I was never really much into working from home (WFH), preferring instead to work long hours when required at the office than lug my laptop home to continue working there after dinner like some of my colleagues did. Even as a university student, I preferred to drive to the campus library to study whenever I could. After three years with my current employer, I only requested for a remote access service (RAS) account when it became evident that the worst scenarios of our Business Continuity Plans (BCP) would be invoked as the COVID-19 pandemic bore down on us in early March this year. Now, after three weeks of working from home, it is easy to see that this crisis has changed a lot of things permanently.
It’s amazing how quickly you could adapt when a situation calls for it. By Day 3 of the call to WFH taking effect, I had bought myself a laptop stand to bring my screen to eye level, a new keyboard and a new mouse to get my home workstation up to a pretty decent level of ergonomics. Even in normal times, we used a lot of video conferencing at the office, so I already had a headset and was pretty average-skilled in the use of remote collaboration suites like Microsoft Teams and Cisco’s WebEx service. Because I am part of our company COVID-19 response command centre, I am a member of a small set of people assigned a permanent desk in what was once a hotdesking office environment and given the option to come to the office twice a week, which I initially took up. However, by the end of the second week — an intense week of nonstop video conferencing, virtual meetings, and working while sharing screens online — most of us were working from home full time.
The demands of the day-to-day reporting requirements of the command centre made jumping in and out of WebEx meetings almost second nature for my colleagues and I. I found that virtual meetings had advantages over physical meetings that made them more productive. There was very little set up time. No need to walk between meeting rooms. There were less constraints due to people’s availability because we were able to jump back and forth in between double-booked meetings. In short, virtual meetings made collaboration practically frictionless. Sharing screens streamed online allowed us to analyse data and write up reports together. Suddenly, “whiteboarding” was so last year.
Midway through the second week, we were taking full advantage of Microsoft Teams’ collaborative tools. Because Teams is a Microsoft product, its integration into the fabric of desktop computing — still dominated by Microsoft products — is unmatched. Teams allows multiple users to work simultaneously on a single Excel workbook — the Holy Grail of online document collaboration.
By the beginning of the third week into the full-time WFH experience, we had gotten our MS Teams space structure to a virtuoso state of optimisation. Chat threads within workstreams (called “channels” in MS Teams) accumulated historical accounts on work progress documented on the fly. Meetings could be scheduled and embedded (retaining their Outlook Calendar properties) within chat threads and minuted within these threads. MS Teams went from being a quaint administrative curiosity that played second fiddle to MS Outlook, JIRA, and Confluence to essential — almost foundational — organisational, productivity, and office social infrastructure within less than a month.
Those of us who live through and may go on to survive the COVID-19 pandemic will look back and lament what this catastrophe took away from humanity. What remained of offline life — already thinned since the dawn of social media in the mid-2000s — now left the room. Future generations, however, will look back to 2020 as the year the Internet really came of age.
Perhaps one day, when that “curve” had finally been totally flattened, the bustle of central business districts and the hum of traffic on highways and train lines that connect them to city suburbs may return. But this experience will likely leave its mark, prompting a reflection on things we once thought were essential. Do we now really need all those roads? Do we really need to spend all that time on a bus, train, or our cars? Do we really need all that office space?
The future is hard to predict and tomorrow will be another day that is difficult to see beyond in a time of pandemic. It took a nasty bug to make us even more reliant on our technology than we ever had been — more than we ever really wanted to. For now, it seems that we — or at least those who can — have little choice but to rebuild our society online.
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