Coronavirus and the future of work and learning

In 2013, a book titled The Year Without Pants was published. The author did not have a Roman aversion to the wearing of pants (it was a barbaric practice, they had insisted). He was, instead, writing about life working for Automattic.

What is Automattic, one may ask? A company employing just over a thousand people, it runs services such as WordPress, the blogging platform now powering millions of websites. And its employees can work without pants, not because of an exceedingly relaxed dress code, but because Automattic is a “distributed company”, where everyone works remotely. Indeed, few go regularly to their San Francisco headquarters; their employees live all over the world. 

The company has long been hailed as a model for the future of work. If a company that is so responsible for making the web work can do it, why can’t others? Technology has long made remote work possible. Yet most companies saw no need, or little incentive at least, to make the shift. 

Until, of course, the coronavirus came along. Now, institutions left and right are rushing to adapt to a new world where physical meetings are banned. Everyone from businesspeople to lecturers are suddenly finding out that their lifelong work could be translated overnight to this new virtual reality. In Thailand and elsewhere, even the most change-resistant organizations have transformed into local Automattics. 

And the benefits have been remarkable to behold. In the 1990s, Thaksin Shinawatra, then serving as deputy prime minister, had pledged that he would resolve Bangkok’s traffic woes within six months. In 2018, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha made an even more ambitious pledge: he would do it in three. Needless to say, neither premier accomplished their ambitious aims, and the plight of miserable Bangkokian commuters continued unabated.

Now, it appears the disinfectants sprayed to clean the streets of the virus have cleared them of cars as well. In their place comes a renewal of mental health. Long commutes, after all, have been shown in scholarly studies to have a profoundly negative impact on the mind. Fewer visits to the gas station have been good both for the wallet and the environment. 

Working and learning from home has had other benefits. Some have enjoyed the slower pace of life that staying home has brought about. As Alan Lightman wrote in The Atlantic, “this terrible disaster has freed us from the prison of our time-driven lives.” Unstructured time has become more common, and with it greater potential for creativity and rule-breaking. 

Thus the advent of remote working seems like it will inevitably cast a long shadow on the future of work and learning. Along with the other experiments in this era of plague and pestilence — greater state intervention in the economy and universal basic income, to name a few others — will remote working become more widespread even after the pandemic is over? If the benefits are so obvious, after all, why revert to the traditional lifestyle? Homo sapiens, after all, did not evolve to work at a cubicle all day. 

But neither did we evolve to stare at a Zoom screen all day. The disadvantages of lives lived in social distancing are also legion.

One is the unfortunate reality that just because organizations have been forced to adapt to this new remote reality does not mean that they necessarily have adapted well. And nowhere has this been more visible than in schools. As a teacher at an international school in Bangkok put it, “teachers are not really doing online teaching, they are trying to do their best and teach online.” The transition from the traditional to a virtual classroom has not been easy. 

Take, for example, how some schools continue to try to maintain their timetables as rigidly as possible. Students as young as in elementary school are being required to Zoom multiple times a day — an exhausting rigor, even for adults. And some teachers have continued to give students the same level of work, ignoring the fact that work done at home might take twice as long due to a variety of factors.

Indeed, productivity has suffered immensely, in the feelings of many. Staying motivated has been difficult. Flexibility has turned out to be a double-edged sword. “I’m a chronic procrastinator, so the lack of structure is both a blessing and a curse.” a friend told me. “I have more time to work on my assignments but with no structure to my day my work habits and timings are completely thrown off.” 

Even career advancement may have taken a hit due to remote working. Mentorship and relationship-building, easier in person, have become complicated undertakings without face-to-face interactions and are now more likely to be ignored than not. Not seeing your boss, a blessing perhaps in less complicated times, may now be a great hindrance.

And so has the lack of human interaction, in general, hindered the ability of people to work. “Solitude is fine, but you need someone to tell you that solitude is fine,” the French novelist Honoré de Balzac once wrote. In that same vein, but in a decidedly more modern context, a Facebook post read “My body may be far from COVID, but my soul is close to a coma.” In the end, a Zoom screen is a poor substitute for in-person relationships, and this may above all deter people from continuing the Automattic lifestyle after the pandemic is over.

Thus the future of work and learning can, and should, incorporate the lessons that we have learned. 

Firstly, a lot of work can be done at home. If someone does not need to be in the office every day, there is little reason to force them to come. We can all use a more permanent reduction in traffic, after all. But of course, that does not mean that the importance of human interaction should be discounted. Even Automattic brings their staff together for a retreat every once in a while.

Secondly, translating in-person experiences into marathon video calling sessions simply does not work. They exhaust people and end up counterproductive. Finding ways to conduct meetings or deliver online courses in new and innovative ways is the key to success. 

To deny the myriad of disadvantages that remote working has brought about would be folly. But to ignore the benefits we have gleaned from this, hopefully not-too-long, experiment would not be wise either. Remote working and learning can become productive components of our lives in the future if we learn to deliver properly. 

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