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.


Safe Surfing with Virtual Public Networks

Ah, privacy. It may be something of a relic of the past these days, as every website seems to track your surfing to either try and sell you something or do something even more nefarious, often involving African princes and lost inheritances or the (Not Really) Canadian Revenue Agency and iTunes gift cards.

Who hasn’t searched for something on Amazon or eBay and wound up getting pushed advertising for the same product (or alternatives) for weeks no matter where you were travelling on the web? I once put some car tires in a cart at one site, changed my mind, and then had that almost-purchase haunt me like some kind of spurned spirit for months all over the net. Call it the Ghost of Radials Past.

But you don’t have to make it so easy. And if you are now working, shopping, and surfing for fun from your home office, you have an obligation to ensure that outside agencies cannot track your activities. This is, of course, also smart practice for anyone and everyone, given the number of scams, ransom attacks, and other cyber crimes being perpetrated today.

So get yourself a VPN. What’s that mean, you may ask? Well, a VPN is a Virtual Private Network. This functions as kind of a shortcut around your ISP (Internet Service Provider), blocking the ability to observe what you do online. While that provider can see that you are connecting to a VPN, everything from that point on goes through that VPN. And VPNs–the good ones that charge a subscription fee, at any rate–do not track or keep logs, which means you are as close to anonymous as it is possible to be online.

Here’s a good way to envision how this works. Think of the internet as a big apartment building. If you’re using a VPN, you can only be seen at the front door of that building. Once you go inside, you can head to any address you want without being monitored. If you’re not using a VPN, you’re allowing your internet service provider to follow you from door to door, and keep a log of every address you visit.

This sounds rather complicated to the average person. It isn’t. Here is what you need to do to get online with a VPN:

1. Pick a VPN provider. There are a lot of very good ones online. I won’t recommend a specific one, as I have not tried all of the better choices to be able to provide a fair assessment. A quick Google search will lead to countless reviews. Some of the better bets include ExpressVPN, NordVPN, Surfshark, IP Vanish, StrongVPN, and more. Expect to pay anywhere from $60-100 US per year for full VPN service, either in a lump sum or as a monthly subscription.

2. Do NOT sign on with a “free” VPN. Nothing is truly free. Avoid these supposedly gratis companies, who could well pay for their operating expenses by tracking and selling your data. Speed is also a major factor here. Remember that you are routing your internet traffic away from your ISP and onto the VPN servers. This can mean a hit to speed and connection stability. With a good, subscription-based VPN such as the ones noted above, you will not see any speed decreases or connectivity down times. The VPN that I use actually seems to make my surfing faster, for the most part.

3. Install the VPN company’s proprietary app. Most VPN subscriptions include the ability to install an app on a set number of devices like PCs, phones, and tablets. I’ll just cover the PC in detail here, but the apps are similar on all devices. The VPN service that I use has a basic Windows tray app that starts automatically whenever the computer boots up. I use this app to choose a current location from hundreds of options all over the planet, spread across nearly 100 countries. There is even a built-in kill switch, so if my net connection ever goes down, even for a split-second, all internet traffic is instantly halted to preserve my privacy. I even have access to 24/7 online support, so I can send text questions to live operators if I ever encounter any issues.

4. Head online as usual. Do your thing, for work or play. Yes, it really is that easy. VPNs have evolved from what was once reserved for techies to a set-it-and-forget-it service that is as extremely user-friendly.

And that is about it for getting started with a VPN. Given the surge of remote work since COVID-19 arrived on the scene in February, and the inevitable rise in cyber crime that spring into action to take advantage of this, you need to protect yourself as much as possible when online. Make your first line of defense a VPN.


Home Office Frills–Because It Isn’t All About Work

COVID-19. Economic turmoil. Restaurants and theatres closed. Sports leagues shuttered. Grocery store shopping in hazmat gear. Cooped up working from home.

Doesn’t sound like fun, does it? And it isn’t. While we couch what’s been happening over the past couple of months in sterile conversations about what we’re calling the “Great Remote Work Experiment,” this is a decidedly unsettling time for most of us. So don’t even try to pretend that everything is normal. Be easy on yourself if you’re not as focused or productive as you would like to be. We are living through the worst pandemic in a century. You should not freak out. But you also do not have to pretend this is all cotton candy and puppies.

One way to deal with the stress is to have fun with your home office. Chances are good that you have been and will be spending more time here than ever before. Make sure that it isn’t all about work by adding creature comforts. Here are a few ideas to make your home office a little more home and a little less office.

1. Set up a good music system. Okay, this isn’t necessarily for everyone. But I know that easy access to music has always been part of my working environment, both at home and in whatever external office I have occupied. If this is important to you as well, take the time to build a proper system either in your home office or in a nearby room. Use an amp and speakers that you enjoy listening to, not just whatever your PC spits out to internal speakers or crappy workplace desktop models. I go a little more hardcore here than most, with a small desktop amp, a tube amp to warm up that harsh digital sound, a DAC, and good bookshelf speakers, running lossless tracks from my own music collection in JRiver Media Center. There are plenty of options available to make this simpler. But if tunes are important to you, make music a big part of your home office.

2. Subscribe to a good streaming service for music, current affairs, and podcasts. The number of options here are incredible, whether you want to send music to your desktop, stay current with the news, or listen to true crime podcasts. There are countless free online radio stations as well, whether you want to listen to the AM station down the street or jazz from Amsterdam. Again, take the time to look at different options and match a service with your interests. Tidal, for instance, is great for higher resolution music, but it’s more expensive than rivals Amazon Music, Apple Music, and Spotify.

3. Adorn your workplace with art that you enjoy. Remember that this isn’t the actual office, so you don’t have to worry about offending any sensibilities, calling down the wrath of HR, or even staying with something staid to maintain workplace street cred. That could mean a velvet Elvis, moving your kids’ artwork into the office from the fridge, or whatever else relaxes and inspires. I have a Milton Glaser Dylan beside my monitor, framed classic horror and sci-fi movie posters on the wall behind me, and a boarded Amazing Spider-Man #122 on the other side of my desk. Indulge yourself here. Create a work space that is as much clubhouse as it is office.

4. Collectibles and other décor also have a role in any home office. Don’t crowd out the actual work with, say, your spectacular arrangement of Star Wars action figures. But reserving space for tchotkes and collectibles can have the same impact as eating comfort food on a stressful day. No further comment on the geeky stuff I have in my office, although I will note that I always use a Zoom backdrop during meetings.

5. Establish a readily accessible place in your office for drinks and snacks. While you might not have the room for a mini-fridge, designate a spot for actual comfort food, a kettle, coffee maker, and so forth. This lets you graze during the day and grab quick pick-me-ups as needed. Also, having food and drink at hand can be helpful during tele-conference meetings, when you can’t just run to the kitchen. Having refreshments in the office also helps with the ever-present battle against procrastination, as heading downstairs for a drink or a snack can easily turn into a lengthier break than you were intending to take.

However you do it, spend some me time on making your home office homier. Your mental and emotional well-being will thank you. Happiness will increase your productivity. A little music, Robert Bateman on the walls, Hummel figurines on the desk, whatever works. No judgment here. Just take care of yourself.


Remote Working: Pandemic Fad or the Real Deal?

We all know that remote working is as spreading almost as rapidly as the damned coronavirus itself, but does it have staying power? Is working from home really going to be the new normal, an integral part of corporate culture forevermore? Or will it burn out as the pandemic danger recedes and people go back to the familiar old 9-to-5?

I’m going to go way out on a limb here and say “Maybe.” Honestly, right now it’s hard to know where we’re headed. If I was kidnapped and hauled off to a Vegas casino right now–and I’d have to be tied up and thrown into the cargo hold of a plane to go to Sin City these days, with the mayor down there threatening to turn her town into a petri dish with slots–I would put cash on “Yes, we’re not going back to the office anytime soon.” But I’d hedge that bet and move the money around a bit to minimize risk.

Human nature is awfully hard to predict. While people are afraid right now, we forget our fears awfully damn fast when danger recedes. So I’m not sure home offices will look all that appealing once the lockdowns start to lift. Many are suffering from cabin fever right now, being unable to get out much or at all with almost everything shut down. Unless you’re into bowling in Georgia, of course, and then you’re all good.

A lot of people working from home for the first time at the moment are also not experiencing what regular working from home is truly like. This is a special situation, to say the least. New remote workers are crammed together with makeshift work arrangements, maybe with a laid-off partner at home, and maybe with a kid or three as well since all the schools are closed. That is a long way from the typical peace and quiet of working in a home office, likely with a spouse off to work elsewhere or secluded in his or her own office down the hallway, and the kids away learning their A-B-Cs.

Being thrust into working from home has not been without its other hiccups, too. Remote working has social and psychological challenges, especially if you live alone. The sense of isolation can be powerful, and C-19 hit so suddenly that many simply had no time to mentally or physically prepare for it. Then there are the tech issues of quickly trying to set up a home office, so you can do your job outside of the regular workplace. And the let’s not forget about the inevitable communication quibbles that come when a team that usually has its members all in the same place for 35 hours+ a week suddenly has to do all of its talking and planning on tele-conferences or over email and other forms of text messaging.

So I could easily see a snap back coming. C-19 restrictions finally lift and I can envision many, many workers racing back to the office, desperately looking for some sort of freedom, human contact beyond the home family unit, and an escape. I can already hear that famous old Simpsons sound effect–the slamming door, racing footsteps, and car tires peeling out–echoing all over the country on Victory Over Covid Day.

With all that said, remote working is still here to stay. C-19 may or may not spark an immediate and permanent revolution. But working from home will continue to grow because it, well, works, for both employer and employee.

Study after study has shown that more flexible working arrangements lead to tremendous benefits for everyone. (I could cite examples, but there are so many that it would be like footnoting a reference to the sun rising in the east.) Employees gain greater job satisfaction, productivity, and a positive work-life balance. Employers gain a happier workforce and all of the good things that come with enhanced productivity, which leads to more focused employees committed to sticking around. Plus everybody saves some money, with less emphasis on such expenses as commuting and the need to maintain office buildings for staff.

The Great Workplace Experiment of 2020 has come with a ton of hurdles. None of this sudden shift to working from home has been particularly easy for anyone. There will be some bounce back to the traditional office. We may have suddenly moved to a remote work culture for all of the wrong reasons, thanks to the devastation of COVID-19. But we will continue to cultivate and expand this remote work culture for all of the right ones, as it is simply the better way forward for both employer and employee.


Tech Time! Gear Advice for the Home Office Newbie

Let’s give some love to the IT guys. Especially right now, as the move to home offices forced by COVID-19 has resulted in all of us needing to become more hands-on when it comes to technology. Whether your company is providing you with IT advice or you’re a freelancer doing it alone, the need to be self-sufficient at home is a big deal right now.

And what does that mean exactly? Well, it starts with assessing what you have on your desktop and around the house. Many have already done this, as we are now getting awfully close to beginning the third calendar month of C-19 in North America. But as we all settle in to remote working for what’s looking like the long haul–and maybe even for good, depending on how many companies decide to turn this crisis into a great opportunity to save money and improve the lives of their employees–it’s a good time to take stock.

1. Invest in a good workstation PC as the anchor of your home office. You don’t have to go crazy with some $10,000 rig capable of playing bleeding-edge games through 2025 or anything, but you should go beyond what was acceptable for a basic work machine a couple of months ago. Don’t scrimp on a video card, either, especially if you’re doing a fair amount of video-conferencing. Programs like Zoom can occupy a significant amount of processing power, so ensure that your machine can handle the demands of video calls. Oh, and also pick up a UPS, or Uninterruptible Power Supply, to keep your workstation running if the juice goes down.

2. Consider going to a multiple monitor setup on your main home office desk to enhance productivity. I have to admit that I always thought this was overkill, particularly when I watched someone actually set up three screens in an in-person meeting. Kinda hard to do that and also pay attention to the people around the table. But then I got used to doing it at home with a laptop and saw how useful it was to focus on main work projects on one screen while checking in with supplementary tasks on the other. Now I’m just unhappy that I can’t fit a pair of 32” monitors on my desk without evicting speakers, a few gadgets, and a cool Darth Vader action figure.

3. Do not forget about your internet service and router. While the standard 40Mbps down cable connection is generally all you need to Netflix and chill with a couple of TVs at the same time and let the kiddos play Minecraft, working from home may require an upgrade. Consider calling your ISP and looking at greater speeds, particularly if you will be doing video-conferencing from. This is particularly important if you have a lot of little people under one roof right now with the schools closed. You don’t want to lose connections during meetings. Spend an extra few bucks on a solid router (this generally means dumping the subpar one you got from your ISP) to ensure that your wifi strength is solid around the home, and even out to your yard if you plan to get some sunlight this spring. You can go with a strong tri-band central router or a mesh system (generally best if you have a larger home and need to spread out your coverage). Big brands like ASUS, Google, Linksys, Netgear, and TP-Link have models to suit all needs.

4. Ensure that you have a reliable printer and scanner or an all-in-one unit. This was my first challenge to overcome when C-19 locked me down, because A.) I despise printers, B.) I rarely use them, and C.) I’ve grown accustomed to using printers elsewhere (mooching) on those rare occasions I need a hard copy of something. I was able to get by with a basic HP all-in-one inkjet. YMMV, though, depending on how much or how often you need to print physical copies of work. Laser printers have become increasingly affordable, even good colour models. There are tons of choices, of course, making it impossible to throw out any recommendations. As always, start with online reviews and match your machine to needs and budget.

5. A good smartphone and sufficient data plan are vital. This may be a “Well, duh” moment for most, but it’s surprising how many people–especially here in Canada, land of some of the priciest cellular services on the planet–cheap out on both phone and plan. I know, because up until the start of this year, I was one of them. You don’t have to splurge on the latest and greatest Samsung or Apple superphones, but make sure you have something with enough power to handle business apps and video-conferencing. And that your carrier plan offers enough data, so you’re not stranded mid-month. All of your data usage will be going up right now, so plan ahead.

Dig in. Don’t be intimidated by having to be your own IT provider. Spend some time with online research and learn about what’s out there, so you can make the best buying decisions and operate the most efficient home office that you can.