The way it was before

The BBC had an article about some possible future impacts from our global pandemic. Reduced to a summary I’d have to judge it as “we’ll keep acting like we have during this time”. Full of information about hand sanitisers and touchless equipment I think it was pretty unrealistic.

Humans seem to have an endless ability to forget the past and joyfully repeat it, warts and all. We really didn’t learn much from the second or first world wars and we are gleefully shaking our fists at each other again. it takes little for politicians to rally the population and point at some other group to accuse them of “causing it all”. Today it is China, yesterday it was Russia, before that it was the Hun, tomorrow it will be someone else.

I’d say give it one year and we’ll have completely forgotten about Covid-19.

Back during the 90’s I tried to get my manager to see the sense in working from home. I travelled extensively during that time, thousands of air miles across the world and saw more of airline interiors and weird taxis than my family and home. I enjoyed it to a degree but most often ‘zoned-out’ by ignoring all that happened around me and existing in my own thought bubble. I started writing, took paints with me and spent time in parks and plazas doing water-colours. Most customer meetings were short affairs of a couple of hours at most, and then the whole hotel-taxi-airport-plane-airport-taxi to home would repeat. Mind-numbing, wasteful effort.

At the same time my physical location went through a similar cycle. It began with buildings being expanded in the 90’s, new car parks with space for hundreds of cars, even helicopter pads. Car use seemed to proliferate even in the face of car sharing schemes, bicycle discount purchases, and private bussing from the train station. Nothing halted the growth of the motor industry as much as the internet.

The internet brought freedom from location. I spent most of my time phoning people, creating code, and sending emails to arrange things including travel. On the odd occasion I actually spoke to someone local about an aspect of the project I was working on, but mostly things were don’t electronically. I did have the advantage that working for the world’s premier technology company meant that we’d had internal systems that worked globally well before DARPA and other pieces came together to form what we know of as the modern Internet. I even used Fidonet from a home PC in the late 80’s!

The first decade after the new millennium put in place many of the systems that have given us modern working practise. Video standards and increasing technology convergence in miniaturisation led to tablets, smart phones, and systems that could stream live video with reasonable quality. I watched people try video calling on public transport and saw the issues with technology for technology’s sake: just because you can do it, doesn’t mean that it is a good idea. The same with mobile phone and Bluetooth earpieces – walking down the road shouting to yourself is a good way to draw anxious glances, hold a phone to your ear and everyone understands that you’re not crazy, just occupied.

The 2010’s saw a rise of ubiquitous broadband connection everywhere from homes to coffee shops to businesses. Connection was everywhere, smartphones common and personal video conferencing really worked. I delivered several global training courses across multiple time zones using course-ware and the experience was tolerable, if not even enjoyable. But the need for gathering in large numbers with colleagues persisted, but the purposes seemed to be more about gelling as a team rather than the purported educational reasons. The Brits called them ‘jollies’ and it is just what you’d expect: trips to foreign corporate party cities as a reward. Barcelona, Las Vegas, Dublin, Orlando and the like.

Eventually even my team became dispersed and had no hope of meeting other than virtually. Once a week we’d come together and see each other through a camera. We became adept at passing knowledge, encouragement, interaction and information between us. I often met other team members at customer sites rather than gathered in the manager’s location. We were a virtual team and it worked very well.

I realise that a physical trades person such as a plasterer won’t have that privilege, nor will a police officer or seaman. But even things such as Haulpak trucks on mining sites can be remotely operated, war-fighting drones (with all their sadness), and autonomous cargo ships are being built. Online retail is booming, shopping malls are entertainment centres, and the fundamentals of what we thought are changing. Even my church has swapped from a be here now to a we’ll talk wherever you are approach and has constructed a TV studio, live streaming, and greater online presence. We may need to live in a new normal for a long, long time.

We cannot predict the future, because it is the future. What we can do is stop clinging lifelessly to the remnants of the past.

My struggle during the late 90’s and 2000’s could have been easier if management saw the potential and worked to mitigate the downside. Instead my frustration was only answered by a global pandemic to force the issue of a new way of working.

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