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Post-Pandemic Knowledge Work: Remote and Loving It

A man works from home on his laptopBy: Dave Pradko

Organizations have, over the years, had a tumultuous relationship with employees working from home. It’s often a large-scale disaster or unforeseen event that causes changes to those expectations and policies. In early 2010, the U.S. federal government realized it had a problem when several feet of snow blanketed the east coast, shutting down the Washington DC Metro area and brought everything to a halt. In government-speak, the problem was Co-Op (Continuity of Operations); government workers couldn’t get to their offices, desks, and computers, and so couldn’t do their jobs. Afterwards, federal agencies started looking into solutions that would allow the government to function if workers were stuck at home. The next decade saw the foundation laid for the unprecedented work-from-home environment that started in late March 2020.

Almost a year later, COVID case numbers are declining, vaccines are rolling out, and some companies and schools are eyeing a return to in-person activities. While some things in the post-COVID work environment will look like they did before the pandemic, there may also be some dramatic changes. For all the terrible things the coronavirus has wrought, it has also created several large-scale experiments in areas like remote work from which we can now draw and extrapolate data.

Perhaps the single most important data point from this massive work-from-home experiment is that workers are still productive when working from somewhere other than their office. And with workers no longer geographically anchored to a particular place, many have already started moving from high cost of living areas.

Blue and Red graph showing data on neighboring cities

A search for more affordable housing in the middle of a pandemic

With the shape of the post-pandemic landscape already changing, businesses began to explore what the fuller picture might look like.

Hybrid and Remote Work

Probably the least surprising guess is that there will be more remote work in the post-pandemic work world. There was already an increase in remote work, and COVID-19 accelerated that trend. Based on the above charts, and a few other anecdotes, there are a few distinct changes brought about by increased remote work:

  • More remote days for workers. Either moving to a hybrid of office and remote work or transitioning to 100% remote work. Throughout the pandemic, knowledge workers have proven the remote work experiment for everyone – swapping long daily commutes to offices for higher productivity and increased personal time.
  • Current employees moving farther away from their company or job site, often to more affordable areas. See the above chart; this is already happening in areas like Silicon Valley, New York City, and Washington DC.
  • A more geographically dispersed workforce. A company that embraces 100% remote work can employ people who work several states or time zones apart. This could mean hiring people who wouldn’t have been considered viable candidates because of where they live, without the consideration of relocation expenses. A larger candidate pool and higher job mobility can benefit both employers and employees by making better matches between skills/experience and new opportunities.

Purple bar graph showing data on productivity during the work week

Not having to commute has meant longer days, more productivity and more contributions. Source: Derek Jedamski

Many companies and government agencies have been moving to the hoteling concept in recent years. In organizations where employees come into the office about half the time, it was increasingly hard to justify a reserved office or cubicle for each employee. Enter an arrangement where two or more employees share a workspace, or where many workspaces are unassigned, and employees use them on a first-come-first-serve basis.

Twitter poll from Dave Pradko showing IT and Agile followers plans once pandemic restrictions are lifted.

Workers don’t plan to return to the office as much, or at all. Courtesy Dave Pradko

At iWorks, we’ve seen an increase in the last few years of teams requesting a standalone workspace big enough for three to six team members to work together. This can be a room with a desk for each team member, or a conference room with a single large conference table. It’s become popular among teams that use paired programming practices, or where team members work with Product Owners or end users in a collaborative fashion.

We’ve been able to teleconference with others not physically present for a while, but are now considering ways to more fully integrate team members: bigger TVs/monitors, better speakers and microphones for audio; additional cameras for sharing the entire room or dedicated to sharing white boards or walls.

Hybrid Meetings

More meetings with a combination of geographically dispersed remote workers and multiple people in a central office location. For remote meeting attendees, each will be responsible for their own setup, video and audio, etc. But for those in the office, how will they handle the logistics? Will each person attend from their own office or cubicle? If those in the office assemble in a conference room, how to handle the logistics of getting Zoom or WebEx set up. It will become increasingly important for conference rooms to be equipped not just with conference (star) phones, but with big TVs or monitors with a camera, so that all attendees can see and be seen. It will be a change to many teams and companies to codify these new expectations and processes and figure out how to support and troubleshoot them.

IT Infrastructure and Security Will Have Bigger Mandates

Increased Information Assurance and Security will be crucial as more work is done off-site. More information and data must travel over infrastructure outside the company’s control. Expect increased use of VPNs for security, and cloud-based solutions for storage and collaboration. Microsoft SharePoint and the new-ish Teams are sure to be popular among a certain type of organization, but use of Google Docs and Dropbox are sure to continue.

Organizations will also have to figure out which remote work products to use, and which are used by corporate partners. Many organizations will find themselves supporting Slack, Microsoft Teams, WebEx and/or Zoom, potentially Google Hangouts, and probably some legacy apps like Skype. They will also be constantly evaluating new products.

Blurring Residential and Commercial Internet

Internet Service Providers (ISPs) were forced to face increased demand from residential consumers a few years ago when streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime became ubiquitous. And 2020 may be the high-water mark for residential internet demand for years to come. With many households having two adults working remotely, and multiple children attending school through distance learning during the day – and then giving way to streaming several YouTube videos, movies, and sports in High Def simultaneously in the evenings. 2021 and beyond, though, may signal a shift in consumer demands from sheer internet quantity to quality of service. Residential internet customers often can’t afford a multi-day internet outage when working mostly or completely from home. More savvy internet customers are upgrading from the ISP-issued wireless routers to 3rd party products from Netgear, Nest, and others. In the process, improving internet and data security by implementing personal VPNs, firewalls, and dynamic internet monitoring through the new app and computer-based interfaces that come with these new routers.

Another potential change is in the types of perks companies offer to remote-working individuals. Instead of paying for parking at the office, or breakroom coffee and snacks, we might see companies paying for faster internet service, upgraded routers, or comp time for extended outages.

Team-Building

Any manager can tell you: team building is hard, even when everyone is in the same room. Organizations will need to embrace the challenge of remote team-building. Developing new approaches and embracing new technology solutions will be critical to employee engagement and retention. There are already many tools available to facilitate team activities such as Sprint Planning and Retrospectives for distributed teams. Happy hours and team lunches will also require new approaches. iWorks has explored a few different approaches to Virtual Happy Hour (alcohol not required). These mostly took the shape of people gathering on a video call from their own homes, at a time after core work hours for most employees (we usually scheduled times that were after work for east coast employees, and during lunch hour for west coast employees). Virtual Happy Hours usually had a pre-determined discussion topic and was structured to give everyone a chance to share. Examples include recently read books or watched movies, and favorite travel location/story.

Conclusion

As another vaccine gets FDA approval and ever larger daily numbers of vaccines are reported, there will be restrictions lifted and many things will start “going back to normal.” It seems clear, though, that some of the changes put in place during the pandemic will remain in some form. And some of the things we’ve learned through 2020 will inform new changes and policies going forward. As we emerge from the pandemic, it seems that the most successful companies going forward will be not just the ones that adapted to the pandemic, but also the ones that adapt to a new post-pandemic landscape.

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