While we are in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and living with social distancing measures, what conclusions can we start to draw about how our lives will be different after we return to work? More specifically, how is COVID-19 going to change how we use technology?
What Technology has been Working (More or Less)?
To start, let’s look at what has been working. At the top of this list, I have to say I am generally very impressed how the internet and all the cloud-based tools have performed. In my personal world, I haven’t seen any cloud-based tool show any signs of being overwhelmed despite the huge growth in traffic.
For example, Zoom’s traffic is up four-fold, yet that has had no impact on its performance (no pauses/glitches, no long hook-up times, no busy signal, no all-lines-are-busy message, etc.). Imagine for a second that movie theater traffic was up that much. That would mean there would not be enough seats, and you would have to wait weeks to see your show. Or worse, what if four times as many people went to the DMV? The line would extend past the eventual collapse of the universe (more or less).
Sure, we have seen the birth of “Zoombombing” but that is really because the features of Zoom were designed for a business community, not as the backbone of personal communication for the world. As a technologist, I can’t help but be excited to see Zoom traffic grow 4x, with no signs of a system being overwhelmed. The great thing about cloud-based products is that they can instantly scale to meet demand. The systems automatically spin up more servers to support more customers and vice versa. Of course, for this to work implies that the cloud service providers (Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Oracle, etc.) have built out enough capacity to handle the overall demand, which they obviously have.
Honestly, having been born into an internet-free world, I’m impressed how robust the system and tools are. Given the success of the cloud-based tools I’ve been using, I think it is obvious that any company that hasn’t devoted an effort to their cloud transformation should be planning their efforts now. By the way: If you need help with a cloud transformation or development of a cloud-based product, please let us know how we can help develop the innovative cloud-based applications that will transform your business.
Getting the Technology Laggards on the Bus
There are lots of laggards in the world who resist change. In fact, I’ll wager we are all laggards in some area in our lives. I think laggards come from one of two motivations. The first is “sure, it would be better but not better enough to think about it and make the leap now.” The second is “this is too important to risk with new technology, so we need to stick with the old process.” So, if it is either trivial or vital, our instinct is to stay put and not make a change unless forced to.
We are all being forced to make changes in order to be able to do our jobs now. At least those of us that have been fortunate enough to have work that can be done remotely. Below are a few anecdotal stories from my life that I suspect will add up to a megatrend by the time we are back in the office.
First up, one of our engineers has a twin brother who is a lawyer working with a team on a big case. All the sensitive documents are stored in one room, where legal practitioners go to conduct research for the case. Because of the fear around security, the policy dictates that all the documents stay in the one room under lock and key. This is an example of laggards who are worried about making a change because the stakes are too high. You can guess the outcome of this story pretty easily. When the decision is to adopt a new process that ensures the same overall security while allowing remote work is weighed against stopping work, it is a no-brainer. Their hand was forced. They did the research. They found the tools that work for this situation, and they implemented them post haste. The laggards are on the bus now (and they won’t get off when they return to the office).
On the other end of the spectrum is a common tool that we are all gaining experience with — the webcam. When I was a little kid in the ’70s, the assumption was that video phones were going to become commonplace. In practice, adoption has been limited because the real need was low as we had other face-to-face interactions with people. There were a lot of vanity issues holding people back (I look terrible on camera, some idiot at Dell put the camera in a place that looks up my nose (seriously why did they do that?), my house or office doesn’t look nice, etc.).
I personally became a believer in video chat after my father retired years ago. Forty-five years of work in retail had trained him to be “efficient” in his phone conversations. Effectively, I’d call to chat, and 38 seconds later felt like I was given the bum rush. When we switched to video conferencing, he became Mr. Chatty, and it felt very much like the neighbor leaning through the kitchen window to borrow the sugar. He would ask what X, Y or Z on the shelf was, and I would even take my laptop out to the patio so that he could count my daughter’s pogo hops out loud with me (1-2-3…9, 1-2,…1-2-3-4, etc.). Even with this positive experience, I didn’t routinely turn on my webcam for other calls. Maybe peer pressure kept me from doing it. Now, peer pressure is pretty strong to turn on the camera as almost everyone is doing it. I think this is a good example of being laggards because the momentum wasn’t quite there.
I’m betting that video calls with the webcam on will continue in high numbers after COVID-19 is long gone. The question is whether this increased use of video chat will result in a measurable reduction in travel or just a net increase in face-to-face communications. Either or both would be positive outcomes in my mind.
Based on my own experience, I’m guessing that the pandemic will drive a multitude of people to try out services they didn’t use in the past. I know I was slightly aware of the online resources available at my library, but I hadn’t yet made the leap to online audiobooks and movies — even though they are free (well, included in my taxes at least). Now that I have the apps installed and know how to use them, I’ll have no friction using them again in the future. I suspect a large number of cloud-based tools will experience a permanent increase in their user-base as a result of the shelter-in-place order.
Scraping the Plaque off the Process for Future Efficiency
I believe we will see a variety of efficiency gains from actions taken during this pandemic too. Effectively, we are being forced to drive those last few paper processes into the cloud. For example, ACH transfers and direct deposit have been around forever, and I think the majority of payments happen this way. But the difference between “majority” and “all” is greatly amplified when we are working from home.
Cardinal Peak quickly found we had some vendors that we still paid with checks and some employees that hadn’t signed up for direct deposit. While this had been a bit of wasted effort before the pandemic, it became a pain point in the pandemic’s midst. Our accounting person was forced to mail physical checks to the CEO, who signed and mailed them back so they could then be mailed to the right place. Of course, the answer was to make sure we transitioned to 100% ACH and direct deposit, which will save everyone time once we return to the office. There are similar “mostly paperless” processes that have been refined as well. I believe the fine-tuning of all these processes to be truly paperless will improve efficiency later and will enable people to work from wherever.
This leads to the most horrific of questions (which my daughter asked yesterday): “In the future (after we return to school), will snow days become distance learning days?” It makes sense, but I think we all have fond memories for the delight of a snow day, especially when you had a big test that day. Hopefully, the pandemic doesn’t make us too efficient in the future. We don’t want the cure to be worse than the disease.