Yeah, I know, another blog post about how someone sits at home on a laptop because everyone is scared of other humans.
I was at home already. Surevine (my employer) is and always has been a Remote First company. There is no office, no building or door with our logo on it (which is frankly a shame, because the logo is awesome - we were doing green back when blue logos were still all the rage).
I’ve experienced a very different pandemic from most people I know. I didn’t work for a company that went through a “forced & rapid digital transformation”, scrabbling to enable a newly-remote workforce. Instead, 1 year ago, when lockdown began, we continued work unabated. According to our customers, we were perfectly positioned to do what competitors couldn’t - continue to deliver on our commitments. In fact, one of our largest interruptions to business was our clients’ ability to keep pace, to continue attending sprint ceremonies, and to keep the paperwork of business moving. At no point was Surevine the slowest moving part in any system.
Proud as we might be of accidentally having a wonderfully pandemic-resistant business, we’ve all suffered this last year. Instead of simply being able to “get on with the work”, we hit other obstacles.
First, it was bandwidth. As office workers all through Blighty headed to their homes for video calls, one of the real unsung heroes of the pandemic, British ISPs, were inundated with some seriously atypical usage patterns from residential broadband. For a few days, some of us really struggled to get work done as contention on lines was heavy. Within a few short days this abated, and ISPs neither complained nor sought praise for the truly significant work they’ve done to ensure almost every subscriber to residential broadband can suddenly consume much more bandwidth at home for video calls and remote office access during the working week. I quickly realised that my neighbours weren’t my real problem when it came to bandwidth. I’ve got a wife and three kids, all at home during a time they used to be out. The little ones are enjoying Disney+, the teenager is on video calls with his class, and not only is my wife working from home, but even when she isn’t, she likes a little Netflix noise on in the background. Second hat-tip to the ISPs. Working out how to upgrade broadband lines (in my case, getting FTTP installed) in a COVID-safe manner in short order to keep the country productive was impressively slick. One appointment later (and one sizeable bump to my monthly bill) and I was back as productive as I ever was.
Then, it was home schooling. With the schools closed to prevent our darling super-spreaders from doing maximum damage, we got conscripted as stand-in teachers. Now, I’m definitely not complaining. This was yet again easier for me than I know it was for others. First, I had some experience and some confidence. I’ve actively studied some pedagogical techniques for running local meet-ups, internal training sessions (if there’s not a blog post about Techcellence, there should be) and producing training videos, and I’ve been talking nerdy and sharing my experience for a couple of decades. This was, of course, all completely useless since all of my experience was in training adults who want to learn, not teaching children who would rather be playing Minecraft. Second, I had Surevine. Like a lot of employers out there, Surevine began with “Family first, work second”. Surevine had already run fully flexible working hours for years, but were pushing harder this time to ensure everyone knew that they could and should use that flexibility to ensure that their home life was sustainable and productive and happy. On top of that, I had a wife to share the burden with, not to mention the support of schools who were well aware that as parents, we absolutely couldn’t have the training and skills needed to succeed alone.
On top of that, we had the practical and emotional issues that everyone else suffered.
Our usual shops are closed for business, our more vulnerable loved ones are at risk, our hobbies are interrupted, my hair has never been this long, our kids aren’t getting a normal childhood, and maybe we might never leave the house again, and maybe I’ll be stuck here trying to get this kid to understand the finer points of this Martin Luther King homework forever! Everyone went through low times, either this escalating panic, or feeling morose or despondent with what’s to come. Nobody expected in March that it’d last til summer, let alone through autumn, past Christmas and into the following spring.
But wait! There’s hope!
We’ve been given a roadmap back to normal. Whilst it’s not short, and it’s not easy, it’s been something great to hang our hopes onto. We’ve still got three months to go (four if you count to the end of the intended vaccination programme) and as I write this, I see in the news that the government is bracing for a “third wave” of infections caused by new variants presently rife in continental Europe. Even if it’s close to correct, we’re a good 75% of the way through this pandemic. What might expect life to be at the other end, after the initial rush for haircuts?
I hear from lots of friends in the IT industry that their employer is either never reopening the office, or keeping the “fully remote” option available. That’s great news for humans (see my previous blog post: https://fishbowler.net/posts/remote-working-and-my-family/), great news for the environment (see https://www.virtualvocations.com/blog/telecommuting-survival/8-environmental-benefits-of-remote-work/ - counter arguments do exist) although could spell additional economic difficulties for the high street. A sandwich shop in a city centre likely makes a reasonable proportion of its income from nearby office workers.
I’ve also been considering the impact on working where some of the team is remote. This is something we have experience of at Surevine, since not only do we collaborate on a daily basis using remote working tools, we did plenty of physical co-working too (back in un-unprecedented times) be it caused by security restrictions, a need for jumbo-sized whiteboarding, or simply because we fancy it. Those sessions inevitable combined into hybrid coworking, where a meeting would have 2+ people together with 1 or more participants remote. That sort of collaboration is easy when you treat the session with a simple rule - “If one person is remote, everyone is remote” (which, whilst it sounds cool and maximum business, is just good common sense, since from the point-of-view of any remote participant every other participant is remote). The rule simply means not favouring the local participants. Don’t look to the people in the room first for comment and include the remote people as an afterthought. Don’t have a side mutter - you wouldn’t be able to do that in a video-only meeting. But that’s Surevine - even if there were nothing on Google, we’ve had over a decade to get good at this. How will companies approaching this problem fresh tackle it? There are plenty of great teams with leadership that trusts them to find their own way. There’s also a great deal of advice out there on the net. Despite those both being true, I predict a great amount of money will be made in consultancy on the topic!
The real challenges facing us in the post-pandemic world won’t be the technological. We have the tools to work anywhere, just give me a laptop and some mobile signal. The problems come in the digitisation of the analogue workplace. Not every occupation is the boon of cloud services and connected tooling that software engineering treats as commonplace. What of the HR function? Would everyone be happy to discuss their problem with their coworker over the internet? Or sign their employment contract via a web browser? For that matter, will a legal team be tooled up for signing contracts with a business partner? What about an accounts department? Sure there’s a largely digital payroll nowadays, and some organisations default to emailing a payslip, but what about accounts payable? Can you rely on always being able to pay for an invoice online? Can you even receive the invoice?
Perhaps the real money to be made in the coming years is the SaaS that powers the remote workforce. Beyond that, it’s not just the consultancy on how people chat - this pandemic truly will bring about an entire digital transformation of the workplace, and organisations are going to need advice and help on how to adapt their tooling, their skills, their ways of working, and their core perceptions on how business works in the new world. Colour me smug that I’m already there.