Remote Work, Part I

This is new...

I have been thinking about remote work a lot recently. You might wonder what that has with teaching, and the educational system we have today, which is what I usually write about. But please bear with me - I’ll get there.

Before I launch into this, I need to acknowledge a couple of things. First, this is mostly a knowledge-worker issue. There are so many jobs that cannot be done remotely. If we did not appreciate this distinctly before the pandemic, we certainly understand it now. It has been on painful, stark, display that those who could not stay home for much of 2020 bore a huge burden of exposure, illness, and death. Second, when I use the term “knowledge-worker” I am referring to jobs in - for example - finance, law, teaching, advertising, coding, tech, graphic design, and public relations. Third, I need to acknowledge that this is a subject of great uncertainty right now, and it will be for some time. These are tentative ideas, and I seek your comments on them.

With those serious realities noted, I find myself thinking back to a set of cartoons. When I was little, my father would read to me Pogo cartoons (with approximations of all the character’s voices), and then give me books of them, all of which I devoured, and reread over and over. Written by the great cartoonist Walt Kelly (1913-1973), I have been specifically thinking of the strip in which he had one of his characters (I think it was Albert the Alligator) say, of nuclear power: “It ain’t new, and it ain’t clear.” This principle applies to remote work just as well.

It sure ain’t new. For at least the last decade, probably two, many knowledge-workers have worked a day here and there remotely from home. Computer power and internet bandwidth to the home has been more than sufficient to manage this since at least 2005. Video conferencing software has been reasonably reliable for nearly a decade, and the computing power and bandwidth to support it has also been widely available for a long time. We bought computers for the home - for games, budgets, Amazon orders - and soon we were able to check work email from home. And we did that. A lot.

Do you remember Skype? It came out in 2003 and was a big deal for many years, although I always found it buggy. More importantly, not everyone had a camera and microphone that would make it useable. As we do with new technologies, we gradually got used to it, and accepted the concept of video conferencing until it wasn’t new anymore. When nearly all laptops and desktops included cameras and microphones - around 2010 - videoconferencing finally became more mainstream. Zoom debuted in 2012, and a year or two later I started saying that Zoom was the better choice, which I described in many presentations as “Skype that works.” And when the pandemic hit, it seemed like the world moved to Zoom all at once. And now here we are - we can no longer imagine not having built-in cameras, microphones, and Zoom, and powerful computers to run them, in our homes.

For at least 100 years, the workplace has held a mythic and powerful hold on our lives. Going to a workplace every day was just what we did, what was expected, what we needed to do to get work done. It was often where we met our friend group, and social events took place like potlucks and birthday cakes and retirement parties. We had managers and bosses who wanted to see us, and have meetings, and we needed to consult our fellow workers and learn from them and they from us.

It sure ain’t clear yet, either. We do not know where this will end up, but we are beginning to sense that something is new - and profound and important - and it was the shift to remote work during the pandemic. The technology - and our familiarity with it - had matured well before 2020, so it was ready for us to switch over to it out of necessity. Managers and bosses were nervous - this was out of their comfort zone, because they couldn’t see us anymore, or not in the same way or at the same frequency. But their hand was forced - they didn’t have any other options. Before the pandemic, managers and workers both could not really conceive of a world in which workers did not have to come in to the office regularly. And then… we went home… and something incredibly powerful happened. The business world continued, and in many cases, continued to prosper. And workers were happier - despite the existential dread that hung over us all for much of the last 18 months - because we were not wasting time in difficult commutes and we had more time with our children and other pursuits.

Managers and bosses find themselves in a very difficult spot. They are not entirely comfortable with either remote work or the shift in leverage it has given their workers. The ephemera of what they do - oversee and manage - is indelibly space-based in their minds. But the evidence is overwhelming: remote work works. Sure, there may be training needs, and occasional in-person events. But workers can be, and have been, productive at home for more than a year. And many, many, businesses have survived and prospered. As much as some might like to say we have to go back to “normal,” it seems very unlikely to happen. With a few minor exceptions, there is little evidence that it should. Managers have nothing to stand on, except vague platitudes about “culture.”

To be fair, quite a few companies have seen this reality with great clarity, and made bold moves. Price Waterhouse Coopers - a big four accounting firm with 285,000 employees, has announced that it will be converting everyone to remote work. Allstate Insurance, a company with $45 Billion in revenue, has closed most of its regional offices around the US, and has put its headquarters campus north of Chicago up for sale. Both companies will still have offices for some purposes, but just those two recent data points should bring the point home. The landscape of work has dramatically changed.

Indeed, I believe that what has happened is a profound, once-in-a-century shift, and the ripple effects will continue into the decade of the ‘20s, and beyond.

How does this affect teaching and education? That’s obvious, right? First, if remote work and videoconferencing technologies have become mainstream - and I argue they have - the historical objections to online and hybrid education fall apart. Second, a big chunk of what our education system has done for 100 years (at least) is prepare workers to be productive in the workplace. If the workplace changes in this profound a way, we will have changes to make to prepare our students for this new landscape. What those changes might be I am still trying to work out, but will try to address in an upcoming letter to you. Please add your comments and ideas by clicking the button below so we can get a discussion going about it. And thank you for reading!

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Letters of Recommendation

Having mentioned my favorite cartoon - Pogo, by Walt Kelly - I cannot help but recommend all of the books that collect these strips. Among these are: I Go Pogo, Pogo: Evidence to the Contrary, and The Best of Pogo. Or, to get a flavor of his silly but trenchant sensibility, you could view this rendition of his famous Christmas song “Deck Us All With Boston Charlie.” (It’s almost the holidays, right?)

Q of the Week

The Q of the Week this week is a Quote from Ed Zitron, who runs a virtual public relations company, and has written extensively (and heatedly) on the various attacks on remote work that have been widely reported in the press over the last few months:

This is the next front of this fight - the executive sect has realized that simply telling people that remote work is terrible using the flimsiest arguments possible won’t work. This is [after the] first real attack tried to frame the office as superior to working from home - you get “culture” and “spontaneous collaboration” at work, which can’t happen over Zoom…. That didn’t work because it was almost entirely fictional - a creation in the minds of bosses that haven’t done any dedicated office work in decades, who do not understand technology and fear it, and who do not see workers as workers but as pieces of property that they want back in their possession.