Well, another week of distance learning is in the books (nearly), and it seems folks are settling into an uncertain new normal as The Virus—what I’ve taken to calling the coronavirus (or COVID-19, to your cool kids)—continues to spread its invisible tentacles.
I personally have enjoyed the transition to distance learning, though I wish it were under rosier circumstances, obviously. It’s been stimulating to solve the puzzle of moving instruction online, and while I think I’m actually working harder and longer most days, I am far more refreshed. Being able to wake up at 7:30 AM and shuffling to the computer with some coffee is much more pleasant than my typically frantic morning routine, with both starts earlier and is more hectic. It’s also nice knowing that, once 3:30 or 4 PM hit, I am done, if I wish to be.
Naturally, I realize many Americans don’t have this luxury—they’re either in essential jobs that require them to risk constant interactions with other people, or they’re in non-essential work that can’t simply move to the Internet, so they find themselves out of work. My heart goes out to both groups. The real heroes of this situation are the garbage men, nurses, doctors, utility workers, cooks, plumbers, and the rest that soldier on.
Blogger jonolan of Reflections from a Murky Pond wrote a post, “Our New Businesswear,” that hits upon an idea I’ve also considered: this massive transition to social distancing and remote work will potentially revolutionize our work lives going forward. As he writes:
Don’t expect things to go back to how they were before. This is our new normal. There may be a short term rush back to the office, but it won’t last for most of us. We’ll fairly quickly be heading back home to telecommute.
I suspect he’s correct, especially if employees can work productively from home. My suspicion is that many managers have been reluctant to take that step because there’s less oversight of employees, which also threatens the very role of management. Once we realize that many employees will work productively from home (I may be a tad optimistic here)—and some even better without constant micromanagement—we may see a greater shift in that direction. That would be a boon for workers and families.
It’s like when grocery stores first introduced self-checkout. The assumption of grocery chains was that people would game the system and steal items, so every item you scanned had to be placed on the proper platform for the system to make note of its weight. The idea was that you couldn’t ring up a watermelon and slip a box of Cheez-Its into your bag.
The problem was that the systems were so buggy and nit-picky, people wouldn’t use them. Indeed, I refused to use self-checkout for years because the process was so difficult. Ultimately, the desire to reduce theft just meant that the grocers had to have more employees to help with “self”-checkout.
So, overtime, grocers gave up on preventing theft in the self-checkout line, reasoning that a plucked orange here and there was a worthy cost (or they did like Target, which has the best self-checkout experience, and put a camera on you, so you see the video feed that the police will watch if you abscond with any Twizzlers). The system works much better now.
Similarly, I’m hopeful that this unfortunate coronavirus situation will have demonstrate that most white-collar work can be done productively—and more efficiently—from home, without the song-and-dance of commuting to the office, gossiping around the coffee pot, etc. Managers and employers will reason that it’s cheaper to have everyone work from home, and have a few layabouts, then to force everyone into a cinder-block, fluorescent-lit building for eight hours every day.
Of course, the less-invisible tentacles of educational administration couldn’t keep well enough alone for very long. I can already feel the grip tightening in small, nearly imperceptible ways. The downside to remote work is that you’re always “on,” or at least there’s the presumption that you will be.
Such was the case a week ago—we actually had last Friday off—when I received an e-mail from an administrator requesting I collect videos from students for what I dubbed a “Virtual Spring Concert.” Getting students to do anything is like herding meth addicts, but we managed to put together a nice little video (care of a video-savvy colleague).
What irked me about the request was a.) it came at a time when there shouldn’t have been any expectation of a reply; b.) there were few guidelines; c.) there was a very quick turnaround time; and d.) it reminded me that, despite the illusion to the contrary, I’m not truly free.
All that said, it worked out, and we got a nice (short) “concert” out of it:
That makes it all worthwhile. Maybe a little administrative push now and again isn’t so bad.