ instead of ‘there’.”

There are a lot of criminals out there who can use that information to attempt to exploit our customers. It's been a huge problem in the industry. We need to make sure that the information stays private.

We’ve seen brokerages across the country fall victim to that consistently over the past five to 10 years, if not longer. It’s been a huge problem in the industry. So, while an API enables a great user experience by having very streamlined transactions, we need to make sure that the information stays private to only our clients, agents, and coordinators -- and not leak any of that data to the public through the API. That’s been paramount for us.

As far as performance goes, we’ve been fortunate that our business has relatively few high-value transactions. We haven’t had to achieve super-scale yet with our APIs. Our security concerns are a 10, but our scalability concerns, fortunately, are at a two. So far, it’s not open to the masses. It’s more of a premium service for a smaller audience than a free service on the Internet.

Gardner: Given the need for that high level of security, you can’t depend on just the perimeter security tools. You need to look at different ways of anticipating vulnerabilities to head them off.

Phillips: Yes. You must be aware of what you’re putting out into the world. You must assume the worst about who is going to interact with your API, and make sure there is no way for an unauthorized person to gain access to information they’re not privy to.

Since the beginning of building this platform, that kept me up at night. One of the things that ultimately led me to Traceable AI was that I wanted to effectively gain more confidence about how my APIs were being used out in the world. You try to anticipate as much as you can when you’re building it.

You reason: “Okay, who’s going to be calling on this? We don’t want to expose any additional information here. We want to have just the information needed, with no additional information that might leak out. We want really strong access controls on each API request, such as what parameters will be accepted, what will be updated, and what will show in each scenario based on all the different users’ rules.”

Obviously, that’s a lot to keep track of. And you always worry there is some misalignment or misconfiguration that you’re missing somewhere. You want to be able to monitor how the API is getting used -- and, essentially, have an artificial intelligence (AI) capability look for that type of thing in addition to your ability to query for it.

That has been very attractive for us. It’s given us a lot of confidence that, in practice, we are not leaking data. It’s an additional level of validation. Instead of enforcing a perimeter and not letting anybody in, we’re very careful about what we put out there beyond the perimeter. And not only are we careful about what we put out there beyond the perimeter, we’re also monitoring it very closely, which I think is key.

Monitor who’s doing what, where, and when

Gardner: Such monitoring gives you the opportunity to create a baseline of behaviors, so that even for unintended consequences of how people use your API, you have a data record. And you’re doing it at scale because there’s a lot of data involved that humans couldn’t keep up with. Instead, you have machine learning (ML) and AI technologies to bring to bear on that.

What have you learned from that capability to observe and trace to such a high degree?

Phillips: We have discovered a few vulnerabilities that we weren’t aware of. So, there were areas where we were exposing, or potentially exposing, more information than we meant to through a given API endpoint. That was identified and fixed.

Learn More 

We’ve also seen some areas where people have tried to attack us. Even though we don’t have the vulnerability, we’ve seen malicious actors hitting our API, attempting to do a sequel injection, for example, or attempting to read a file on the file system, or to run a command down the system. You can actually see that stuff and observe how they’re doing it without having to parse through raw API requests, which aren’t humanly readable. Those are the first order of insights we’ve gained.

The second order of things we’ve seen are also very interesting. We can look at the API requests segmented by our users and our user roles. That means learning what API requests our clients, agents, and coordinators tend to make. We can now examine how these different stakeholders interact with the API. It has been really interesting to see from a planning perspective.

We can look at the API requests segmented by our users and our user roles. We can now examine how these different stakeholders interact with the API. The API is a living, breathing thing that you can look at and observe.

Even outside of security, it’s been fascinating to see how the system gets used, and the kinds of natural rhythms that occur, such as when is it used during the day. What are these types of things happening versus these other types of things happening?

It’s interesting to see that which would be very hard in the non-human-readable API requests. When you aggregate it and display it in an information display, you can see that stuff. The API is a living, breathing thing that you can look at and observe as it’s out there in the world.

Gardner: Not only as it breathes and lives, but it’s easily updated. So how do you create a feedback loop from what you learn in your observability phase and bring that into the development iteration process?

As the CTO, are you the one that has to cross the chasm between what you can observe in operations and what you can subsequently ameliorate in development?

Security now part of every job

Phillips: Generally, yes. I view that as a key part of my role. Our software engineers are in there looking at it as well, but I hold myself accountable for that function. Also, I try to recruit generalist software engineers who can take security into account, just like with user experience, when they’re building things. 

I find it very hard to build a cohesive and secure product if you are just throwing requirements over the fence to the software engineers from different departments, saying, “Build this.” I think you lose something.

Rather, there has to be a complete understanding in one accountable individual’s mind to deliver the complete product. And that’s not to say those areas of the company shouldn’t have input on what gets built. But the engineers in my mind have to have a deeper understanding. I like to give them as much data as possible to understand what they’re putting out. Then they have that all in their minds when they’re writing the code.

Gardner: Have your developers been receptive to this observability of API behavior data, or do they say, “Well, that’s the security person’s job, not mine”?

Phillips: All of us on the team feel a responsibility for the security of our systems. I think everyone takes that really seriously. I don’t think anyone thinks that it’s “someone else’s” problem. We all know that we all have to watch out for it.

That being said, not everyone is a security expert. Some people may know more or less than others about information security. None of us are dedicated information security professionals. We rely on the inputs from the Traceable AI platform and from what we’re seeing happen to learn about the things that we should be worried about. What are the things that we don’t even know about yet?

It’s about having a culture of learning and having generalists who want to get better at building secure systems and to convey secure APIs. That is increasingly part of the job description for software engineers, to take that into account. That’s especially critical as we see higher value services, like our own, being offered directly on the Internet.

Things are so different now. Years ago, real estate and other financial transactions had some kind of application front end. Then some person would put it all into a mainframe that night and do the financial transactions. Then, the next morning, after it ran on the mainframe, the humans would look at it again. And then they would update your bank account.

Learn More 

Now there’s far more automation. Things happen live via APIs on the Internet. And that’s created much more reason for developers to truly understand the security implications of what they’re building. You simply can’t insert a failsafe as easily, as you start to eliminate process friction, which is what consumers want. There are less natural insertion points for a true dedicated security or dedicated fraud prevention review. You have to do these processes live and in an automated way. Security therefore has to be built into the thing itself.

Gardner: Of course, these transactions come with high urgency for people. This is their home, one of the biggest transactions of their lives. They’re not interested in a wishy-washy API.

How easy was using Traceable AI to bring automation for better security into your organization?

Data delivers better development

Phillips: What I like about the Traceable AI user experience is that you can engage with it at multiple levels. On the most basic level, you log in and it’s pushing out immediate alerts of threats. You can view what has happened since you last logged in, and you can review your bots. It surfaces the most important things right away, which is great.

But then you can also pursue questions about the APIs in production. For example, you can plot how the APIs are being used. They give you great tools to drill down so you can navigate to different ways of aggregating the API usage data and then visualize, as I mentioned before, those usage patterns.

What I like about the Traceable AI user experience is that you can engage with it at multiple levels. It surfaces the most important things right away, which is great. They also give you the tools to drill down so you can navigate to aggregating the API usage data.

You can look at performance as well as security. So even if you’re feeling good about the security, you can determine if latency doesn’t look great, for example. There are a lot of things in there to show where you can go really deep. I don’t think I’ve gotten to the bottom. There’s more to discover, and there’s tons of ways to slice, dice, and look at things. I tend to do that a lot because I’m a power user and like to figure things out. But at the same time, Traceable AI does a great job of using their intelligence to surface the most important things and the most critical security concerns and get those in front of you in the first place.

Gardner: It sounds like these data deliverables provide you an on-ramp to a more analytics-driven approach to not only development -- but for improving the processes around development, too.

Phillips: Yes. I would even extend that into the processes around our business operations, our real estate operations. We’re offering a product through our technology that is ultimately a real estate transaction engine. And we can actually see in the API things that we need to do to make the real-world solution better.

We have three critical stakeholders: the buyer client, the real estate agent, and the transaction coordinator, who makes sure everything goes smoothly. And, using these tools, we can see if the user or coordinator are trying to do something, meaning they’re getting errors. We can see if there is a point in the real estate transaction where we might not have everything included. Maybe the information that was expected to be there is incomplete, and so they are not able to get to the next step of the transaction.

So, you can actually uncover things that are not explicitly in the technology, like a process problem. We need this information ahead of that point in the process, and we don’t always have it. We want to then know what next to build into our protocols for the future.

Gardner: Greg, what are your suggestions for other folks grappling with the API Economy, as some people call it? Any words of wisdom now that you’ve been through an API development and refinement journey?

Take one real estate step at a time

Phillips: Start small and expand. Don’t try to put everything and the kitchen sink out there all at once. We currently represent people selling their home, buying a home, and getting a mortgage, people who need title insurance -- people doing all of those things together all at once.

However, the first transaction through our system was just people listing their homes. We said, “Let’s take on this specific process.” And even at the time that we launched, it was a much less detailed version of the process we have today. It’s really important to release something early that is complete but limited in scope. Scope creep -- of trying to pack in a lot at once -- is what causes security issues. It’s what causes performance issues. It causes usability issues. So, start simple and expand. It’s probably the best piece of advice I have.

Gardner: Assuming you are going to continue to crawl, walk, and run, what comes next for Houwzer? What does the future portend? What other transactions might this protocol approach lend itself to?

Phillips: We thought about all the things needed to consummate a real estate transaction. We have covered three of those. But we are missing one, which is homeowners’ insurance. We consider the core services to purchasing a home as brokerage, mortgage, title, and homeowners’ insurance. So that piece is in the works for us.

Learn More 

Outside of those core pieces, however, there are lots of things people need when they’re buying and selling homes. It could be resources to fix up their current home, resources to move in, guidance around where in the country they should move to as a remote worker. There’s lots of different services to build out to from the core.

We began at the core transactions, and now we can build our way out. That was a very intentional strategy. When you look at Zillow, Redfin, or some of the other real estate technology companies, they began with the portal and then tried to bolt on the services.

We’re trying to build the best technology-enabled real estate services, and then build from that core outward into more of those needed services. Some of the next things in our product road map, for example, are pre-transaction, helping our consumers make more educated decisions about the transactions they’re going to enter into. And we can do that because we have this bullet-proof, secure, battle-tested system for doing it all and great real estate agents that will help guide you through the process.

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

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Monday, November 1, 2021

Working the great resignation: How employers can transform to a mutual advantage

he so-called
great resignation has anywhere from half to two-thirds of U.S. workers looking for something other than their current situation. Whatever the percentage, there’s no question that workers across the board have and continue to quit in droves.

And whether the exit is due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the culmination of decades of various trends, or some combination, the bottom line is that employers need to give workers better reasons to remain.

Stay with
BriefingsDirect as we explore new research into why one of the tightest labor markets the world has ever seen means an end to business as usual. We’ll explore ways that the shifting expectations of employees may lead to a transformation of employment -- that can work to everyone’s advantage.

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

To learn more about the transition to a healthier and more sustainable environment for employee well-being and satisfaction, please welcome Amy Haworth, Senior Director of Employee Experience at Citrix, and Melissa Swift, U.S. and Canada Transformations Services Leader at Mercer. The discussion is moderated by Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions.

Here are some excerpts:

Gardner: Amy, the latest research Citrix sponsored into the future of work provides new insights into the great resignation. Are there some myths that people have been holding onto? Were you surprised by the survey results? 

Haworth: The question on everyone’s mind right now, especially our leaders, is what’s happening? Why are people leaving?


And so, Citrix undertook some recent research because we had a hypothesis that some of the exit is due to burnout and some might be due to freak-outs. We found that 35 percent of the respondents to our survey say burnout is the cause of them leaving a job, but only 6 percent said that they panicked and made an emotionally-driven decision.

I also found it interesting that 33 percent left a job just because they wanted to try something new. Some 13 percent saw it as a way to inject certainty into their future.

These data points help both human resources (HR) leaders, and leaders in general, figure out the root cause of the exodus. If we know, for example, that 33 percent just want to try something new then we might be able to do something with that inside of our organizations before they ever walk out the door.

A big hypothesis I hear among leaders inside and outside of our own organization is that there’s something around the salary bubble and this tight competitive labor market. The going rate for many roles is becoming higher and higher. But according to our research, that’s not what’s inspiring workers to seek new roles. Actually, 53 percent of those who had left their role took a pay cut. The drive for more money isn’t necessarily at the heart of why people are making these changes. And I think that’s also an important thing for organizations to be aware of.

Gardner: Because we’re over a year-and-a-half into COVID, this isn’t a knee-jerk reaction. And they’re not just looking to make a quick increase in their salary. This seems to be a strategic, long-term, thoughtful type of reaction. Is that your takeaway?

Workers want the most of their talents

Haworth: Definitely. One of the things that we have probably all experienced ourselves, as well as seen in our colleagues, is a lot of self-reflection. You know, what drives us to get up and make the most of our lives, of our talents, and of our time. What sort of experiences are we looking to have during our lifespan?

What's Behind the Global Worker Shortage

And How to Mitigate Damage to Your Business

We’re seeing this reflected in the labor market around the choices people are making. There’s a curiosity and a desire to explore and maybe take a little bit of risk. We found that 60 percent of the respondents joined start-ups and accepted equity in exchange for salary. That’s new and unprecedented.

Gardner: Melissa, from your perspective at Mercer, and through the research you have done, do you agree that the great resignation is not just a blip on the screen, but is more momentous?

Swift: Yes, absolutely. Interestingly, we did some surveying – what we call an inside the employees’ minds survey -- where we spoke to 2,000 people about their thinking about leaving their roles. What needs did they have that were not being met?

Normally from our benchmark data, about 28 percent of people say they are thinking about leaving their roles -- and that’s exactly, to the percentage point, what we observed in the latest data from our survey. Yet it feels like nearly everybody is moving, but in reality, it’s the same proportion of people who have always considering resigning.

The difference we’re seeing then is, do they then pull the trigger and quit? Is there more willingness to get up and move? That’s where the data Amy is citing – about the underlying motivations for moving – is really fascinating and resonates well with what we have seen in our research, too.

Gardner: Tell us about Mercer, and why these human capital issues are critical and essential for your business.

Swift: We are the consultancy that’s looking to change -- and make better -- the world of work. We have a deep heritage in analytically driven solutions and in understanding the dynamics of pay markets, job architecture, and employee experience.

From a data and analytics point of view, what’s exciting about the work Mercer is doing now is in taking that legacy of deep analysis and contextualizing it to the transformation challenges of today. We’re examining what we can do that’s fundamentally anchored in real evidence that’s going to genuinely change organizations.

Gardner: How should businesses transform themselves to take advantage of these changes? Amy, are workers essentially providing a new set of requirements about their workplace and habits? How should employers react?

Haworth: The power has shifted in a lot of ways. Employee voices are beginning to shape organizational environments. For me and in my career, over a couple of decades, I’ve never seen this before.

I look to the bright spots. For example, what keeps people where they are? And what the new data shows validates the hypothesis of how important flexibility is. Forty percent of the respondents to our survey said they are staying in their current role because they can work with flexibility.

I look to the bright spots. What keeps people where they are? And what the new data shows validates the hypothesis of how important flexibility is. Forty percent of the respondents said they are staying in their current role because they can work with flexibility.

Now, that can mean different things to different organizations -- whether that’s flexibility around time of day or place. But this ability to be empowered is an underlying theme. It just keeps bubbling up, this balance of empowerment and accountability. 

It goes along with trust and flexibility; to marry these concepts together into a new kind of exchange: We will give you trust and flexibility, you in return impact the outcomes and results. And so, even if the music has changed, we’re still dancing the dance of work. But the music has changed -- and it’s empowering employees to have an opportunity. I think of it as a sacred time period to shine and to show what’s possible in terms of rethinking older ways of thinking.

This is what work now looks like. This is how it’s now done. Cal Newport, in one of his books talks about retranslating the factory floor mentality from off the factory floor and into office spaces. But we’re rethinking that. We have such a great environment at this point in time to rethink all the assumptions.

Gardner: Seeing as we’ve been going steadily digital as a society for more than 25 years, there’s been a lot of experimentation already. The gig economy, for example, works out for some, but for others it has not been so great. No security, no benefits, no control over the hours, and so forth.

Are we simply expanding the gig economy mentality? Is that what trust and flexibility mean? Melissa, are we just going to more of a gig economy?

Swift: It’s an interesting question. There’s some skepticism about the gig economy. I would postulate that there are two gig economies out there. There’s one based on flexibility and worker empowerment. And then there’s the kind of accidental gig economy, where people are not being paid a living wage and forced to work multiple jobs.

When you say, gig economy, I picture both. And for the former one, I think you’re right. It is a model we’re going toward. We’re looking at work and decomposing it, then putting it back together by allowing talent to flow to work -- rather than the age-old construct of a job description written a decade ago that we try to force an individual into. I do think that trend is encouraging.

Gardner: Amy, we have been going through a transformation to more digital everything. But like the factory analogy, we have not necessarily caught up to it -- or even recognized it. And so, when we look at the way that corporations and consumers use digital services, it’s on a per-use-basis, or just-in-time.

But the way we hire people, it isn’t really like that. Has the COVID-19 experience given us an opportunity to pause and say, “Wow, we’re out of synch. We’re out of whack between the way services and the service economy now works, and the way people work.”

Work is not one size fits all

Haworth: I hear a very human-centered aspect to what you’re saying. It builds on Melissa’s point of talent flowing in a very different model, to where it’s going to where they can be most successful, and of having opportunities to use their strengths.

I often think about the role of technology in enabling that shift. One of the most exciting things about this Covid experiment is the innovation that’s come from it. The technology space finds and meets these real needs.

How do we create situations where there is still human connection? An interesting piece points to a new combination of technology, talent, and what people need to survive and thrive in both their work and personal lives.

But how do we create situations where there is still human connection? Are we matching the needs of people in new ways? An interesting piece about how this might unfold in the workforce points to a new combination of technology, talent, and what people need to survive and thrive in both their work and personal lives.

How those come together means rethinking what has been driving people to work in a gig format. There’s this unprecedented level of flexibility, but there is also a need to have benefits and to help with the human aspects of who we are. We still need to feel secure and comfortable, and to not suffer emotions like worrying and anxiety that linger in the background. We want to enable everyone to do their best work.

Gardner: Melissa, one of the buzz words of the past few years in business has been the customer experience. And digital everything has increasingly given people what they want and how they want it. As consumers, we have enjoyed that. But, as employees, we don’t necessarily see that same emphasis. That’s why we need to have people such as Amy and an emphasis on employee experience.

Is there a disjoint between what we’ve become used to as consumers, and what we would like to receive as workers?

Swift: Organizations have done brilliantly for consumers on customization and personalization. For example, Netflix is targeting you with exactly the shows you want to watch, et cetera. Whereas, at work, we still treat people as if they were a big block of cheddar cheese, right? We’re all one block of cheese. That’s not a great experience.

One of the interesting things that came out in our Mercer research was that, of the people thinking about resigning, certain groups were considering it much more seriously. For example, 35 percent of Black or African American workers and 40 percent of Asian workers were thinking about leaving, compared to only 26 percent of white employees.

Arm Your Company to Win the Global Battle

Data like that speaks to people having very different employee experiences at work. We need to be a lot more thoughtful, to say, “Okay, it’s not a big block of cheddar cheese. Not everybody has the same needs and the same experiences.” We must create equity of experience across groups, which is clearly not happening now. But then, on the other hand, we need to meet people where they are, and, to your point, that’s what a real consumer-like experience is, and people are not getting that at work. 

Gardner: We’re not just reacting to the COVID-19 pandemic, in my estimation. That might be a catalyst, but we are on the precipice of major demographic and social trends, too. We have baby boomers retiring, the re-evaluation of global supply chains, and things like peak oil, peak carbon, and more sensitivity to equality and inclusiveness.

Amy, are we at a point where so many things are changing that there is an inevitability of more worker empowerment? In hindsight, it seems as though this has been building for decades. Do you agree?

Haworth: I do agree, Dana, especially the piece about a building tsunami of the need to be adaptable as humans. I remember at the beginning of the pandemic thinking about human agility as a business continuity strategy.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the field of organizational transformation. Many years before 2020, I came to this realization that that change was no longer something we could manage. What was more valuable to invest in was building resilience in people and enabling them to pivot -- individually and personally.

That means knowing what resources they have available to them and of thinking about what else we need to do, to supplement them at an individual level; to enable them to construct their own toolbox to be agile. When we think about what’s to come, we hear a lot about complexity, that there will not be a day that is less complex than the day we’re in today. It’s just going to continue to get more complex and to move faster.

Technology is going to play a bigger and bigger role in our lives -- and in our work lives. The boundary between the two is permeable forever. It’s highly unlikely we’ll ever go back to a separate boundary between them. So, as we think about the idea of transformation, where we’re headed, and the path we’re on, this concept of peak work that you mentioned, is a period of adaptation.

What is it that we are going to invent and pioneer? Will we leave behind old modes of thinking and make sense of things that have simply expired? And what do we need to be putting in their place to make sense of how we live and work going forward?

Gardner: I suppose another conclusion we can make from what’s going on is that the stakes are quite high. If you’re an employer and you’re not recognizing this as a transformative time, that we’re not going to revert back to the 1950s Americana version of the world, then perhaps being proactive and embracing the transformation is not just a nice-to-have but is existential?

For organizations that don’t, they’re not going to get the employees that they want. They might not even get employees sufficient to do the work at hand. So, the transformation here seems to be absolutely essential. How do we encourage our organizations to be proactive rather than reactive to what’s going on?

Reframe work to fit the future profit

Swift: A big part of the journey is reframing what we’ve traditionally thought of as tradeoffs. The biggest one is, we can either treat our workers well or we can make lots of money. There are so many assumptions that are predicated off of that. And it’s a fundamentally wrong belief. It’s because we haven’t explored what a human-centric workplace might look like.

Coming back to Amy’s comment citing Cal Newport’s work, of the workplace as machine versus workplace as a human engine, we haven’t really tried that latter model. If we come at it from a point of view of where growth is going to come from, is it going to be by prioritizing our human workers and designing systems that use their best to do better -- rather than trying to force fit them into a machine?

We have to reframe our cultural myth-making. As we mythologize the past, we're going to want to keep returning to it rather than saying, "Here's the actual reality. Here's what was good. Here's what was bad." Let's figure out how we can pull on those good threads.

I think that’s the energizing concept. I also think there’s a need for an element of clarity on what the past actually looked like. It’s funny that you referred to 1950s Americana. The experience of the 1950s, for a lot of groups in America, was not so hot, right? If you were a woman, if you were a person of color, the 1950s were rough.

Part of what we have to do is reframe our cultural myth-making. As we mythologize the past, we’re going to want to keep returning to it rather than saying, “Here’s the actual reality. Here’s what was good. Here’s what was bad.” Let’s figure out how we can pull on those good threads more and crowd out the bad stuff, to be more realistic about what the journey looks like because that’s part of the issue. We’ve told ourselves a story about a glorious thing we must return to, and there’s some lack of truth at the heart of that story.

Gardner: Melissa, what you’re saying harkens back to the research that Citrix uncovered around more people wanting to go to startups. There’s something about a startup culture where “we’re all in this,” “we’re all benefiting,” and “we’re creating something new.” Perhaps, non-startups need to leave the past behind and behave more like startups, Amy?

Haworth: Yes. I think there’s so much to be learned from some of these responses around the startup draw: The chance to pioneer something, the chance to start with a blank slate. And one of the things I think is so interesting is the connection to impact that startups have.

Oftentimes, heritage companies have a lot more distance between what originally propelled them as a company and what their business is now, for example. Maybe the mission is diluted among many things. Startups, on the other hand, typically have a very central focus and it’s very easy to see that connection to what I get up and do every day by solving an impactful problem or creating an awesome experience.

And so, the lesson that any company can take is a closer connection to a meaning. That’s definitely been a resounding drum beat over the last 18 months, this need to connect to meaning and impact, which is a very human need -- needing to be seen, to know we’re making a difference. That move to the startup culture is potentially a symptom or outcome of that deeper need -- no matter if your company is 150 years or five days old.

That’s something I would encourage all organizations to pay attention to.

Gardner: I’ll play the devil’s advocate to my own observation. Just like there’s myths about the 1950s, there are myths about startups, too. Sometimes not everyone is a rock star. Not everyone is under age 35 and can work 90 hours a week. Not everyone is of a certain demographic slice. So, perhaps we should borrow some things from the startup culture, but maybe not everything.

Once again, we’re back to this recurring idea of hybrid when it comes to the future of work.

Swift: I love what Amy was saying about the role of purpose, because that’s something I’m writing a book on, about the future of work. And in my research, it’s interesting, you have folks in the 1800s who studied work. They talk very clearly about how having a purpose at work is one of the things that makes life meaningful.

This is an age-old idea that we’re coming back to and that the startup environment understands. We want to know, “This is the purpose of my work,” and, “This is the impact that my work has,” right? “Here’s how I play into the overall schema.”

It’s interesting that those same researchers in the 1800s also identified work-life balance as something that makes work, work -- and makes life work. It’s funny because we don’t think about those concepts dating back that far. And that’s where the startup world generally falls flat on its face.

To your point, there is some work-life balance that’s been created in the corporate arena, and some purpose-driven work and impact from the startup world. How do we marry those up together, and where do those two things best come together?

I think it’s fundamentally being unafraid to redesign work. That’s not just tweaking job descriptions. It’s not all these little things you do around the edges. It’s fundamentally taking a step back and saying, “Is this work being done properly on a micro-level, in this role, and also on a macro-level across this organization?” Let’s take a step back. Could we do the whole work of this company differently? That’s the energy that people are really hungering for today.

Gardner: Right. Might as well look to do everything differently, because we’re at a time when the technology has never been more capable and pervasive.

Amy, as we’re transforming the very concept of work, should we recognize that it’s intrinsically tied to technology? For those organizations that are still doing “digital transformation,” it seems you don’t even need the word “digital” anymore. It’s just transformation.

Tech transforms how work happens

Haworth: Every transformation does have to be digital. Most every worker must have that digital-first mindset these days because there’s such opportunity there.

As we seek equity and understanding of the different experiences people have, we can give thought to the role technology can play in building that equity and in making sure there’s equal access no matter where you’re doing your work. Work no longer must be a place. Work is something that we do that generates value and impact.

Technology can establish a shared digital workspace, where we can convene, connect, and provide a common, transparent environment. All teams can have consistent access to applications and information to efficiently collaborate on projects to get work done, wherever that might be.

Technology can establish a shared digital workspace, where we can convene, connect, and provide a common, transparent environment. All teams have consistent access to applications and information to efficiently collaborate.

These capabilities open up so many interesting opportunities for organizations to consider, even as they’re making decisions about redefining work and going beyond the edges of our current boundaries for work. They can be bold and ask big questions. A lot of what we thought was true has been shaken up. I hope it’s a call to all of us to take action and to question more regularly.

Ask, “Is that true? Does it have to be true? What if it’s not true?” And I think this will open up a lot of possibilities for the role that technology can play in redefining how work is done.

Gardner: Melissa, while all transformation these days might be digital, we can’t look to the IT department to do this, right? The IT department has a lot to offer, but the architecting and re-architecting of work strikes me as something that should be inclusive of so much more.

Who or what is in a position to look at the big picture and make the grand architectural adjustments that are clearly needed? How does this get managed? Who governs it?

Swift: It’s a wonderful question. For me, the ideal governance sits between three figures. To your point, the chief information officer (CIO) needs to be integrally involved. Then the chief human resources officer (CHRO), because so many of these decisions are about people and how they do their work. And the last person who needs to get roped in more, and who is not as involved in many organizations, is the chief financial officer (CFO).

That’s because so many of the decisions that short-circuit transformation have to do with short-term cost objectives. It becomes a failure to play the long game, and to take an investment approach. It requires challenging the ways of working long-term because there is always going to be that middle-distance, where they will say, “Well, we made a change and it’s not as efficient in the exact near term as it has been.” That’s where you get hesitancy sometimes from the finance function, understandably.

That’s why you need that three-headed governance of technology, the money, and the people to all come together. And then you need genuine oversight from chief executive officer (CEO) and at the board level. “How we do work” is a CEO- and board-level issue. It’s great that we see some of the issues around diversity, equity, and inclusion starting to migrate up to the CEO and board levels. We need more awareness around the working experience and for it to be owned at that elevation.

Gardner: People have been railing against short-term, Wall Street objectives and the corrosive impact that’s had on business forever. It strikes me that we are really talking about rethinking of more than just work here. Maybe hyper-capitalism isn’t sustainable for lots of reasons.

Amy, any thoughts about that? As long as Wall Street demands awesome quarterly reports, how can we expect companies to change in a long way, that allows them to transform?

Haworth: It sounds like a paradox, Dana, but I think the solution is the same. When we invest in the human element at work, when we put our talent first and center, business performance skyrockets.

Getting smart about putting talent at the center -- really designing for human beings, not gears in a machine -- is going to enable companies to make Wall Street happy. But it requires a mindset about it being an investment. It means the CFO understands there is a clear return on investment (ROI) for human-centered programs: investment in empathy building, learning, and upskilling. These have a dividend that will make Wall Street very happy.

Yet shifting what comes first and what comes later, that’s kind of chicken-and-egg. A big piece of it is being willing to try, being willing to experiment. When I think about what companies need to do, it’s like taking the position of a scientist or designer. You must be willing to have a hypothesis and test it. See if it proves out, and then make the decision to scale. Running lots of little experiments is going to help us all figure out what the future really needs to be to meet people where they are.

Gardner: Melissa, regardless of what’s happened in the past, this seems like an unprecedented opportunity to transform and create a new set of long-term priorities. It seems like it’s inevitable. Let’s examine the inevitability of transformation. What else can organizations do to overcome formally intransigent aspects of their culture?

Listen and meet workers’ needs

Swift: It’s interesting to think about how fundamental some of the unmet needs of workers are right now. In our data, workers rated things like physical health and mental health as in their top three unmet needs. That to me is really striking because, if you think about where those things are on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, they are pretty low in the pyramid.

That provides in some ways the business case for transformation because, right now, if we are not meeting our workers’ most basic needs, then everything else we might expect flows from there. And, again, we can’t just make the surface, incremental changes. We must go in and re-architect at the heart. Why? Because right now we can’t even hit the basics.

The psychological or emotional journey that organizations need to go on means taking a step back and saying, “You know, it’s not that we are doing pretty okay right now, and we need to do a little better. It’s fundamental. There are aspects about work here that are broken. But we have this incredible opportunity to fix it.”

That’s the really energizing thing about talking about transformation in the current moment.

Gardner: Amy, how does Citrix factor into this future of work and where can people go to learn more?

Haworth: We have on a lovely section just full of great research, thought leadership, and perspectives. It’s called Fieldwork. I recommend that your listeners and readers take some time to check out what’s there. We keep it updated with new research and new tools. Our goal is to help us all think about building the future of work together, challenge old assumptions, and provide useful tools to help us move forward.

Gardner: Melissa, how is Mercer helping in this transformation of work? Where can people learn more about it?

Hybrid Work Has Opened the Door

To a New Kind of 'Gig-with-Benefits' Model

Swift: We help companies with an interesting array of challenges right now. Everything from how to increase the many dimensions of flexible work -- not just the where, but the who, what, when, and why. That extends to full-scale work design assistance, as well as how to recreate certain roles to grapple with the effects of labor shortages by effectively creating a better version of that job by fundamentally redesigning the work itself. Again, not just tweaking the job description but everything in the ecosystem around it.

We’re answering such questions as, How do you create systems of incentives so people are incentivized to do the right thing in a transformation context? How do you better listen to your employees and understand their needs to keep up with them? We take a holistic approach. On, you can find a wealth of thought leadership and details on our solutions.

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

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