How Do You Work Versus Where Do You Work

So much of the talk about COVID-19 has revolved around location. Going out? Watch where you are at all times to maintain properly socially distance yourself from others. Staying in? Hope you enjoy that home office and those Zoom meetings, because forget about going to work or sitting around a boardroom table. I won’t even get into the many places that we have not been allowed to visit for months now, like restaurants, bars, concert halls, and most stores. Sigh.

Location, though, actually matters less and less all the time. The dialogue about life under C-19 is moving more to the notion that physical location is irrelevant in some key ways. So much of life has changed that we are adapting to a new normal where we enjoy the same things, but in a different way. First-run movies are skipping the theatre to premiere at home. Takeout is the new night out at a restaurant. Some of this involves real sacrifices, especially when it comes to our need to be social creatures and interact with one another in the real world. But life also finds a way. Things go on, even during a pandemic.

Nothing demonstrates this maxim more effectively than work. We are moving to a new society where the focus is not so much on where we go to work as on what we do for a living, and how we do it. This turns much of the old working world on its head, placing the focus more on the individual than the company. With flexible working arrangements, workers can craft their lifestyles around where they want to be and how they want to experience the world.

No longer will their worlds be structured around their careers and the location of their corporate office. Instead, people will be able to choose where they want to live. They will be able to enjoy a life that is more about them and not as much about commutes, daily grinds, and the expense of big-city living.

Aspects of this new normal will also be beneficial to employers. Companies will be able to attract employees without paying any heed to geographical restrictions. The talent pool will dramatically increase in size for everyone. Flexible working arrangements will also trigger a psychological shift will be a boon for workplace productivity. With an employee’s focus shifting from “going to work” to simply “work,” a lot of extraneous complications will be cut loose. This will remove office interruptions (I don’t care that you had a flat tire on the weekend, Steve), but also the drain of the daily commute, the grind of daily life in a big city, and so on. Without all those distractions, employees will be able to keep their attention on their real jobs and get more done.

Of course, the shift to working remotely also means that management will need to change. Where the workplace that we were all accustomed to revolved around being chained to a desk, nose to the grindstone for those 35 or whatever hours per week, the new workplace will need to be more results-oriented wherever possible. New ways will have to be found to assess productivity. Expect this to be a net positive for both employer and employee. The former will be forced to look at measurable results instead of a time-clock, while the latter will be freed from daily drudgery and feel more like part of a team, someone who is actively contributing to workplace success instead of just warming a seat for eight hours a day.

So forget about location. The new workplace will be just about anywhere we want it to be, whether that means a home office, a cozy breakfast nook in the kitchen, the corner of a local coffee shop (or so I can dream), or yes, even at the corporate HQ for a little hotdesking every once in a while. And the new work will be just that. Work. Without all of the attendant annoyances like commuting in city traffic, big-city mortgages for tiny houses or condos, and more. For all that C-19 has made us focus on our current locations and the societal lockdown, the final legacy of the virus could be one of freedom.


School’s Out Forever?

While Alice Cooper made the idea of having no class and no principals (principles? never been able to decide which word he was singing here) seem like an awfully good thing back in 1972, COVID-19 is putting a decidedly more depressing spin on this theme in 2020.

One of the biggest casualties of the pandemic has been the education system. Schools mostly shut down across North America in March, and many look set to remain out for the remainder of the regular school year. Those regions that have reopened schools have done so with social distancing rules and other strict regulations firmly in place to try and prevent community transmission of the coronavirus. Recess is even less fun than usual right now without British Bulldog.

And it of course remains an open question what our educational institutions will look like once September rolls around. Will the changes forced by C-19 be permanent? What does a post-pandemic public school classroom look like? How about a university lecture hall? Will we have plexiglass between desks and on lunchroom tables in the cafeteria? Class sizes cut in half to enforce social distancing? Everything about how we learn will look a lot different in September (if schools open in September, that is) than it did in March.

Just as we are seeing with the business world and the shift to working from home, schools are going to have to take more advantage of the current situation. All institutions from public schools to universities will need to embrace more flexible methods involving the internet and technology (virtual reality headsets alone could revolutionize how we learn, and even how we experience the world outside our homes) as a whole.

Teaching can’t be moved online simply by putting an instructor in front of a camera. Methodologies will need to shift. Instead of simply lecturing, giving reading assignments, porting existing class materials online, and, let’s face it, going through the motions (a long-standing tradition that allowed me to take some of my best-ever naps in university lecture halls), teachers will have to actively engage their students. There will have to be a certain amount of performance added to instruction, as simply moving over the content of real-life classes would be dreary and soul-crushing. Without the personal experience, this would amount to learning by rote and repetition, similar to the way that children memorized everything in the 19th century classroom. And I, for one, have no desire to sit in a virtual Little House on the Prairie classroom, as much as we all miss Michael Landon.

All of this will be jarring. But a shift to online education, even in part, offers tremendous opportunities, many of the sort that have already been seen in the great shift to remote work underway now. Just as employees have been able to work from home, more students will be able to learn from home. This will remove huge barriers to higher education when it comes to the overall cost and the hassle of needing to move to a new city to attend the school of your choice or commute to campus on a daily basis.

Schools themselves will also benefit. Every higher learning institution moving its courses online will be able to attract a greater number of students, due to the ability to enroll from virtually anywhere in the world. This will make higher education more competitive, even lead to a “Yelping” of classes that would force schools not to rest on their laurels and histories, but to provide improved teaching methods. Universities and colleges would also be able to expand their reach when it comes to hiring instructors, who could teach remotely from homes scattered across the globe.

An impact could also be felt in primary and secondary schools. Will more school boards allow parents the option to choose learning remotely for their children? This could shrink class sizes in the actual brick-and-mortar classrooms and allow for a more personal learning approach resembling home schooling. The benefits here could also be tremendous for special needs students.

Teaching has always been a communal experience at its heart. Learning together as a group, with an instructor in the room, has long been key to the entire educational experience. That likely will not go away any time soon. But just as with the remote work experiment underway now, COVID-19 is forcing us to consider new options that could well improve how we learn and also greatly benefit our societies overall.


Green Acres is the Place to Be

One of the big C-19 topics of late is how our cities will never look the same following the pandemic. News outlets are all over this, with talk about how cities are shutting down roadways to vehicles, adding more bike lanes, and just generally opening up the asphalt jungle more to human-oriented green spaces. Kind of a must right now, really, because of the drastic decline in commuter traffic and the plummeting use of public transit.

Society is shifting. Cities are making the move to become more livable for people. Roads, cars, buses, subways, and more are being scaled back, at least for the time being, as work has changed and there just isn’t enough demand for these services. Even smaller urban areas are wrestling with space issues. A beautiful Ottawa Valley village like Merrickville is struggling right now with concerns over too many visitors crowding its quaint, 19th century streets—which are too narrow to allow for proper social distancing.

In the future, though, who knows? Cities have always rebounded from economic crises and even pandemics in the past. It’s hard to say if these changes will be permanent due to health worries and workplace flexibility…or if we will simply forget the pandemic and go back to normal. Mankind has an awfully short memory.

But what we can say for certain is that the quality of life just now being embraced by larger cities out of necessity is already on offer in the smaller communities of the St. Lawrence River Region. Yes, this is a bit of a sales pitch. But it is also the reality of life here, where we have unsurpassed access to parks along the river and an easier pace of life with far less traffic on our roads…even before the pandemic than the likes of Ottawa and even Kingston. At the same time, you do not need to make any sacrifices, as we are adjacent to Hwy. 401, close to a couple of international bridges, and within an hour of just about anything you could want or need.

Add in more affordable, more spacious homes with real backyards and you have the makings of a quality of life that simply can’t be touched. This has tremendous value to everyone, although it is even more important to those working from home right now (and likely for the foreseeable future). Life in a small apartment or condo, or in a cookie-cutter home on a postage-stamp lot in a suburb may have looked good before the pandemic, when you were close to the office and all the social amenities provided by city life. Now, that’s all changed in dramatic ways. You don’t need to be close to the office anymore. And as for those social amenities? They come with big crowds in big cities. How does that look to you now?

What cities are now aspiring to create out of sheer necessity thanks to COVID-19, we already have in the St. Lawrence River Region. Contact SLX so we can show you what we have to offer in person.


Don’t Judge! Remote Working Doesn’t Usually Look Like This!

So, you’ve been working from home for the first time ever over the past couple of months of COVID craziness. And even though you kinda liked it for the change of pace at first—sleep in a little later, no need to get dressed up, the morning commute was cut back to the ten seconds needed to shuffle from the bedroom to the home office, etc.—the fun just didn’t last because you began to feel trapped.

Actually, “trapped” is probably putting it mildly. While there were great trade-offs that made working from home seem like a break from the office grind, you soon began to feel like you were in a 24-7 prison cell. Okay, solitary confinement. On Devil’s Island. With kids. Bored kids.

No surprise that you began to long for the day when the pandemic would be over. For the day you could once more embrace the escape offered by a daily two-hour commute and a sealed cubicle far away from spouse and kids and pets. For the 9-5 routine to come back so that you weren’t expected to parent your kids and work associates, answer texts around the clock, and sit in on evening Zoom meetings because of somebody else’s new daytime commitments.

Many aspects of working from home during the pandemic have been horrible. No argument there. This has been an incredibly stressful time just given the health implications of the coronavirus, let alone hair-pulling additions like the sudden move to working from home, the almost complete lack of preparation for this Great Remote Work Experiment, and crazy schedules as everyone makes this massive adjustment. Oh, and let’s not forget the fact that you’re either completely isolated right now if you live alone or you’re cooped up with a spouse and kids and maybe even a couple of passive-aggressive cats not exactly thrilled that you’re at home a whole lot more than usual.

Just don’t judge what working from home is like solely from what you have experienced over the past couple of months. I’ve mostly worked from home since 1997, and I firmly believe that this is the better way. Workplace flexibility improves your work-life balance, bank account, stress level, fitness level (well, in theory, er, no comment here from me), and productivity. That’s especially apparent when you’re in a community—sales pitch alert—like the St. Lawrence River Region, with spacious homes, lots of green space, and an overall quality of living quotient that big cities cannot match.

Those stuck at home these days are not seeing what remote work actually is during regular times. The biggest change is the sense of isolation. Having a flexible work arrangement—especially if it includes the ability to work outside of the usual 9-5 office schedule—doesn’t help much if everything is closed. I have always enjoyed the ability to binge work, do a lot of jobs at night with the house quiet in the wee hours, and get out during the day. Sometimes that meant meeting friends for lunch or a coffee. Sometimes that meant a meeting out of town. Sometimes that meant grabbing a matinee movie, or hitting up some shops on a quiet weekday afternoon before going home to grind out work assignments in the evening.

All that came to a sudden halt in mid-March with the COVID-19 lockdown. My work schedule had already changed to a more regular schedule before the virus hit, but closing almost all of society killed the ability to do much of anything outside of work. If anything, the lockdown made me feel more like I was stuck in a 9-5 office job with no freedom. I may be working mostly from my home office, but I might as well be chained to a desk in a cubicle farm for all the ability I have to enjoy my flexible working arrangements.

Remember that none of this is normal. Working from home isn’t causing the collar to feel a little too tight right now. Blame that feeling on the restrictions forced on us all thanks to the pandemic. We’re all longing to get out of the house. But don’t be in too much of a rush to abandon the home office and go back to the way things used to be (if that will even be possible). Working from home will get better for everyone as we move through this crisis and adjust to a new workplace reality that will be better for employer, employee, and society as a whole. Just give it time.


Office Space

Office Space. It’s now more than just the title of a great movie, it’s one of the major concerns of working life after COVID-19. With so many people now working from home–and that sort of workplace flexibility almost certainly continuing on a more-or-less permanent basis–there is a big question around what will happen to the old-fashioned office tower.

With so many companies having shifted their workers to home offices, there is a lot of office space currently going underutilized or completely unused right now. Tumbleweeds have been blowing through empty corridors the past couple of months. Desks have been gathering dust. The good old boardroom table and meeting room have been replaced with tele-conferences taking place on monitors in homes across the nation.

All of this real estate is awfully expensive to own, operate, and maintain. Yet things have changed. Dramatically. As much as I love the movie Office Space, I have a feeling that it will look awfully dated the next time I get around to watching Peter, Samir, and Lawrence destroy that copier. The once depressingly familiar corporate way of life shown in the movie–which was oddly staying current despite being over two decades old now–has changed forever.

So, what happens next?

Probably a variety of things. Many companies have invested a great deal in their office complexes, so it’s hard to see them completely walking away. There is great evidence of this even in our neck of the woods near Ottawa, with a number of major companies expanding their bricks-and-mortar footprint dramatically in recent years to house an ever-expanding number of employees. That is going to be hard to simply pull back from, especially when corporate culture is also wrapped up in those offices.

What is coming could be seen as a battle between employer and employee. Now that the average office employee has seen the benefits of working from home, it will be difficult to simply issue a call to come back in May or June. People are enjoying the greater work-life balance, the ability to sleep in, the way that the morning commute is now a 15-second walk into a home office instead of an hour of sheer hell on a highway or crammed into a bus or train, and so forth. Good luck expecting workers to just forget all of that and arrive bright and early on Monday morning as soon as governments give the all-clear signal.

COVID-19 is also still out there. Even when society opens up again, it will be by gradual stages, and things won’t just bounce back to normal. For starters, we don’t know what normal will look like. We may all be talking about this new normal, but nobody has a clue what that actually means. There are some certainties, however. Health concerns will remain. Fear will remain. Employees will insist on greater flexibility in working arrangements. Moms and dads will demand changes, as they will certainly not want to bring home a potentially deadly virus from the cubicle farm.

Employers will have to acknowledge these new realities. We’ll see that first with changes to offices overall. Expect more social distancing within work environments. Some of this will take the form of greater space between desks, six chairs around a big boardroom table instead of 20, that sort of thing. Hotdesking will become more popular, with workers sharing space on alternating days. Cleaning practices will be ramped up, with much more disinfecting, especially in shared areas like common rooms and kitchenettes.

Other alterations will be more far-reaching. Ventilation will have to be a consideration now, especially since building heating and cooling systems are a potential way of spreading the virus. Sealed office towers will have to be reexamined and likely opened up for some fresh air. The impact on building design will be massive. I would expect that a lot of blueprints are being ripped up as I type, and some last-minute changes being forced on offices currently under construction.

Switching offices over to warehouses is a strong likelihood, particularly since the coronavirus has exposed weaknesses in the supply chain. Expect more local storage of key goods across North America, to avoid potential issues with shipping. Expect this to be most pronounced with regard to anything shipped internationally, although I would expect changes locally as well given the issues with keeping some essentials on store shelves in recent weeks (toilet paper, for example). We will see some retreating from globalization after C-19 recedes, as well, which will add to the need for warehouse space and encourage the permanent retiring of some office buildings.

But the very best part of the changes to office space arrangements? If you’re working from home, you never have to worry about someone stealing your stapler. Okay, now I absolutely have to re-watch Office Space.


If That’s Movin’ Up Than I’m Movin’ Out

Apologies for the Unexpected Billy Joel up there. But that line from what is now a very old song is awfully apropos. We are all starting to realize that the changes wrought by COVID-19 will be with us for some time to come, even as society only begins to stagger out of the bedroom, yawning and looking for a coffee.

And who wouldn’t want to look for a new address right now? Aside from the desire to flee the stuck-at-home stank that has inevitably been gathering thanks to everyone living and working within the same four walls over the past couple of months, people are assessing their living arrangements and wondering if they are missing out. Is there something better out there?

COVID-19 itself has exposed the problems with living in densely packed cities. This pandemic and the health concerns that go along with it have changed society. The need for social distancing has made cramming into a train or bus, squeezing into an SUV with commuting coworkers, and sitting in an office building filled with a few thousand fellow drones look a whole lot different in May than it did as recently as early March. What was once seen as mere inconvenience–even of a soul-draining kind, which is why remote working was already on the rise even long before anyone could find Wuhan on a map–is now seen as scary, and even potentially life-threatening.

This sort of thing has happened before. One of the hallmarks of pandemics, from the Great Plague of London to the cholera waves of the 19th century, has been the way that they forced people from city to country. (Book tip time! If not completely fed up with all things virus yet, check out The Diary of Samuel Pepys and A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe.) When people started dropping dead in city streets, anyone who could afford it suddenly had the urge to check out what rural life had to offer. Coronavirus death rates are not even close to plagues of the past, of course, but the health risk is certainly still there, especially for the elderly and those with a range of preexisting conditions. So the motivation remains, even if the urgency is significantly reduced.

In short, the Great Remote Worker Experiment of 2020 has made a whole lot of people realize that they do not have to be tied to big city living now that their jobs have gone mobile. When your career is no longer locked to a bricks-and-mortar office, you are no longer locked to a tiny city apartment, or even a condo, or even a super-pricey home and swatch of green space stranded in the middle of a concrete sea. You can greatly change your quality of life and your overall work-life balance. All it takes is looking a little farther afield.

After these sorts of pandemics and various economic shocks in the past, cities generally rebounded. As the diseases receded and/or the economy roared back, people returned to the biggest urban areas for jobs. Life resumed, more or less as normal. I’m not so sure that will be the case this time. The social changes forced by COVID-19 have revealed that we can migrate jobs to home offices. There is no putting the lid back on that bottle. The genie is out. Workers now see the benefits of working from home. Companies now see that there are real advantages to having a spread-out workforce, in terms of costs, talent pool, and employee job satisfaction and productivity.

Sonny, move out to the country! Nothing has been easy about COVID-19, least of all the way that it has pushed the lyrics of ancient Billy Joel songs back into my frontal lobe. But the virus has had one positive effect when it comes to remote working, as it has forced millions of people to take stock of their lives and look for a better way. And–sales pitch alert!–we can help with that here in the St. Lawrence Region. Contact us at SLX to find out how we can ease your transition from big city to greener pastures along one of the world’s great waterways.