One of the things that I find particularly interesting about the current state of the world is that everyone I talk to seems to have a different idea of what things will be like when all of this is over. Some people claim that we will all be working from home forever, while others have suggested that we will soon be returning to the office as if nothing had ever happened. Of course, it’s also possible that the truth is somewhere in between. My guess is that recent events will have a lasting impact on the way that people work and that those changes will present IT pros with some rather interesting challenges. Of course, this raises two big questions. First, why am I so confident that there are going to be major changes to the way that we work? Second, what will those changes look like, particularly for IT, in a post-COVID world?
Why the changes?
Let me begin by tackling the question of why I believe that when all of this is over, the way that we work will be quite a bit different than it was before the pandemic happened. Spoiler alert: It has nothing to do with keeping people safe. It may take a while, but the virus will eventually become a nonissue. As such, there will come a point at which the virus is not preventing anyone from working as normal.
There are two reasons why I think that we are going to see a massive change in the way that people work. First, massive tectonic shifts in the ways that people work have happened before. History is filled with enough examples that I could probably write an entire article on that topic alone, but let’s look at one example – the industrial revolution.
The industrial revolution occurred in the United States and Europe toward the end of the 18th century. Prior to the industrial revolution, most people lived in rural areas and national economies were based largely around farming and agriculture. During the industrial revolution, populations began moving into urban areas and working in the factories. These factories introduced the concept of mass production, and it completely reshaped economies and the way in which people worked.
The other reason why I think that the way that we work is about to change comes down to a matter of simple economics. Many organizations have invested in infrastructure and changed business processes to support remote workers. These companies aren’t going to be anxious to abandon that investment when this is all over. Besides, allowing (or requiring) employees to work remotely can greatly reduce an organization’s operating costs. They may be able to lease a smaller building for example, which would significantly reduce costs. Additionally, the organization is going to be spending less money on electric bills each month if employees aren’t coming into the office. After all, employees won’t be plugging in their devices, using the coffee maker, or consuming power in other ways.
After COVID-19, what IT look like?
In the short term (once there is no longer any danger of infection), I suspect that most companies will give employees the option of continuing to work from home. While there will probably be some employees who opt to come into the office just as they did before, most will probably either become full-time remote workers or might come into the office a couple of days a week.
For an employee, there may be financial benefits to working remotely. After all, commuting costs are eliminated, and employees may also be able to avoid other costs such as daycare.
While it’s simple enough to suggest that most people will opt to continue working remotely, but may occasionally come into the office, there is one thing that I have yet to hear anyone talk about. A mass transition toward remote work will create some inevitable societal changes over the long term.
Many of these changes will be tied to the challenges of working remotely. When the pandemic hit, relatively few people had good home office setups. This often meant working at the kitchen table, on the sofa, or perhaps even in bed. My guess is that we will soon see home builders designing new homes with dedicated office space. While some builders did this long before the pandemic ever hit, I wouldn’t be surprised to see builders designing homes with multiple offices (so that everyone in the house has a place to work), and perhaps even a small conference room.
I also think that we are probably going to see coffee shops and perhaps even bars or restaurants creating dedicated workspaces. Sure, people already work in these types of places, but bars, restaurants, and coffee shops will probably find that an increasingly large percentage of their overall revenue comes from remote workers who lack an adequate home office and just need a decent place to work. I could see these venues creating lounge-like areas with lots of power outlets and comfortable workspaces. I also think that these businesses will probably find themselves investing in additional Internet bandwidth to accommodate the remote workers.
What does this mean for IT post-COVID?
If I am right and we see a major transition in which remote work becomes the norm, it is going to pose some interesting challenges for IT post-COVID-19. After all, it’s one thing to support a user who is working on-premises. It’s quite another thing to support a remote worker.
I can’t help but think back to a situation many years ago when I was working for the military. At that time, broadband Internet access wasn’t a thing yet, and some of the higher-ranking officers wanted to be able to connect to various systems without the hassles of dial-up. To make a long story short, we ended up installing fiber and enterprise-grade routers in several homes on the base. As an IT pro, it felt a little bit strange to be making house calls. Even so, IT house calls might make a comeback.
While broadband connectivity would keep this type of thing from ever happening again, I can envision certain circumstances in which IT pros have to visit someone’s home to address a technical problem that just can’t be solved remotely.
IT might also face challenges related to the opposite situation — supporting employees who are working from somewhere really far away.
Several years ago, I took on an IT consulting project that required me to work on-site for an extended period of time. The thing that made this particular project so challenging was that the company’s headquarters was located on the other side of the world. Besides the actual work, I spent my day working through language barriers and the challenges that come with being immersed in a culture that is far different from what I was used to. Ultimately, it was an amazing experience, and I’m really glad that I decided to accept that particular project. Even so, there is no denying that working in such an unfamiliar environment was extremely challenging at times.
If remote work becomes the norm, then geographic proximity to the office is no longer an issue. That means that employers are free to hire new employees regardless of where they physically reside, so long as they adhere to any applicable laws in doing so. For the IT department, this may mean supporting the new application and operating system localizations or dealing with logistical challenges associated with supporting users who reside somewhere far away.
The world — and IT — will change when COVID disappears
It’s going to be really interesting to see how the world evolves following the pandemic. Just as the plague that occurred in the 1300s eventually ran its course, the current pandemic will eventually pass too. The question is how will the way that we work change when it does?
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