Virus: How we do work is changing forever

My friends, the great experiment.

No, I don’t mean the Excelsior-class starship. (For non-nerds reading this and wondering what the hell I’m talking about, here’s a link to the relevant “Star Trek” scene.)

Telecommuting had been a growing trend before the coronavirus crisis, but it’s now the default (at least for those with the right sort of office-style work) as the coronavirus shutters offices and scatters their occupants in a historic home-working migration.

I’m going on nearly a month of near-continuous telecommuting (the looming pandemic had sent me scurrying to my home office long before others at the Pioneer Press), and now the bulk of my colleagues are performing their jobs exclusively from their residences.

My coworker Kraig Odden marveled at this in a March 18 post on a Facebook group for Pioneer Press alumni:

Pioneer Press family: I can’t say this definitively, but it seems likely that today’s edition of the Pioneer Press was the first ever to be produced without any journalists physically present in the newsroom. Instead, the newsroom has become “virtual” in light of the coronavirus outbreak. And last night, all reporters and editors were working remotely for the first time, with editors using company and personal devices in their homes to coordinate page production with the company’s design center in Colorado. At the direction of newsroom managers, those efforts will continue until further notice. I can’t speak for others, but there’s more than a little cognitive dissonance in moving apart when confronted with such a major news event. In the past, the instinct has been to come together — think 9/11 or the historic Red River flooding of 1997. Still, the commitment to community service remains. I’m humbled to work with colleagues throughout the paper who have labored tirelessly in recent days, with no end in sight and in light of precarious newspaper economics. Anyway, I thought you might like to know of this milestone in the 170-year history of the Pioneer Press. Best wishes and please stay safe.

This is a remarkable shift given how telecommuting was once regarded by many as unthinkable. Decades ago, colleagues of mine pitched this to the editors and were denied. Even just a few years ago, some of my coworkers were incensed that I wanted to work from home because they deemed this catastrophic to orderly operations. (Their outrage perplexed me because virtual workforces have become commonplace over the past decade or so.)

But when the pandemic hopefully recedes, the American workforce will be irrevocably changed. Telecommuting will be seen as ordinary not exotic, as entrenched and not something workers have fight for.

I am betting many of my coworkers will be reluctant to give up this lifestyle even when it’s no longer literally live-saving, which will profoundly change how our sausage gets made. I wonder, in fact, to what extent we’ll have a physical newsroom anymore.

For now, learning how to telecommute is stressful for those who would not have chosen such a lifestyle, regard it as temporary, and are scrambling to adapt.

For such folks, I have a book recommendation. A fellow technology writer, Glenn Fleishman, has pulled together a free ebook called “Take Control of Working from Home Temporarily.” Dozens of others, including yours truly, contributed to this project.

Download it, devour it, apply its lessons — and let Glenn and me know how the ebook can be improved in upcoming editions.

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