When the stay-at-home order came in March 2020 due to COVID-19, it wasn’t a big deal for me. I’d worked remotely for five years. Other than losing my daily workout at the gym down the street and an occasional meal out, my life was unchanged, and it was the same for many of my IT colleagues. Outside of dealing with kids and pets from home, their workday was pretty much the same.
But it would be shortsighted to say that this pandemic didn’t affect the way we live and work. When it eventually and hopefully goes away, people who share common spaces to work will most likely see a major shift in their offices and a move online for a lot of their work and communication.
One planet, two worlds
The first thing that became apparent to me when the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders appeared was how the workforce was segmented into two groups: virtual and real. Essential workers and those who were able to work online remained gainfully employed. However, if your productive labor is based on proximity to a location — for example, a personal trainer or a bus driver — your activities changed.
While some have been able to get back to work while wearing a mask, other industries still lag and have caused life-altering situations for employees. As restaurants shut their doors, wait staff and food preparation personnel had their hours reduced or were laid off. Hairstylists’ chairs sat empty.
Fortunately, most in IT can continue to work from the confines of our home office. We can attend meetings via videoconference, chat on Slack and collaborate by sharing documents in real time on Google Docs. While our lives haven’t drastically changed from paycheck or work responsibility perspectives, there are places where our lives will change, regardless of the fortunes we enjoy as remote workers. These changes relate to a central issue: turning common space into cyberspace.
The challenges of a move online from the real world
Common spaces are places we share with the public at large, such as shopping malls, concert halls, churches, restaurants and classrooms. Common spaces serve a purpose. But the COVID-19 pandemic altered or restricted access to common spaces, and so the common space has moved to cyberspace.
Instead of shopping at a brick-and-mortar mall, you go to Amazon. Instead of dinner at a restaurant, you have it brought to you via an online delivery service.
IT workers are no different. Instead of attending a conference at a convention center, we go to a virtual summit online. And, instead of on-site training, we take courses online. While COVID-19 has made these changes seem short term, there are significant, long-term implications for this move online.
The rise of the virtual tech conference
Tech conferences are a highly profitable industry. Over 20,000 people attended KubeCon 2019 in San Diego. Not only did they pay between $600 and $1,050 to attend — depending on the ticket type — but most who attended bought an airplane ticket to get there and paid for a hotel in San Diego. To say that this conference is a significant revenue generator to ancillary businesses around the convention center is an understatement. KubeCon is one of the dozens of major tech conferences held every year in cities around the globe. They used to be in the common space, and now they’re in cyberspace and all the real-time revenue is gone.
Outside of the business impact, there’s also the personal one. Conferences have now become asynchronous. Instead of making your way through a crowd to attend a presentation in a convention center, all you need to do is move online and view a video in a well-organized YouTube playlist. And, since there’s no schedule, you tune in at your convenience.
The move online from convention centers is a gamechanger. As both people and companies get accustomed to the convenience and savings of these on-demand conferences, there’s a very good chance that the notion of tech conferences in the real world will be a thing of the past — even when COVID-19 goes away. It’s like shopping online. At first, there were early adopters. Now, everybody does it. The convenience and savings are too significant to ignore.
How technical training moved online
Another area where COVID-19 had an impact is around on-site technical training. Classes that were held on site in a common space such as a conference room have moved to cyberspace. I’ve experienced this change firsthand.
The move from common space to cyberspace has changed classroom dynamics, so to speak. Teaching virtually is more akin to the radio announcer who talks to millions of unknown listeners than a typical interaction between instructor and student. Teaching online deprives the teacher of the ability to “read” the class, even when the attendees’ video cameras are on — and they aren’t, in most instances. Also, anything that looks like group participation is hard, despite the availability of virtual breakout rooms.
When I taught on site, it wasn’t unusual to spend a good portion of my time taking impromptu questions from students. When I teach online, I rarely get asked questions. And when I pose a question to the group, it often goes unanswered.
There’s a term many of us who do corporate technical training use to describe the experience: crickets. You ask a question and wait for an answer — any answer. Instead, all we hear is the sound of silence.
To rely solely on online technical training isn’t optimal. Still, it’s likely to become more prevalent even as COVID-19 cases diminish because the reduced cost and added convenience of online training are so attractive.
However, online teaching as the primary means to deliver technical training is a double-edged sword. I believe that companies in the online training business will find it easier and more profitable to provide pay-as-you-go educational videos at the viewer’s convenience than to deliver synchronous online classes. As these videos become more popular, companies that can produce high-quality educational videos with well-designed content, good narration and attractive graphics will enjoy a competitive advantage. In addition, companies that present these videos within a framework that has an AI-powered testing mechanism built-in — think YouTube videos with intelligent testing at the end — stand a good chance to succeed.
The quality of online education media will improve, but the educational experience will be less focused on how ideas are exchanged and analyzed. Students will spend more time absorbing information than evaluating it. The danger is that we may create a whole generation of technologists that are good at working the dials of a particular technology but have little understanding as to why they’re doing the tasks.
The road ahead
It’s both strange and amazing how much COVID-19 altered our day-to-day lives. Less than a year ago few people could have anticipated these massive changes.
There’s a good argument to be made that the changes brought on by COVID-19 were inevitable and that the pandemic did nothing more than accelerate the unavoidable. While there’s value to the assertion, regardless of the cause, we’re looking at a future in which human interaction will become more virtual and less proximate. We’ll rely less on those people around us and more on those we experience on our laptops and cellphones.
The implications of a move online are significant.
As we spend more time in cyberspace and less time in a physical office, commercial real estate values will plummet. Why spend money renting office space when remote workers are just as productive at home?
As more conferences become virtual events, marketing practices will change too. After all, why pay to print T-shirts when there’s no one to give them to?
Or, more dramatically, why spend money on a conference at all when a company can make just as much money producing a set of high-quality videos with keynote speakers and technical presenters that will go on a YouTube channel promoted under a comprehensive marketing plan?
Once organizations become accustomed to the reduced cost of doing business as brought about by COVID-19, there’s also a strong possibility that there won’t be a return to business as usual. We will no longer work in a common space. Instead, for those of us in IT, our predominant place of business will be cyberspace with all the benefits and challenges that go with it. We’ll adjust, no doubt. The question is, will we miss that which we’ve left behind? We might. We might not. I leave it to you to answer.