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Post-Pandemic: Work and Life as an Engineer - Remote Everything?

Published 2/3/2021

In this episode, we continue series of episodes about how COVID has and will continue to affect our lives and jobs as software engineers. We'll talk about where we will work, and how COVID has changed the question all together.

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
Where will I work? This is a question that software engineers are certainly asking right now as we see the end of the pandemic at some point in the future. And it's a hard question to answer, both for the people who are doing the working and the people who are deciding where the work will be done. My name is Jonathan Cutrell, I'm listening to Developer Tea and my goal on this show is to help children developers like you find clarity, perspective and purpose in their careers. And we're doing a post pandemic software engineering series. What is our work going to look like after the pandemic? What are our lives going to look like? What has changed? What can we learn from this? As we mentioned on the last episode, I am not an epidemiologist, I am not a virologist, I'm not a doctor, I am also not a social psychologist. None of these things are my formal training. So really everything that we're talking about here is more curiosity and extrapolation of some mental models and applying these to our jobs and our lives. And my hope here is to investigate these ideas so that I can inspire you to think more about them, not so that you can take my knowledge as the gospel. My goal is not to teach you exactly what's going to happen at the end of this because frankly no one can do that, but also I'm not qualified necessarily to explain to you the effects that a pandemic has on society, instead I'm opening the conversation, I'm opening the conversation to discuss and to think about what the effects of COVID have been and will continue to be on our work in our lives and what lessons we can draw for them. So this question though is applicable to software engineers and interestingly has been applicable for many people, for many software engineers for a long time. This idea that our physical workspace, our physical location for work is not necessarily concrete. We don't have for example, if you were to work at a restaurant, we don't have a grill that we need to go and cook at. We don't have a cash register to stand at. Our work is mostly what happens in our minds and what happens on our very portable devices. So what exactly does it mean for us to be at work? Physically speaking, what does it mean? Well, one of our work is also about human interaction. In fact, arguably the vast majority of the value of our work, if not all of the value, is determined by how other humans will interact with it. And so there is some layer of locality to our work and there always has been to some degree. Our work needs to be consumed by other people and we very likely are going to be interacting with other people to collaborate on our work. So it's not that crazy that location has mattered and probably will continue to matter even post COVID. But here is what is likely to change. In my opinion, here is what's likely to change before COVID and really especially in the early 2000s before remote work became a popular option, we had the default of working in an office when you go to work, working in an office is where you go. And there is some kind of precedent for this, right? We know that our home is a sacred space that we've evolved to some degree to make our home a private space. And so why would we allow our trade and our home to become mixed? There is some again, psychology backing up this idea and bolstering it that we should have some separation of these concepts. At the same time, there's also a lot of evidence to show that our working hours and our working environments are antithetical to the productivity, especially of the kinds of problems that software engineers are solving. And so it wasn't that long ago when remote work became an important option for a lot of companies. There's a lot of benefits to remote work. Very simple examples, some obvious examples are you can choose from a talent pool around the world and you can hire people sometimes for less money, less of a salary because they're living conditions, they're working wage, the amount of money they need in order to live is going to be lower. They're living costs are lower. And so there's some obvious financial benefits, there's some obvious kind of sourcing benefits to going remote, but there's also some softer benefits like the fact that people tend to be happier when they're working in remote capacity. So what does this mean? And what is the future looking like? Most of the companies in tech, large companies and small companies like before the pandemic, the default, the default was still working in the office. It was the odd company that had full distribution. It was the strange company that had even 50% of their workers being remote. Most companies, especially large companies, if they have remote workers, enough of them will be in the same location that they'll start a satellite office. This idea is you have a small office and then you have a headquarters office. There's a lot of different forms of remote work, but COVID changed remote work for virtually all companies. It changed it because for many companies that held out in the idea that offices were necessary for productivity, COVID challenged that assumption. We suddenly had a forcing function. And that forcing function was in order to survive, you must be productive and remote at the same time. So what does this mean? I mean, that all of the people working inside of these companies has now had a chance to trial run remote. Now this wouldn't be a huge deal if it was only one or two companies, even if those one or two companies were very large. But the fact that this is virtually a universal experience that everybody went remote for a while, that they all had a chance to work from home. They all had a chance to see what those differences would be like for them. This changes the landscape of opinion. It changes from default being in the office to now a very large number of people are asking the question, is the office still the default? Now this is important and we're going to abstract a lesson out of this. Instead of talking about how specifically are we going to respond coming out of a pandemic, we're going to talk about this idea of a large group of people now questioning their defaults. Suddenly, we have the opportunity to see something that previously we were blind to. We have the opportunity to question an assumption that previously we didn't think could be questioned. Very large companies, very small companies alike, we had this kind of implicit default that working meant being in the office and because of that, being remote meant having a privilege. But now some companies are viewing working in an office as a privilege. There's a lot of reasoning for this, one being that offices actually cost money. Companies actually have to spend money in order to allow people to come into their offices, especially since coming out of a pandemic, creating a safe office space to work in, is an expense as well. So now companies are considering, by sheer nature of the changed norm, making default a reasonably acceptable option, making default remote a reasonably acceptable option. So where will this go? We can't really predict that. But what we do know is that when we start questioning our defaults and when we start uncovering our assumptions, and when we recognize that something that we once thought was immovable, is actually movable, things tend to change. And usually when we question assumptions, things tend to change for the better. Now, we'll cover one more piece of this idea and that is the fact that long term remote is not what we've experienced. We've experienced a couple of months for some a year or a little over a year of working remotely. But we don't really know what those second and third and fourth order effects are of working remotely and large workforces, large companies working remotely for longer periods of time. How does this change our culture? Especially if the rest of our lives shift back into some kind of version of what we had before. Because much of our personal interactions on a day to day basis were reliant on being out away from our homes. Much of our commerce was reliant on being out and away from our homes. A lot of these other systems are going to change at a fundamental level as well. Our local cultures will be affected by this sudden questioning of a previously implicit default. We don't know how it's going to turn out, but what we do know is that change is coming. Thanks so much for listening to today's episode of Developer Tea. The second episode in the series about post-COVID engineering, work, and life. I hope you are enjoying these episodes about COVID as we haven't really talked about the pandemic very much on the show. If you have ideas, if you have questions about these episodes, or if you have ideas of things that we could cover, things that we could kind of do some research on, please send them to me at developert.gmail.com. Or you can also ask for and invite to our Discord community. These are invite only right now. I'm sending those invites directly to people who ask for them. You can ask via email, developert.gmail, or you can ask on Twitter at at developertea.com. Thank you so much for listening to this episode. And until next time, enjoy your tea.