If your organization was a straggler on the whole remote work concept, you might feel like, after the last couple of weeks, you’ve essentially been thrown into a style of work you weren’t particularly looking to embrace. But perhaps there is a bright side here—a potential for future flexibility.
Right now, a lot of organizations that weren’t into the idea of remote work are learning they have to embrace it—quickly.
It’s not exactly something your association might have planned on, but the nature of the coronavirus COVID-19 and its fast spread represents something of a global stress test on the digital resources we’ve spent a half-century building, one where people are being pushed to change their routines en masse in an effort to prevent the spread of a deadly disease. (Fortunately, the internet, despite increased use, has a lot of extra headroom.)
For some organizations, this isn’t a hard thing—as I wrote about a year ago, plenty of companies have done a good job taking remote work and making it their own, and technologies such as Slack and Google Docs have created an infrastructure that can survive even the most serious of threats.
But there is some hesitation in others—and leadership, rather than technical ability, has been the stopping point. Ironically, it was an organization that had previously done quite well with remote work, the U.S. government, that offers the cautionary tale here. As I wrote last month, a change in leadership—and, apparently, the result of someone working from home when a Cabinet member expected the employee to be in the office—led the federal government to roll back a successful telework program that saved taxpayers a lot of money and was, by the government’s own metrics, extremely successful.
Now, of course, the federal government finds itself—just like everyone else—having to ramp up the very telework programs it was cutting six months ago. It’s a strange situation, but we live in a world where much more is possible on the telework front than ever before. Some people have been able to consistently work these types of jobs for many years with just as much consistency as someone who actually shows up in the office.
To be clear, I don’t think any of this is ideal, and it certainly wouldn’t be desired under the best of circumstances. But I do think, as do others, that it’s an opportunity for many organizations to show that they can shine in a new type of environment, one that has widespread proof that remote work can actually be used effectively by lots of people.
(Of course, there are always exceptions—as Wired recently reported, certain fields such as intelligence and the electric grid can’t work from home even if they wanted to, because of high cybersecurity standards.)
Pundits have differing views about telework’s benefits—recently, Kevin Roose of The New York Times argued that the loss of creativity caused by working from home would cause more harm than good, but others, such as Automattic founder and WordPress mastermind Matt Mullenweg suggest that the sudden shift might cause a permanent restructuring of what people are OK with on the remote work front.
“Millions of people will get the chance to experience days without long commutes, or the harsh inflexibility of not being able to stay close to home when a family member is sick. Or even when you’re sick yourself,” he wrote on his personal blog.
This is a collective grand experiment, maybe (if you want to get all sci-fi about it) the first step toward a world somewhat like the one reflected in the book and film Ready Player One, where we mostly live our lives virtually from the comfort of our pods. Certainly, we are nowhere near the state of affairs that Ernest Cline laid out in that work, and we may never get there. Perhaps nor should we.
But now that many organizations are running remotely somewhat by force, it may be an opportunity to learn some interesting lessons. COVID-19 will (hopefully) eventually fade out. But what we take from this grand experiment in running our organizations completely on the internet will prove useful and perhaps win over some of those hardened skeptics at the top of the org chart.
It’s knowledge that will come in handy when associations are making decisions about remote work by choice.