Lately, we’ve been tossing out terms like “New Normal” and “get back to normal,” but, for many in the tech industry, work culture was already broken. Toxic workplaces were shockingly common well before the outbreak of a global pandemic that further highlighted buried issues, such as racism.
There’s no doubt that COVID-19 pushing the majority of the tech workforce home enabled rapid innovation and adoption of the tools that finally allowed most of us to work from anywhere.
But somewhere along the way, contrary to popular headlines, we started to realize that our way of working hadn’t really changed that much. Where we worked did. And maybe how. But the new normal felt a lot like the same old. Leaving us more burnt out than ever.
The last year has mostly demonstrated the adaptability of humanity in crisis. And it’s shown that we can work from home if we have to. Now, as we start to consider heading back to the office, it becomes a question of should we. Is this remote-first world sustainable? Not just for the industry but for the tech workers that make it up.
It feels like we are at a precipice. Not a fork in that proverbial road. More like we are either going to drive off into a new way of working or we are just going to make a U-turn and follow the same treacherous path as always.
Today we will reflect on the rocky road of the last year to decide what we can take or leave behind.
What Worked in 2020: The Remote-First Tools
The year 2020 was a crap year. But remote working will be touted as one of the few winners. What should actually be saluted — besides of course medical, scientific, food, supply chain and other frontline workers — is the tech industry itself, which kept everything more or less going. Asynchronous and synchronous communication tooling quickly became both our professional and personal lifelines. The tech industry is the backbone that allowed remote-first to stand on its own.
This move to remote saw Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) sales go past $100 billion last year. While remote tools are still far from perfect, cloud-based tool adoption has peeked and it doesn’t look like companies will be canceling their subscriptions anytime soon.
The massive pressure to deliver at an unforeseeable scale has only seen remote collaboration tools get better over the last year.
Microsoft Teams, which went from 30 million users on March 11 to 75 million six weeks later, added an algorithmic noise-reduction feature and hand-raising. The company created “Together Mode” to break out of our Brady Bunch boxes and to allow more people in view at the same time.
While there are still some gaping holes in cybersecurity overall, especially when working off-site, these SaaS tools are now so widely adopted that security is not going to stand as an excuse to force teams to come into the office every day. And certainly, the cloud security debate has died down as businesses flocked to adopt the public cloud. After all, hardware shortages meant their old reliable VPNs weren’t available.
An IBM study from late last year found that the COVID-19 pandemic had accelerated digital transformation by 59% in the organizations it surveyed, with two-thirds saying they were finally able to complete initiatives that were previously met with resistance.
Certainly, the cloud and its software were big winners in 2020, and there’s no reason to think the majority of organizations will revert back to on-premise when this is all over. But, since crises inspire innovation, there’s no reason to believe momentum will continue when urgency ceases.
One big win was proof that people can in fact get work done from their homes — it looks like even more so. Surveys mark anywhere between a ten and 47% increase in productivity last year, which, of course, was more easily tracked by basically all our communication being online.
But at what cost?
What Still Isn’t Working: The Culture Behind the Tools
Just because a lot of tech businesses still made a lot of money, doesn’t mean the current working from home situation is working. A screen acts as, well, a screen covering up the issues that were always in the community: Burnout. Lack of thoughtful inclusion. And management not able to handle it all.
Over the last year there has been little management training to learn how to support remote employees. This has many managers defaulting to old school, top-down, prescriptive management and even more meetings.
Berry said that she worked from home for years and felt she would never take an office job again, “but this last year [is the] first time I’ve felt negative about it — partly because now dealing with others who weren’t trained or doing it by design.”
I’m getting a bit burned out/crispy y’all. Day to day growing pains and conflict hit me hard today. I don’t have a lot of reserves and need to find a way through.
I know a lot of people are in the same place. We’ll get through this.
— Joe Beda (@jbeda) March 16, 2021
Not only did managers need training, but first-time remote workers did too. The most that happened was some tool training. Or perhaps an all-hands webinar or ebook by HR.
Nobody has learned to turn off.
We filled that time we got back from not commuting — even if we only worked from home before — with more work. On average, we’re working four more hours a week. More meetings and points of connection. We’re sending more emails, with an 8% increase in sending outside business hours.
During the first weeks of the pandemic, working to make sure that everyone could still work gave us a sense of purpose and a distraction. But it quickly turned into a bad habit. Either we’ve forgotten how to disconnect or we simply don’t think we have permission to.
“I feel like where there was once flexibility for people to step away from their computer or to take a break or have a bad day. There is less of that. Managers are tired of hearing ‘I’m having a bad day.’ They think people should be over it and that’s not the case. It’s frustrating,” Rin Oliver, technical community builder at Camunda, told The New Stack.
When asked when they thought this change from a — perhaps performative — focus on psychological safety to downright impatience happened, Oliver pegs October as the switch back to high pressure.
Of course this becomes a vicious cycle. On-call used to be a thing you did sometimes. Now it seems to be everyone’s life, ready to jump at a single Slack notification.
Oliver said, “People are working more because they are worried that their employment is going to be impacted.”
There is a definite feeling of uncertainty around jobs, but, besides sectors that rely on in-person activities like ticket sellers, hospitality and travel, the tech industry has had a banner year and continues to trend upward in 2021. And it still has a serious talent gap. Yet we share in this anxiety that we could lose our jobs at any moment.
Add to that, devices have become, even more so, our total lives throughout the pandemic. This means we are almost always still logged into Slack or Teams and ready to reply at any time because we want our managers to know we will always be quick to respond.
It’s left us more tired than ever.
The Tech Industry’s Burnout Just Keeps Growing
Unless forced with use-it-or-lose-it, no one is taking time off. There’s no place to go to escape. And with layoffs and added user bases for the majority of web-based tools seeing teams perpetually understaffed, a vacation seems futile. We’re just super stressed the week leading up to it and then working longer hours playing catchup the next week back.
Without an escape, we aren’t just working from home. We’re living at work.
And we’ve traded workplace martyrdom — when you feel you have to go into work and infect everyone even though you’re ill — with the feeling we can’t take remote time off even when we’re sick.
All this means that burnout is high. According to a survey done by anonymous workplace chat app Blind, 68% of tech workers feel more burned out than they did when they worked at an office. To clarify, that’s up just 7% from February 2020. This means it’s less a remote work issue or even a pandemic one.
Burnout has become synonymous with tech jobs.
Oliver said, of many employers, “It’s heavily implied that you can’t take time to take care of yourself if you want to seem productive. If you are neurodivergent or have anxiety or depression, it already is seen by your employer as you’re wasting time. They don’t see it as productive or beneficial to them for you to take care of yourself.”
We are all experiencing some form of collective trauma, but those marginalized by the tech industry will always be hit harder. For Black people, their every day trauma was heightened throughout 2020.
Of course, as Oliver pointed out: How many people lie to cover their burnout? Again that feels like it could easily become an excuse for termination.
“I’ve lied. It’s just something that you do. It’s like imposter syndrome but worse,” they said.
If an employer can facilitate a conscious working-from-home environment and team collaboration, remote work can be great for diversity, equity and inclusion. The Guardian’s Matthew Cantor writes about how working from home has been “life-changing” for his social anxiety.
Oliver says that working from home is great in increasing accessibility and allowing people to control their environment — a far step away from dreaded open-floor plans. And the tools have just gotten better and better. But we are still struggling with working from home with kids and pets, further collapsing the separation between work and the rest of our lives.
Can We Please Turn Off Cameras and Have Fewer Meetings, Please?
A year in, probably the biggest struggle isn’t just being always on, it’s being always on-camera. Any professional development or extracurricular activities like conferences have just morphed into webinars backed by more Slack communities. And despite 13% more meetings, we are no longer building bonds with our teammates or our industry peers.
What started as fun drinks, baking and quizzes to check in on our coworkers has morphed into another hour-plus all-hands meeting we probably didn’t need that just has us staring at each other and ourselves again. We just have to stop with the now loathed Zoom happy hours, which feel “implicitly mandatory.”
Novelty quickly devolved into constant Zoom fatigue combined with a fear of turning our cameras off, lest our managers think we aren’t paying attention.
For years, remote work consultants have been advocating for cameras on to allow for visual cues. Now the mantra among this group is to reduce the meetings and improve the ones they have. Some calls benefit from being on video, like welcoming a new teammate or perhaps a retrospective, but we need to re-normalize what Lisette Sutherland, author of “Work Together Anywhere,” calls “walking meetings” which is just talking on the phone.
Normalize letting people keep their camera off during zoom calls so that they can maintain one personal boundary while work invades our home lives.
— Marissa D. Barrera (@mdb2) March 3, 2021
While it should be safe to bring our whole selves to the office, we should also be able to be selective about what we want to actually bring. With cameras in our homes — and with virtual backgrounds virtually beheading people of color — we are inviting colleagues into our most personal spaces. It draws attention to inequities.
She went onto write how many of us are dealing with kids and sick family members crammed into small spaces. We’re struggling with natural disasters, debt and life changes like divorce. And we shouldn’t be required to share that with our coworkers.
Rosenbaum continued “You don’t know what anyone is going through. Stop acting like people ought to invite you into their living space.”
There is still a lot we haven’t learned in the last year and a lot of room for improvement. In the next pieces in this three-part series we will be talking about what orgs have planned for the hybrid back-to-work and how we can even make that work.
Red Hat is a sponsor of The New Stack.