Crisis Remote Working: What Will be the Long-Term Effects?

A lot of people…office workers, students…are going to be getting their first experience of remote working, and a lot of organizations are going to be getting either their first experience or a greatly expanded experience in managing this kind of work.  What will be the long-term effects of this?…will people eagerly return to their brick-and-mortar working environment as soon as it is safely possible?

Certainly, there are a lot of workers who would welcome the opportunity to avoid their daily commutes.  And there are a lot of employers who would be happy to save a lot of money on office space.

And there are surely some parents who would welcome the opportunity to keep their kids at home…there are also more than a few who have arranged their lives and their work schedules around the assumption that their kids will be in school for several hours every weekday.

Many of the remote working experiences are surely going to be suboptimal, however, given that there has been little if any leadtime to prepare systems, content, and procedures.

So what do you think?..a return to things the way they were, or permanent change?

25 thoughts on “Crisis Remote Working: What Will be the Long-Term Effects?”

  1. There was a time when “working” meant going down the mine or heading over to the mill to produce something. Rosie the Riviter had to get onto the production line to do her job. But then we offshored too much of that productive work to China.

    Barbers, masseuses, chefs, delivery drivers and many other service industry types need to have proximity to their customers — difficult to do that kind of work from home.

    The people who can work from home are — probably most of the people who work for government, or in the head offices of big bureaucratic corporations. They can work from home — and if they achieve even less than usual, that will be a positive.

    It would be great if what we learn from this Chinese-initiated/media-promoted panic is that we need to return to a world which has more Rosie the Riviters and fewer university-credentialed grievance counsellors.

  2. I think you are going to get a mix. Some industries will see that indeed their work can be done from anywhere. Some companies will find out quickly that personal interaction is needed. There will be some change, of that there is no doubt.

  3. There are also considerable differences *within* industries and also within individual companies as to what kinds of work makes sense to be done remotely: important not to have a one-size-fits-all policy, as the CEOs of both Yahoo and IBM tried to force a few years ago.

  4. A mix. Different kinds of work go best in different environments. Different kinds of people work best in different environments.

    One very positive scenario for many small-business people might be a tech-enabled move to a home/family setting as was typical for businesses in America before the Industrial Revolution. This is the scenario sketched by Mike Lotus and Jim Bennett in America 3.0.

  5. We are all going to die.

    Cabin fever and social withdrawal kill.

    You cannot live forever unless you never stay in one location more than fifteen minutes, and never drop out of communication with your thousand closest friends.

    In all seriousness, I spent a number of years a little too isolated and shut in. I had been doing better, if a little on the isolated side. So the isolation on my end might result in getting a little buggier than usual.

    I suspect the decision in my organization could have involved overlooking the technical side. I’ve been frustrated with the commuting, but had already been spending enough time working at home to be sick of people at times.

  6. Big boon for small towns. The experiencd of distance learning, and remote work, will show that in many cases they are “good enough” to substitute for having to relocate physically. And there will likely be a few cities that have crises with their health care systems and/or food distribution networks that will scare people away.
    But it’s still too early to say. If anything like Italy happens anywhere here, all bets are off and it’s hard to even speculate about what will happen. If we’re like South Korea in general, then realistically almost nothing will.

  7. If anyone is looking for a conferencing system to help enable remote working, I’ve had some recent experience with a group using Zoom….the product is excellent, and much more pleasant to use than some of the other conferencing systems I’ve seen.

  8. The conference circuit is probably changed forever. After a season with no conferences, businesses will probably realize that in general they are boondoggles that benefit no one but the cities that host them (yes, there are industries where trade shows will still be considered worth it, but they’ll be ones where people can actually make a business case for them). And those cities that have brand new massive convention centers are going to have massive white elephants that they don’t know what to do with and that will never pay for themselves.

  9. Time will tell. I don’t think that there will be a big change, people are social, and will remain so.

    My job has elements that could, with adequate preparation, be done remotely but they are not enough to keep me out of the office for more than a day or so a week. The hands on time is essential even if the face to face isn’t always.

    Those where I work that either work remotely or are located at some distance, including my boss, I generally only interact with when they are physically present unless they have something specific that they request via email.

    Conferences and trade shows still serve a function. They allow you to see and meet a large number of ideas and people in a short length of time. I don’t attend many and just turned down one that I might have been inclined to attend otherwise. They’re certainly more enjoyable than plowing through an equivalent pile of product announcements and brochures. They can also be a complete waste of time. I know a lot of the business we do is a direct result of others attendance at different conferences.

  10. My daughter in law has run a very successful marketing business from home for 20 years. Her kids are now in high school. The changes will not affect her with one exception,. The company she works for is having a cash flow problem. I think they put on conferences and meetings. They have told her they might not be able to make payroll next time.

    Her husband, my son, is a fireman and she worries about him as he is also a paramedic but at least his income will not be affected. However she makes a lot more than he does. We’ll see how this turns out.

    I do think colleges should be online with the exception of majors that require labs. Maybe this will start something.

  11. Murder, domestic violence, and divorce rates are about to go up. There are a lot of families that are only functional so long as they can get and maintain a certain amount of distance from one another, and enforced close-quarters living is going to prevent that.

    Should be interesting. If we go to a Chinese-style lockdown in large areas, count on people doing a mini-baby boom, and for there to be divorce-related advertising going up…

  12. Here’s an article on the South Korean response:

    If it’s actually true, it offers an alternative to what probably won’t work here. First, you’d need a good test that could be widely used.

    You can’t lock down a country with 320 million people. Not when tomorrow’s breakfast is on today’s truck and your hamburger for next Wednesday is still a cow. You can shut down the government for a few weeks and never tell the difference, the real world is different.

    We all depend for day to day survival on a web of interconnected services and have for much more than 100 years.

    A great deal of the outcome will depend on whether the people that shouldn’t be out and about trust that they won’t be left to rot in the dark. The absolute cluster-fuck of the response so far doesn’t help that.

  13. I’ll add my vote to the mix – there are bosses who want to see their people working physically. And a lot of jobs require a presence.

  14. This shutdown stupidity is reminiscent of those recurring “Government Shut Downs”, when all the “non-essential” workers would be sent home on what would later turn out to be additional paid vacation. And those of us who pay the taxes generally wondered — if those government workers are “non-essential”, why are they on the payroll at all?

    The people who produce real goods need supplies & machines — they can’t work from home. The people who produce most real services which people pay for willingly can’t work from home either — they usually need to interact with the customer, whether at the barber’s or the sandwich shop. There are some people providing services who can work remotely — like my broker whose office is in one State but spends most of this time in another State, dealing with his clients over the phone. My guess is that most of the people who can feasibly work from home (or from the road) are already doing so.

    Then there are the overhead people — many government workers and denizens of corporate bureaucracies. Let them work from home, since they are not producing anything of value. In an ideal world, let them work on finding a productive job.

  15. Gavin, you’re right in some respects but wrong in others, I think. You don’t need a heck of a lot of people to run an automated factory or warehouse. There’s a lot of paper pushing bureaucrats that don’t need to go to an office to work. Bandwidth used to be a reason why physical call centers were needed but as 4G and 5G networks get pushed out to the hinterlands even those jobs can be accomplished remotely. Now those folks are gathered together to make it easy on their supervisors but that can be changed.

    I will go a little diagonal and say that this will not result in an increase in remote working but will speed the introduction of automated call centers with more self service and natural language based AI.

  16. I work at home in IT. There really is no reason for IT workers to work in an office full time. A lot of these We Work type office buildings will wind up being big white elephants knowing the further cost savings realized. First they tore down the walls and put up cubes and found savings. Next they tore down the cubes and found further savings. The only thing left is to tear down the whole building.

  17. I work at home in IT. There really is no reason for IT workers to work in an office full time.

    Full, time, no. But you can make an argument for lost cross-pollination — that is, you’re having a problem, you bump into a co-worker passing in the hall, and, in the course of general discussion, mention your problem. “Oh, yeah, I remember reading an article that sounds just like your problem… I’ll see if I can find you a link…” and an hour later, you see a link that has the solution to your problem.

    This is not a guarantee, but it does happen more than many realize.

    Your “remote” process should do things to “bump” people together, in VR, if not in actual reality.

  18. I came across a comment from someone with a child with some sort of upper respiratory issue that was self isolating for two weeks.

    Beyond the obvious wear and tear on nerves, sitting and waiting, imagine a whole family with several young kids having to take two weeks off each time one comes down with something. Now, the odds are pretty long that this is the Wuhan Virus. Are businesses going to have to pay out for each time this happens for the next couple of years? Two extra weeks a year isn’t going to do much. Then there’s the probability that two weeks isn’t long enough for contagion to be past even if symptoms are.

    What is starting to make sense to me is to do our best to protect those at highest as risk well as we are able while the rest of us take reasonable precautions and take our chances. Right now we are probably at more risk from politicians intent on signaling and being seen to do “something” than of the actual disease.

  19. See that Cuomo wants the Army to do “something”. Also, they have put someone in Kentucky under guard at his house for leaving the hospital, that won’t scale.

    Cuomo wants all the closings to be uniform across the country because people are having the effrontery to cross state lines. Unstated is his intention to comply only as far as he agrees with the federal guide lines.

    Seattle wants to house the homeless in their airport. Any volunteers for bathroom detail? Who gets the drug franchise? Probably have to divide it between marijuana, speed and opioids.

  20. One of the jobs that can’t be done from home is *train operation*. According to this article, you can’t just bring in replacement workers from other areas, because “Federal regulations require familiarity with the assigned route—not via YouTube or even advanced simulator, but in a locomotive cab; and multiple round trips are needed to understand the route’s idiosyncrasies, such as terrain affecting train handling. Given hours of service limitations, such training could require 10 or more days.”

  21. I agree with Mishu above regarding IT. There are some things which DO require physical presence, and I’ve noticed that as a consultant it is important for me to be present early in an engagement because people seem to have some kind of social recognition function which is much stronger when they’ve met you in person. Having said that, for me, and for most of my clients (one large exception) even having an “office” to go to is an expensive and out-dated habit.

    Picture those small to medium businesses doing things like software development, web design, architecture, marketing, technical writing, engineering design, etc. etc. who have 50 or a 100 people commute through heavy dangerous traffic twice a day to sit down at a desk and immediately log in to a system which might be downstairs, but is probably in data center hundreds of miles away. That’s a lot of overhead and hassle for those kinds of businesses and I’d expect that for the few I know of who have already been experimenting with telecommuting, this will be a make or break moment. They will either realize they are spending a lot of money on real estate for little benefit, or will realize that their corporate culture and employee maturity levels are not up to the task. We shall see.

    None of this applies to retailers, transport, the trades, etc. etc. except for the office and IT staff of those companies.

  22. John: “… as a consultant it is important for me to be present early in an engagement because people seem to have some kind of social recognition function which is much stronger when they’ve met you in person.”

    The importance of face-to-face contact is probably because much (most?) productive office work is a “Team Sport”. Many different technical disciplines are usually involved in accomplishing anything significant, with a whole series of trade-offs that have to be understood & negotiated. When it comes to actually getting something built, there are additional specializations such as purchasing, regulatory compliance, legal, financial. A team which has started a project and carried it part-way forward can probably complete it by working from home (albeit with some loss of efficiency) — but it would be tough indeed to start a project from scratch with a disseminated staff who never meet except over the internet.

    There are lots of real jobs that can never be done from home, such as David’s example of the train driver. There are lots of jobs that are already done using other people’s “homes”, such as the home health nurse and the traveling salesman. The percentage of real (non-bureaucratic) jobs that can be done from home on a permanent basis is probably less than enthusiasts believe. A temporary “work at home” experiment as a consequence of the Panic Virus is likely to demonstrate that.

    I hope that the longer term consequence of the Panic Virus is the recognition that we need to re-shore a lot of industry — pharmaceuticals and many others. Virtually none of those re-shored jobs will fall into the “work from home” category.

  23. Where I work has been pushing people to work from home (WFH) for about the last 8 years. The main driver is to reduce costs. This even may just prove a whole bunch more people can WFH and save the company even more money. However, there are a good number of bosses who have this need to see (and bother) the people below them in the org chart and that may result in some push back. Not to mention there are those whose status and/or self image is connected to having the fancy office. Where I work in the organization WFH is not terribly efficient. We are doing some now because we have to but it really impedes getting things done.

    My guess is that in some areas where property taxes and utilities are expensive companies will see the potential cost savings. So overall a mix dependent upon other factors.

    The commute benefit cannot be overstated in many parts of the country. Not having to commute could save me about 1.5h per day. That works out to almost one full work day per week that I could do something more constructive than deal with idiot drivers in heavy traffic.

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