The Brave New World of Telework, Computer Clouds, and Isolated Workers
Underneath the fear for the new corona virus, there is the celebration of new apps and technologies that allow some of us to continue working, meeting and being somehow productive, while in isolation in our rooms and houses. But the shift we celebrate now, could be the pandemic of tomorrow, writes Eric Stryson. If we don’t flatten this curve now, it will soon spiral out of control.
A quiet resentment is growing against Zoom, the popular video conferencing service. A client recently suggested, “Shall we just do a classic phone call?” I agreed and called him on a landline. A colleague admitted she can never remember people’s names when she meets them on screen, even though she has been in dozens of “rooms” with them this past month.
And the Zoom technology is coming under fire for accusations of device tracking, a dark version of trolling dubbed “Zoombombing” and plain old privacy concerns. The poster child for our pandemic moment has a market cap that has doubled to $42bn since January. But post-crisis, could boom turn to doom? It foreshadows a future work-life imperiled by new risks for which few of us are preparing.
This science fiction is real, and frightening
With one third of the world’s population under some form of lockdown, many are fast habituating to life and work online. Environmentalists and fans of science fiction are celebrating. Teleportation might finally overtake transportation, and grant the carbon reduction benefits the biosphere needs. A recent Financial Times opinion suggests the Covid-19 crisis represents an economic inflection point beyond which physical and virtual worlds are irrevocably blurred. Our quaint balance of offline and online interactions may never recover.
But social distancing is, by definition, inhumane. It is also not possible if you are poor and living in a crowded city in the developing world. Necessary to stem a health pandemic, we should not hope for it to persist, and create a social pandemic. Isolation and lack of human contact is unproductive, undesirable and undoubtedly a cause for worsening of mental health. But it might well be here to stay.
Computer clouds are cheaper than office buildings
Vibrant office environments on the other hand, support staff in developing structured mindsets and disciplined behaviors which are easily lost at home, bereft of professional social demands and interactions. Yet, when the virus recedes, the cost savings of remote work may well be baked into corporate budgets. Cloud computing has usurped traditional business infrastructure and companies will be challenged to justify the time and expense of 2019-level business travel.
Some will expand their ranks of temporary or freelance workers, given the improved and for now validated tools – globally, Microsoft Teams users generated 900 million minutes of meetings every day during one week in March.
Big Algorithm Sees You
But one thing we have learned on lockdown is that remote workers are bombarded with distractions – think Zoom sightings of half-naked family members. And the anti-productivity apps, Netflix and YouTube, have seen such a surge in usage they have reduced video quality to conserve bandwidth. The solutions to distracted work are scary.
Staff who split time between office and home will contend with new productivity surveillance software, giving new meaning to ‘matrix reporting lines’ with algorithmic bosses. Breakthrough apps may blend location tracking, facial emotion reading and keystroke KPI’s at the same minutiae as Amazon tracks warehouse workers’ toilet breaks. A brave new world of work, indeed.
But one thing is for sure, it will no more be fun. Ironically, we are at the same time bombarded by tech CEO’s talking about the workplace being “fun.”
The End of Confidentiality
Adding to the fun, workers will be asked to navigate a rising tide of fraudulent information. Fake news that was once an irritant will metastasize into a chronic debilitating disease. Video manipulation through “deep fake” technology continues to improve, aided and abetted by artificial intelligence, and that will prey on video collaboration.
I predict twelve months or less before a major scandal emerges. Proprietary information stolen. A slip of the tongue ransomed by nefarious attendees, or worse. This socially destructive technology will herald a new tech arms race. For executives, the risk of being recorded will erode free and open discourse, particularly amongst those who do not know each other well.
Sounds, smells and a shared meal
The most insidious casualty of our radical experiment in virtualization may well be a reduction in direct, first-hand interaction with unfamiliar people and places. Our subjective experience of other cultures will increasingly be curated through digital interlocutors, making us less human or sincere. Ambient sounds, smells and feelings will be lost. Images will be parsed and impressions manicured.
The next epidemic will be an atrophy of soft skills, already in short supply among corporate leaders, and the net impacts on business decision-making could be catastrophic.
In response, companies should re-focus business travel with the objective to understand other regions and cultures, in second or third tier cities and remote areas, to connect with colleagues and spend ‘quality time’ with them including having a meal at a local spot.
Executive managers will gain more value spending a week with foreign customers, partners and stakeholders, than two days parachuting into regional headquarters and sitting around a boardroom with others who look like them, or who look different but have similar MBA’s. Those meetings could be via video. But old-fashioned meetings will be invaluable in getting key staff engaged in person.
Protect people, not apps
No one wants to work exclusively with robots, especially those programmed to be digital slave masters, or which enable them to become one themself. Corporate leaders should push back on blinkered engineers innovating new dystopian tools. Regulators must also err on protecting the human, and not be in awe of monopolistic tech owners. After all there is the old saying, “Just because we can do something it does not mean that we should.”
Most of us recognise we are living through a transformational moment. Herd mentality for tech gadgets is what we need immunity for, lest we wake up a few years hence in an entirely different crisis and find that treatment is way beyond a vaccine.
If we have learned anything in isolation, it is that online work can never replace working amongst other human beings, and all of the learning, both direct and indirect, we gain from them. The simple truth is that work is defined by social interactions and should be a source of fun. And that continues to be true, in the future as well.
Eric Stryson is the Managing Director Global Services at the Global Institute For Tomorrow (GIFT), an independent think tank with offices in Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo.