It’s the spring of 2020, and millions are newly-unemployed. The rest of the population is working from home if at all possible. I have worked from home, completely, since 2005. Sure, I occasionally travel for meetings and trade shows, but those are decidedly non-productive times. I honestly do not think I could ever effectively work in a classic office scenario ever again.
The area that I live in Colorado (Boulder County) has one of the highest home working rates in the country. For the many home based people around here the state-wide lock down order won’t truly affect our regular work experiences. Maybe coffee shop dwellers will have to sit at their kitchen table more. Maybe people will need to be out and walking around more than they used to. We use Skype, Slack, email and SMS a ton already, so the methods of communication will be used like normal –We just aren’t vastly affected by the state wide lock down.
However, there are many, many more that are new to this lifestyle. Will they be able to adjust? I originally thought that most anyone could adapt to this lifestyle. After all, what’s to argue with? I work when I feel the best, I can think about different mechanics and the ‘interconnectedness‘ of systems when it best suits me, and I can work late at night when I know that I wont be interrupted. For me, this is work nirvana. Ok, I do realize that not everyone get’s the flexibility that I do. Someone that works in a call center can work from home using a modern VOIP system, but they have to be available without distraction on a set schedule… but hey, they don’t even have to put pants on if they don’t want to. That’s a major plus!
About 20 minutes ago I was out on a walk through the greenway behind my house. I have been doing that a lot lately. The greenway runs along a ditch for about 3/4 of a mile, with pathways on both sides of the water. Of course, these days there are plenty of other people walking around, simply needing to see the daylight. Usually it’s a family walking the dog, a couple just slowly ambling about, or a jogger speeding by. I usually am listening to a book or podcast, with my camera in hand in case there is something interesting to be seen. I had just finished the book, and took out my earpieces when a couple of men walked by. One was complaining to the other that they haven’t been able to get any work done for the past week. The wife wouldn’t leave them alone, and the kids were constantly distracting.
Intuitively I knew that I am in a luckier situation as I have just one 10 year old at home (who self-entertains quite well). I didn’t think about it any more than that. About 10 minutes later two women were walking towards me, one speaking loudly. She was obviously irritated, and didn’t care who heard her on the edge of a rant. She said damn near the same things the first man spoke about. She can’t get anything done, get on a call, or be productive because her husband wanted her to keep the kids busy while he worked. Maybe the people I overheard were actually married to each other, but the age difference would have been suspiciously wide.
Overhearing both of these people within a few minutes of each other, with the same complaints, started making me wonder how long it would take someone that is a classic ‘office drone’ to adjust to this lifestyle. People like patterns. Many people like knowing that 5:30 PM means standing up and walking away. Those people aren’t used to having segments of their life overlap –our society traditionally enables the siloing of our activities.
The newly unemployed, of course, will start looking at other working opportunities. It doesn’t really matter if they want to be a remote call center operator, they will do it because they just have to. They are in a situation that they will adjust to as required to survive. This will make new life patterns for them, and they will adapt. But will the still-gainfully-employed adapt as easily? Let’s say someone is a project manager in a local engineering firm –can they figure out how to track work and deliverables without being near the people under them? Are they panicked enough to be willing to instantly adjust to an entirely new information flow and feedback model? What happens if they aren’t able to adapt?
Covid-19 is about to bring a world of change and exposure to the modern workplace. People able to adapt to a new workplace (or lack thereof) will be more valuable than ever. People that may have been excellent in a classic office scenario, but couldn’t cleanly adapt, will become relics. Once remote working mechanics have been tested and proven to work to a larger set of the employing companies and agencies, I think there is going to be a major change in how businesses see the value in having all of the work they need done in a specific locale. Some jobs will never change (e.g. manufacturing), but in the modern information based economy those jobs are fewer than ever.
This will be interesting to watch.