These show notes are from the Cloudbusting podcast episode “How will COVID-19 change the way we work?”, which was released on 28 April 2020.

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Episode Description

In this episode of Cloudbusting, writer, speaker, and strategist, Lauren Razavi joins Jez and Dave to discuss the medium and long-term impacts that COVID-19 pandemic will have on the way people work.

Lauren predicts how business processes and cultures could change to accommodate more flexible, distributed workforces. She also suggests that we will stop thinking about job satisfaction in terms of work-life balance and instead consider work-life integration.

To what extent will remote-first work policies become the norm? Will we see more digital nomads who travel while they work? How could ultra-flexible working impact cities and urban policies?

Interview Transcript

Lauren, let’s start with your recent article “Coronavirus Is A Driving Force For Global Innovation” for Disruption Magazine. How did it come about?

I’m one of those newsletter journalists, so that story first appeared in my newsletter. I found it really difficult to know what to write at the beginning of the crisis. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realised there was an optimistic aspect to all of this. It has to do with rapid innovation in response to the pandemic.

Before coronavirus, for example, there was a lot of cultural resistance about switching to remote work. We’ve seen that shift overnight, quite literally, over the past few weeks. It’s going to be difficult to convince anyone that remote work can still be considered a ‘perk’ after this. I’m not sure how much luck companies will have in getting everybody back into the office 9-5 after experiencing flexible work.

Then you have some really interesting stuff happening in the healthcare setting as well. Things that would normally take months of approvals or special regulations to be set into motion were just done, there and then, to save lives.

One of your subtitles reads, “Free money for Canadians!” I initially read it as cardigans, so I was slightly disappointed to find that probably wasn’t your point. So, dig into free money for Canadians. Or cardigans if you prefer.

Let’s do it with cardigans. So, governments all over the world are giving citizens free money [due to the pandemic]. They’re free to spend that money on cardigans if that’s what they want to do. The idea I’m referring to is called universal basic income. I first wrote about that policy idea five or six years ago for New Statesman. Essentially, it replaces these very complicated benefits and welfare systems and the situation of people struggling to afford a basic standard of living.

The government, as part of citizenship, guarantees everyone an income that at least contributes towards basics like shelter, food, clothing, these kinds of things. In this crisis, that idea has finally taken off. In the US, every citizen was given $1,000 as a one-off grant. Here in the UK, we have a furlough scheme for both employed and self-employed people. In this context, it makes a lot of sense. It turns out that giving citizens free money is a good government strategy.

So that’s distinct from stuff like welfare payments and jobseeker’s allowance?

One of the fundamentals of basic income is that it isn’t means-tested. It’s not dependent on anything but your citizenship. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, you’re entitled to this income from the government.

A big benefit is that the state can stop employing all the staff that do the means-testing and administration on welfare. Instead of giving the money to them, they’re giving more money directly to people. You also cut out a lot of the bottlenecks and the process of people needing support, but at the same time, for weather people, it could simply replace tax breaks -- you’re given the cash instead of a tax-free allowance.

In the article, you also refer to the normalisation of 3D printing. How have you seen 3D printing used during this period?

I’m a big Reddit user, and there’s a very vibrant 3D printing community on Reddit. I’ve seen a lot of very funky creations. What was it the other day? A bluetooth speaker hanger to put on your shower door, I think. You might laugh but there’s a lot of home-based innovation going on with 3D printing for those who have 3D printers.

In the healthcare setting, the speed they were able to create ventilators using 3D printing, it really shows the potential and the importance of this technology. I think we’ll see this referred to as an important moment for 3D printing — where its potential really became clear. In my experience of writing about these issues, a lot of the time people think 3D printing is still quite a far-off future tech, whereas in reality, you have Reddit users printing stuff for the bathroom or living room perfectly.

So, for that community, the idea that they can print out a hanger for a bluetooth speaker, is that replacing them going out and buying it in the way people have taken to baking bread instead of buying it?

Yeah, obviously! The high level of customisation is one of the big benefits of 3D printing. You can create something of exactly the right size for your environment. You don’t have to order a couple of things that aren’t quite right online and return them. I think it cuts down a lot on waste. It makes you think more about supply chains too. Over the next couple of decades, 3D printing will get a lot more normal. Even if you don’t have a 3D printer yourself, somebody in your social circle probably will, and it’ll become a whole new way of producing these small things.

Fascinating article, Lauren. Let's move on, then, to a slightly wider conversation about how you think the future of work might be influenced by this. On your website, you use this interesting phrase “remote-first”. It’s something that our organisation has begun to think about because, exactly as you were describing earlier, the crisis has had a fundamental effect on what we want to do as a company, how we want to work and our ways of working. What do you think the distinction is between a pre-pandemic organisation that had remote workers and a remote-first organisation?

Fundamentally, we’re still finding the language to talk about a lot of this stuff. One of the most interesting aspects of remote is the idea that in order to be a remote worker, you have to be remote “from” something. It sort of suggests a centralised HQ.

The language that’s beginning to take off now is around “distributed” and “remote-first” companies. What that means is that a company is completely designed to function without having people on-site. Remote-first means becoming distributed. Fully distributed. Workers aren’t remote from a headquarters, but everyone from execs to customer service staff are distributed among lots of different locations. That’s a really interesting trend that we’re going to see take off more and more in the aftermath of Covid-19.

In that scenario, in that structure, what are the human aspects we should be thinking about? One of the valuable things about an organisation is its ability to bring people together, to help them socialise and collaborate. How does that translate into remote or distributed more widely?

It’s a whole new way of doing work culture. It’s a really different challenge to try and build work culture in a distributed or remote setting where you’re pretty much dependent on digital tools to make it happen. But it’s very much possible. I’ve been a remote or distributed worker for 10 years now and a lot of people ask if it’s a lonely life. Not at all. I’m speaking to you guys right now. I have a lot of work colleagues who I’ll be communicating with in Slack all the time. I do weekly check-ins with other freelance remote workers. You’ve got to put effort in where it counts. You have to decide what kind of interactions are for what purpose.

I make a very conscious effort to establish a work culture and a very friendly network within what I do, rather than just think “OK, now I work from home so I have to sit here and struggle solo”. For organisations, though, this is going to be a big growth area. There’s going to be much more emphasis on how we look after people’s wellbeing and mental health. How do we make sure that actually our company has a really strong culture even if it is remote-first or distributed?

On the other side of the pandemic, when life goes back to something resembling normal and gatherings are actually allowed again, I think we’ll see a lot of companies doing annual or bi-annual retreats. I see that a lot in the world of distributed companies already. Everybody gets together in a beautiful tropical setting and gets to spend that time in person, which I think is really important for building long-term relationships. It makes a huge difference when you’re speaking to someone on Slack whether you’ve actually had a drink with them in real life.

I couldn't agree more. In organisations that, say, run a series of hub offices and have remote-first workers “cluster” around them -- do you think that’s a viable model? Or do you think the balance immediately shifts when you have a cluster of people in a meeting room and others who’ve joined the conference remotely?

It’s always tough. This is why I advocate for more distributed companies. It’s tough when you have this mix of in-house people and remote workers. It’s a good example of being remote rather than distributed: you may have three or four people sitting in a conference room on a call, and a couple who aren’t in the room but still expected to connect and contribute. That’s a difficult scenario to find yourself in.

One of the things I think we’ll see happen after the pandemic and this sudden, massive introduction to remote work for everybody is a lot of consideration around what meetings are for and when collaboration is necessary. When it’s appropriate to actually have a meeting rather than work independently and then come together at intervals. There are a lot of companies reassessing things right now. Traditional thinking says have an awful lot of meetings and you’ll be credited for showing up. In the future, it’s going to be more remote and people are going to be much more strict with their own time to make sure they’re getting the most out of their working life.

Is interest in becoming a digital nomad going to increase as a result of distributed work, of different ways of working?

In the short-term, I think digital nomadism is going to suffer. People won’t necessarily choose to travel and work at the same time because of health risks. I know quite a few people who are stuck in a country they are not a citizen of right now under lockdown. That’s definitely not an ideal scenario. In the short-term, we’re going to see a drop.

But in the longer term, I think we’re going to see more people explore this lifestyle. It’s the mental mindset you find yourself in where you realise that work and location are no longer dependent on each other. You have these different options. It makes you think about life a lot more holistically. You think: What do I actually want to experience? What do I want from my work? What do I need from the environment I’m in? Who do I want to meet around the world?

As more people experience remote, they’ll think about their options in new ways. More people will probably choose to at least spend a period of time working away, trying out the digital nomad thing. I think one thing we’ll see attached to that is slower travel. There was already quite a wave of people beginning to take boats and trains to avoid flying for sustainability reasons. That was already indicating a switch to slow travel.

Post-Covid, I think more people will choose that route because it feels safer somehow. Like you have more stability should there be another lockdown or some other problem. If you’re based in a place for six months rather than just travelling through for six weeks, it somehow feels more manageable to deal with that possibility.

My view is there’ll be more digital nomads in the medium to long-term. Those people will also travel differently. I say it from personal experience too: I’m thinking in a new way about the kind of travel I want to do when the world reopens.

I’m fascinated by the long-term impacts of ultra-flexible working. There’s been something fascinating writing recently about the social and geographic impacts that flexible work has on city centres and central business districts. It also affects where people choose to live, if they can work as effectively in the countryside as they could in a city. What does that do for economic centres and things like salary weightings in urban areas? It’s a lot of change. I’m curious to see what happens.

A lot of my work involves cities and urban policy. In general, I’m expecting to see allsorts of new winners and losers from more people doing remote work and being distributed. When I say winners and losers, I mean places. There’s a long-term trend in big creative capitals like London, Paris and New York of property becoming unaffordable and driving young families out in particular. If you have to show up to an office less, there’s going to be more that goes into the decision of where to base yourself. It’s looking at what’s important to you, not so much in a work/life balance sense, but more in a work/life integration sense. You ask yourself: What do I want from my life? Do I want the culture of a city like New York or can I be culturally fulfilled by a smaller city and a slower pace of life in, say, Boulder, Colorado?

Over the next 10-20 years, we’re going to see a lot of new destinations rise. New places are going to attract people of a certain persuasion, people who are interested in experimenting with different things. It’s going to be interesting to watch. My main prediction is that a lot of the old-school creative capitals that have become a bit complacent and have seen issues around lack of meritocracy or unaffordable access to property, we’ll see a huge shift there. We’ll see those cities become a lot less appealing and attract fewer people. Actually, it may be a much better prospect to work for a company in New York or London, but live somewhere cheaper and maybe more laid-back in a bigger space, rather than have a very small space in a city centre.

These show notes are from the Cloudbusting podcast episode “How will COVID-19 change the way we work?”, which was recorded on 28 April 2020.