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How can you engage your workforce? Set them free

Freelancing and the future of work took center stage at a recent Fast Company panel

How can you engage your workforce? Set them free

If you’re reading this from a coffee shop halfway around the world from your office, you can thank globalism. Working remotely came into being when employees in, say, Cincinnati needed a way to confer with colleagues in Tokyo or Buenos Aires. As the practice has evolved and become commonplace, the tools and techniques of a remote workforce have inspired big changes in how employees interact, even when they sit only a desk away.


With nearly everyone involved in remote work to some degree—even if it only involves checking email on a smartphone—the question driving a Fast Company panel discussion during a tech and innovation conference in Austin, Texas, last month was, “How can tech help keep a disparate workforce productive?” The panel, sponsored by Citrix, which designs digital workspace technology, also explored the meaning of productivity itself and the need to make sure that the “producers” include everybody in the organization.

In the old days, a pep talk from the boss could spark productivity. However, according to Citrix Executive Vice President and Chief People Officer Donna Kimmel, employers today have one key task in the digital age: eliminate frustration.

“Think about how many times we’re flooded by emails or go to different apps [to receive] notifications,” Kimmel told the panel audience. “We probably spend a quarter of our time hunting for information. We need to figure out how to get rid of those frustrations to enable us to be more productive and innovative.”

Soon, Citrix employees will arrive at their personalized workspaces, open their computers, and find on one screen only the apps they need—the correct folders, systems, and data feeds. Machine learning and artificial intelligence will allow the computer to get to know what each employee needs and when.


Martin Wezowski, chief designer of SAP, a Berlin-based company whose software underpins most of the world’s digital transactions, from Uber to iTunes, welcomes that kind of innovation to change the very definition of productivity. “We’re doing useless stuff—sometimesat least,” he said. “Let’s be honest. That’s the part of your day that you hate. The parts you love are when you are creative, stimulated, when you discover stuff you never thought of, or when you just went beyond your own decision bias. This is the high-value work.”

A better workplace would not just measure your usefulness in hours at your desk or the number of spreadsheets generated. It would spark innovation. “Why are we here, South by Southwest?” Wezowski asked the crowd. “It’s not only the day drinking—which is a great idea by the way,” he joked. “It’s inspiration. But isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t that be the firstthing we get every day? Inspiration. Enchantment. Excitement. That is not provided to us because we are busy with Excel spreadsheets.”


Inspiring productivity is not just a task to take on individual by individual, but by looking at the larger societal body, says Sara Sutton, founder and CEO of FlexJobs, a 12-year-old company that helps people find freelance jobs they can perform remotely. The flexibility that remote work affords employed parents has been long cited, but it also allows people with health issues or other caretaking roles to join the workforce. Increasingly, remote systems allow jobs to go where they are scarce. Sutton described how FlexJobs has initiated training in freelance employment to bring jobs to eastern Kentucky, which has been hit hard by the decline in coal mining.

Sutton points out that employers, too, benefit from a deeper hiring pool. “If you’re looking to hire talent, you can look not just locally, but for the best talent available anywhere,” she said.

Through such efforts, Sutton maintains, society can also preserve positive cultural customs, even in the rush to urbanization. “Do people want to live in cities or do they go only because that’s where the jobs are? In countries like India, Japan, or China, people leave their small towns and go to cities to work,” she said. “But when their parents age, they have a cultural responsibility to go home and take care of them. That puts them in a cycle of poverty because, without their jobs, they can’t support their parents.” The ability to work remotely could provide a steady income stream regardless of where they live.


Of course, not everyone relishes the isolation of working remotely, but Sutton feels that, based on her company’s annual surveys, loneliness is overplayed. “Introverts particularly love remote working,” she said. “And different stages of life change people’s view. When I was out of college, I loved going to work to socialize. But now I’m a mom, I’m busy. I have a ton of friends. I have a lot of things I want to do. I’m thrilled not to have that pressure to socialize.”

Sutton notes that the definition of relationshipsis also changing. “My company is entirely remote,” she said. “We have a little over a hundred people on our team and in many cases, I work with people who I haven’t met—one for eight years, who I count as an incredible friend and colleague.”

Sutton added that social interactions in the office might be over-romanticized since depression can be triggered in the workplace. She cited a statistic that 80% of mental illnesses surface at work. “I’m not saying that they start here,” she said, “but the mental illness might be latent, and it’s triggered by commuting or a bullying boss or a catty colleague. Going to an office doesn’t solve loneliness. That’s a much bigger societal issue.”


Kimmel agreed with both comments, but pointed out that having physical workspaces available to remote workers gives them a place they can come to connect to their colleagues and get face-to-face interaction when needed. She believes giving employees an opportunity for balance in all areas helps them to stay on track and feel inspired through the ebbs and flows of business.

Kimmel balances strategy and empathy in her executive leadership role and considers societal issues as an integral part of corporate programs. She said people can’t be productive if they are worrying about their children or immigration status. Almost two years ago, Citrix introduced an 18-week parental leave policy for all employees regardless of gender, and when the immigration ban went into effect she ensured the company assisted employees who were stranded outside the country.

The takeaway? In order to keep their employees engaged, employers just might need to rethink the employee experience: from personalization to greater flexibility and support to tools that fuel creativity—even if they’re sitting 5,000 miles away.

This article was created for and commissioned by Citrix.


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