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Despite the turbulence of recent months, engineering and design firm Mead & Hunt said its remote work technology -- centering around Workspot virtual desktops -- has enabled its employees to work even more productively than before.
CIO Andy Knauf said the firm, which works on projects in such fields as transportation, aviation, energy and telecommunications, has been a Workspot virtual desktops customer for more than two years. Having a virtual desktop infrastructure became a necessity to enable remote work, and, ultimately, provided a relatively seamless transition when the pandemic first struck. Not only that, he said, company data and surveys have shown an increase in productivity in the months since working from home was mandated.
Knauf recently spoke about the experience of dealing with remote work at Mead & Hunt, a 120-year-old company in Middleton, Wis., with more than 30 offices across the country and more than 900 people.
What made you first consider cloud-based virtual desktops?
Andy Knauf: We really were looking for a solution that would work well for people in small offices and working from home. We'd really been searching for a product for a long time. About seven years ago, we moved all our data to the cloud.
The problem was, when we had a smaller office, or had people work from home … people would have to [use Remote Desktop Protocol to access] a workstation, or we had an older [on-premises] VDI solution that was slower. People said they would lose between 15% to 20% production working off the internal VDI servers [with heavy computing demands on the slower system].
I was testing out a competitor to Workspot. When we found Workspot, we had a [pilot] group of people to take a look at both solutions. We gave it to 10 people, and it went head-to-head with the other product. All 10 people came back and said, 'Workspot is what we want.'
We stood up our first office with it more than two and half years ago. We've been adding ever since.
How did the pandemic change your situation?
Knauf: Before the pandemic, we had Workspot in 20 offices, and for a handful of people at home. When COVID-19 really hit, we went from 60 to 250 instances of Workspot.
We did not have a falloff at all in production. In fact, we had an increase in production. This year is predicted, right now, to be the best year in the history of the company, as far as productivity and revenue.
It really was business as usual. We just got done with a survey of all 900 of our employees, and 33% of them said they were more productive with the tools -- and that includes Workspot; 66% said they were as productive. [About] 0.2% said they weren't as effective working from home. That's pretty much a win.
Has this sentiment been reflected in productivity data?
Knauf: The first person to come back to me [about this] was in our transportation [division], which is almost a third of our business. We were trending at about 78% [of billable time per hours worked] for the year in terms of productivity. Two weeks after COVID-19, we were up to 80%. I think we've hit almost 86% since then.
Every business unit has seen more productivity from people, except for two -- which were at the same level.
How do you explain this increase?
Knauf: We know people, instead of just working the eight hours they traditionally do in in the office, are working a little bit longer.
I had an hour and a half commute -- 45 minutes one way, 45 minutes back. I'm still [spending] about the same amount of time [working] I did in the office, but now I have an extra hour and a half [to] work that I didn't before.
What have been some of the challenges in enabling remote work?
Knauf: Part of what we saw was that people didn't have routers that were that new. That was the biggest problem -- making sure people's internet equipment was up to date. We issued recommendations on buying routers. When people had problems, [we suggested] they plug [their devices] directly into their routers instead of using Wi-Fi. That cured 90-something percent of the problem -- people plugging into routers directly or buying updated routers.
With Workspot, you don't even necessarily need a company computer. You can use whatever. You can use a personal computer and still be effective.
What sort of computing needs does your firm have?
Knauf: What we do in the engineering world is probably some of the more [compute] intense things you could do. I think, if you can solve [virtualization] for engineering, you can pretty much solve it for anything else that's out there.
That's always been a struggle -- there hasn't been a great tool for what we do. With sales or marketing or things like that, you can get by with a lesser tool. Workspot really gives you the same experience you would have off a high-powered workstation or laptop in your office.
The real big benefit of it is, when people are going home, you don't necessarily need that big bandwidth. People had 5 [megabits per second] connections and 10 [megabits per second] connections, and they could hardly do anything from home. They were extremely worried about, 'Am I going to get laid off if I can't be as productive?' They were really nervous.
When they got home, they were able to do things at the same level. A lot of those fears about getting laid off and not being as productive melted away.
For our culture and for our peace of mind, people really embraced that. It really was the status quo.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.