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For all the bad that has befallen due to COVID-19, we have seen some good, and one of those goods in particular is the rise of tele-work (or, more broadly, telepresence).
Over the decades I’ve seen the slow emergence of this in the business and IT world. But managers have tended to look upon it with great suspicion — they’ve been generally not happy, not comfortable, not sure the work was being done, unless they could see their people hunched over their desks.
But that’s been changing over the years, and as an IT consultant, what used to be a hard sell has become in an evolutionary way easier and easier, as the technology has improved, and as the telecommunication bandwidth has risen by magnitudes.
A critically important aspect of this, key, in fact, is the availability in the consumer space of good, solid, reliable videoconferencing capability that doesn’t require great technical expertise to make it work and keep it going. Being able to speak comfortably face to face with a friend, colleague, or team, adds an enormously powerful dimension beyond mere telephone or email.
What we have here now, though, as a consequence of COVID-19, is not evolutionary change, but revolutionary change. Tele-work has led to tele-medicine, tele-teaching, tele-socializing and tele-just-about-everything, and, what’s more — acceptance: Acceptance by industry, by governments, by NGOs, by clubs and societies, and by families and individuals at large throughout our country.
We have made a quantum leap where once-staid institutions like large city governments, or even provincial and, yes, even so, federal governments have crossed the Rubicon into the twenty-first century, and the effectiveness, utility, and, indeed, power of this approach is now deeply recognized throughout our society.
We must be sure to recognize this, too. This should be locked-in to the new normal, not only for our on-going reaction and response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but to our plans for recovery, and our growth toward that new normal.
As an IT professional I’m comfortable, and if we get right down to it, I prefer working this way. But many people aren’t wired like that. What’s missing is an intermediate choice. I see that choice as the local office-services company.
The point here is, instead of everybody “going downtown” to the corporate office, those people who don’t want to work from home go to a local office-services facility.
Their company can secure for them an office in their own community and connect it to their corporate computer and SIP telephone networks by VPN. Their workers can be included in their own corporate culture and communications in this way while physically distributed around the region, or even around the country, and the workers can establish and maintain social connections in the water-cooler culture at their local office-services location.
One of the spin-offs from this will be a cross-pollination of ideas, knowledge, and opportunities as many people in diverse fields and functions come together and chat in the break room, forging partnerships and synergies where none was seen before — serendipitous business and ideas incubators all over the country.
Tele-work/telepresence won’t work for all jobs, of course. It mainly applies to cases where we’re dealing with data, and in those cases we want to move the data over the distances, not the people. But there is vast number of workers who do or can fit into this category.
Every day (even with COVID-19) you can see the cities ‘breathe’ as hundreds of thousands of people flow from their neighbourhoods into the city core, and simultaneously from the core to its environs, only to be reversed later in the day, as people go home. We don’t need to do this anymore.
And, while business travel between cities around the country and around the world will still be needed, it doesn’t have to be needed as much. Better productive time, better personal time, less wasted travel time.
This will have a number of highly important consequences: massive reductions in costs, particularly in time, and energy costs and emissions related to travel, for example, as people remain local, and as it also reduces the pressures on our transportation infrastructure. We will not so soon overwhelm our bridges and roads, we will reduce the unfettered demand for growth in mass transit, and all the parking and other infrastructure required to accommodate personal vehicles, and the costs associated with all of that.
This fits in to our vision for digital government, and, moreover, will go a good distance toward helping us meet our Paris and net-zero emissions commitments.
And even with regard to those mainly hands-on jobs: the barbers, hair salons, restaurants, butchers, bakers, green-grocers, mechanics, and such — we will no longer foster these in our city cores, which are wastelands at night — this will further reduce the transportation overhead, as these people, too, will remain local, and all told we will energize local communities in all these areas.
This will, over time, re-imagine, redefine and remake our cities, and as a bonus it will add to our resilience regarding pandemic-like scenarios.
I see the path forward here in government advertisement and promotions, and in incentives, perhaps grants or tax incentives or accelerated capital-cost allowances, or such, for individual set-ups for tele-work, for companies setting up distributed VPN and SIP networks and equipment, for companies offering local office-service facilities, for opportunities in general that reduce the need for mundane travel.
The future is virtually here. Really.