COVID-19: Silver Linings

How the pandemic might push us to work better and prove Plato right

As of this writing in early May 2020, this is COVID-19 by the numbers:

  • total cases, globally: 3.68 million
  • total cases in the US: 1.23 million
  • total deaths, globally: 258 000
  • total deaths in the US: 72 000
  • daily new cases, globally: 80 000
  • daily deaths, globally: 6 000

The actual numbers are most certainly significantly higher, but limited access to healthcare and testing in many parts of the world, including the US, makes those calculations difficult to impossible, even though every academic researcher in the life sciences in the world is currently working on understanding SARS-CoV-2.

The impact of this health crisis is staggering: more than half of the global population is currently under some sort of temporary lockdown measures, all large scale events are canceled until further notice (Summer 2021?), almost all US states have announced that schools and universities will remain closed for the remainder of the academic year, leaving educators and students to build the remote classroom planes as they’re flying them, often with extremely limited resources. There will be no graduation ceremonies, commencement speeches, and wild parties for the Class of 2020. No summer travel, no interns making copies in busy corporate offices, and no sweaty-palmed handshakes at the first job interview.

The world has gone remote.

Many companies were ill-prepared and had to adapt to this new reality overnight: implementing new ways to conduct meetings, managing workflow and progress through software tools, measuring performance by output (tasks completed) rather than input (hours spent at work), and giving employees more flexibility during their work days. That outcome is what Automattic founder and CEO, Matt Mullenweg of WordPress fame, has been working toward for decades, albeit a pandemic not being the way he had hoped or expected those changes to happen.

On his personal page, Mullenweg describes 5 levels of autonomy in distributed work environments:

Distributed work’s five levels of autonomy by Matt Mullenweg

Level Zero: workers must be physically present

Those jobs include police officers, waiters, childcare workers, surgeons, gardeners, and all others whose work can not be done without their physical presence. Most companies operating outside of the actual Level Zero fields falsely assumed that most of their “knowledge workers” also fall into that category and they are now experiencing real revelations in these forced remote work experiments.

Level One: workers should be physically present, could work remotely

Work happens in offices, on company equipment, in company space, on company time. In emergencies, workers can tend to urgent matters from home (via emails and calls) but are expected to return to the office to get back to business as usual, as quickly as possible. Most companies fall into this category and had very little infrastructure in place to handle this kind of crisis.

Level Two: companies recreate the office day in a remote setting

Work is getting done remotely but synchronously on a set schedule, the classic 9 to 5, but without pants. Stress levels are increased as employees try to manage home life and work simultaneously, while management worries about decreased productivity. Lots of time is spent monitoring employees to ensure the work is getting done, ironically wasting time that could be better spent working. Monitoring software may be forced on employees. Overall satisfaction and productivity take a nose dive. Many companies abandon the attempt to go remote at this stage and return to conventional centralized office structures. They shouldn’t.

Level Three: employees work remote-first with increased autonomy

Home offices are set up, meetings happen virtually with occasional local meetings and company events being the exception. Software tools become a more routine part of the day and written correspondence takes the place of direct supervision and continuous monitoring of employees. The daily structure becomes more flexible, employees have the autonomy to work on a schedule that best suits them, built around team meetings and company events.

Level Four: output overtakes input as the measure of productivity

People work on their own schedules and most meetings that could have been emails are now actual emails. Employers are able to recruit from the global talent pool and work happens around the clock in all time zones, when people can be the most productive. Real-time meetings are rare but valued, focused, and productive. In-person events happen on an annual or semi-annual basis and are recreational or celebratory in nature.

Level Five: Nirvana!

I’ll quote Mullenweg directly here, since it’s his vision:

“This is when you consistently perform better than any in-person organization could. You’re effortlessly effective. It’s when everyone in the company has time for wellness and mental health, when people bring their best selves and highest levels of creativity to do the best work of their careers, and just have fun.”

As of early April, 63% of all American knowledge workers had gone remote, and many of them will continue to work remotely, at least part-time, after the pandemic subsides. The infrastructure will remain in place and continue to be improved upon, the benefits of such models will continue to crystallize.

Tech giants like Twitter, Facebook, and Amazon were ahead of the curve moving their knowledge workers out of their offices in early March, several tech companies had been making changes slowly moving towards a distributed model in recent years. Many companies in non-tech sectors were initially struggling to respond to the rapid spread of COVID-19, but even they are now beginning to see the upsides of a distributed work model. Not only can we increase employee performance, satisfaction, and retention, we are also significantly more efficiently insulated against the localized impacts of natural disasters, political turmoil, war, and disease, as well as the cascading respective impact on transportation, access to work environments, supply chains, and so on. Closing an office with 2000 employees in NYC in response to such an event, without a backup plan for remote work, leaves your business seriously impaired, potentially even permanently damaged, while having 2000 employees set up to work from home before disaster strikes ensures frictionless continuity of your entire operation, minimally impacted by external factors.

These lessons are the silver linings of an exceptionally difficult time, once again proving necessity to be the mother of invention.

Software Engineer. Creature of Havoc.

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