Coronavirus (COVID-19) has forced many businesses to trust their employees to work from home, a trend that may continue after the pandemic passes.
Various tools and technologies give workers the opportunity to perform tasks remotely. Yet, some companies are still reluctant to empower their teams to work off-site, despite the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic often leaves them with no viable alternative.
In our latest Grepcast episode, our team examines the impact of COVID-19 on remote work. Listen or read our Grepcast transcript below to find out what our team has to say about this topic, starting off with some lighter fare.
Grepcast # 55 — Work in the Time of Covid
Adam Fisk: So, I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard some news about some things going on in the world? [laughs] I will apologize and give fair warning up front: if you don’t want to hear us talk about the coronavirus, maybe this episode is not for you, and that’s totally fine. We have some Interesting stuff beyond that. But [the coronavirus] will dominate the episode.
But that said, some quick-hits for you: as just a general request, can we stop making stuff up for the internet? This is an insane article brought to us by The Washington Post . This is actually from early February, when the coronavirus was still novel. James Potok, a 28-year-old aspiring rapper from Vaughn, Ontario pretended that he had the coronavirus on a flight and freaked everyone out for Instagram fame.
Michael Oh: Ugh. It’s the combination of the things that irks us most right now: social media fame, influencers, fake stuff, and coronavirus/COVID-19. I just can’t believe that anyone would think this was a good idea, to fake [having the coronavirus] and see what would happen, and think that “oh, I’m going to get a lot of hits”. It’s a sad world.
Kelly Ford: I’m hoping that with all of this going on, we will have people start to think a little bit more about others, instead of this rugged individualism that everyone has. The only thing I want the coronavirus to kill is this Instagram influencer culture [everyone laughs].
There are a lot of institutions that could bear some tuning.
MO: Well that, and more hand-washing. I’m hoping that happens.
KF: Oh god, that has been my thing for a long time. So this is my time!
MO: You’re like Bill Gates talking about pandemic, except it’s about hand-washing. You’re like “I’ve been telling people for years!”
KF: I mean, it’s something that people should have been doing already, so I’m just hoping that we do it long enough that it becomes —
AF: A new habit for everybody
AF: But with that said, at least in this situation, just a quick thing: Potok did realize he made a mistake and then said, “It seems as though my actions ruined the flight and vacation for almost 250 people.” As if that wasn’t immediately obvious by the fact that they landed the plane.
KF: This guy sucks. That’s my final word on this [laughs].
AF: Speaking of dudes that suck on the internet, as if there weren’t already millions of them, ImJayStation, a YouTuber, admitted to faking his girlfriend’s death to gain subscribers. This one is from The Independent, written by Adam White. I don’t necessarily want to get too much deeper into this, because I think the headline pretty much says everything.
KF: So this was a while back too, right? I think this was a month [ago] maybe?
AF: Yeah, this was [at] the end of January.
KF: So at any rate, he wanted to get more subscribers. Well, it worked, because he was at 5.4 million, and now he’s at 5.56 million. So great job, dum-dums!
AF: You did it, dude!
KF: These people are ghouls.
AF: I feel like this is an item that I heard when I was new to the internet, and it’s when you say something on the internet, it stays there and goes to the world. But if you fake your girlfriend’s death, or your ex-girlfriend’s as [she] turned into, and don’t tell their family, yes, it will spiral out of control.
MO: I don’t know that there’s been an encapsulation of that lesson yet in a nice little sentence, so I can tell my kids how to do things on the internet. But hopefully, we can come up with a nice summary.
AF: Well, I’ve got a link for you that just gives it to you right there.
KF: Yeah “don’t do this”!
KF: I think it’s important to note that he had planned to hold a séance to try and contact her spirit from the dead. That’s really important. And I love the quote, “Then, we would resurrect her and get more followers, but now my girlfriend is gone, and I’m in serious trouble.” No kidding buddy!
AF: Jason Ethier is the individual’s name – according to the article, he had gained traction in recent years “due to content involving Ethier’s attempts to contact dead celebrities from beyond the grave.” So sure, it was a natural extension of the acts that he was already doing. But just don’t do it! Stop it! The internet is bad. Embrace the weird YouTube for what it is rather than trying to sensationalize an actual living person that you know.
KF: It would have been one thing if he’d had his girlfriend in on it. But she didn’t know, and neither did her family. Bad move, dude. Bad move.
AF: I can’t say I’ve checked out the YouTube channel [to see] if they got back together, but at least, according to the Independent article, they parted ways as professionals I suppose [laughs].
KF: He’s taking a break. I checked his channel this morning. He’s taking a break, which I feel like is the right move.
MO: Don’t give him the hits! You didn’t follow him at least?
KF: Oh my god, no. I’m not an idiot! [everyone laughs]
AF: So we promised we would have some non-coronavirus-related content to you today, and this article that’s coming to us from Fortune, written by Shalene Gupta, was originally published back in 2015. But Kelly, this came across your Twitter feed actually very recently, as of February of 2020.
KF: Yes. Shalene is also a part of a writing group I’m in called “The Novel Incubator.” She’s also a novelist. It was like two years after the article came out, and Shalene got a thank you note from someone that she featured in the article. [She] received a call from a donor and [she] got $1 million in funding. Shalene was just saying it’s incredible to be able to get that kind of feedback on an article, and to see that what she’s profiling actually makes a difference.
The article is title is “For the disabled, smart homes are home sweet home.” It profiles people with disabilities and how smart home technology is being used to improve their lives. This one particular agency – they work with students – and they were able to provide for 19 individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities who were able to graduate from the program, and most were unemployed and living on their own. So we talk a lot about smart homes – obviously because that’s what we do – but we often talk about how the audience for smart homes typically is a wealthier individual, we could say, for the most part. So, it’s really great to hear how [smart homes] are being used across the population.
MO: Yeah. I think the interesting thing about this is that smart homes are generally talked about – especially around technology and the idea of convenience, experience, and luxury. Kind of like what you were saying, Kelly. A lot of our customers are doing it more as an add-on to a nice home. But it’s really cool to see this as not only a different use, but it speaks to what makes a smart home really smart. In the sense that it’s not just a Philips Hue and an Amazon Alexa talking to each other; it’s about a number of different technologies working together as a system within a home that, together, can actually change somebody’s life. And in this case, in a very positive way.
AF: One of the individuals profiled in this article is an individual by the name of Steve O’Hear, who moved into a new home in London 15 years ago. He uses an electrical wheelchair. And a quote from the article, “Even though the switches were built lower than usual to accommodate him, they were still too high.” Which is a very real thing – that those with essentially the privilege of not needing to live and utilize this technology don’t see. We’ll drop it down to a spec that we at least think makes sense but just doesn’t work out. One of the most striking things from this article was a quote from Steve saying, “My favorite technology is technology that isn’t designed for people with disabilities but works anyway. It’s a leveler without intending to be.” It’s what Alexa is, and it’s what Siri can be. It’s [technology that’s] designed to be able say “I want to turn on the lights” because that’s a cool thing, not necessarily just because hey, people will actually need and use these things.
KF: One of the mentions was stoves that shut off automatically when there is no activity. And you think about how many people could benefit from that; I mean not just “I could benefit from that because I’m anxious about the stove”; but you think about grandparents. A lot of [my friends] have grandparents who unfortunately have Alzheimer’s. And one particular situation was an issue with the stove, specifically. And it was just like, this is at a point where she can no longer be in her home because it’s too dangerous. So, knowing that this is a technology that can help people is great. It is nice – that whole idea that this technology is not designed for people with disabilities, but it is a leveler. It’s such a great quote. I mean of course, as Shalene noted, insurance companies don’t cover the cost of smart home technology, which is unfortunate, because the ones who need it the most can’t afford it.
MO: Well, it’s probably that insurance companies aren’t aware of that fact. We’re in the smart home world, and I’ve thought about smart home technology for the elderly and in that context. But, if you’re at an insurance company, you’re just coming up with different policies and different kinds of coverages, you’re not going to think of every nook and cranny, especially with how technology has evolved. I mean, I think what’s great about this article is it really makes you think that if you put yourself in the position of somebody who’s buying or renting an apartment and has a disability and has this struggle with light switches. Which, maybe if it’s built nowadays to code, it’ll be at a slightly better level. But certainly, in years past, those codes didn’t exist. They simply didn’t require people to lower things for the possibility of someone having a disability. And smart home technology, at a cost of $100 per room, can make any apartment accessible to them. So yes, there is a cost. But that cost is certainly in what I would consider in the affordable range. I mean obviously that’s relative to what income somebody makes. But I think in shining the light on the possibility that these technologies exist, hopefully, insurance companies, and those of you in the people insurance industry listening to the podcast. Maybe you can think about how we can make this better for people.
AF: Yeah. In this article, Shalene discusses a New York-based nonprofit called Living Resources, which in the article, they talk about a smart home that [Living Resources] built for six people that is “full bore” – lights, fans, blinds, TVs that can be operated with iPads, a stove that shuts off automatically. The entire house came out to about $600,000, while the technology alone was $100,000. And that’s according to Fred Erlich, who is the organization’s CEO. That’s a high number. According to later in the article, on average, people who develop a disability later in life see a 79% decrease in earnings 10 years later. So it’s a sizable investment, even with just the more consumer-level pieces [such as] Nest, Alexa, August Lock, which again was outlined in the article. Those are $250 a pop.
MO: And maybe this is the place where people have to step in. And honestly, I’ll say this idea is just dawning on me now – maybe private corporations like us that understand this technology and [understand that] the cost is coming down and the technology is becoming simpler. Maybe we step in and say “well look, this is a place that we can help”. We can help to raise awareness, but maybe we can also try to find people that would benefit from this. Even if it’s only one project a year that we’re donating products and services to, that’s something that’s a really worthy cause that can help publicize how this technology can help not just one person but many that have these same challenges.
KF: Yeah, definitely.
MO: Such feel-good stuff!
KF: I love it! I love your idea, Mike.
AF: So this is that point in the podcast — if you don’t want to hear about coronavirus, shut it off! Don’t feel bad. The coronavirus is here. Recently, at least at the time of this recording, Massachusetts, where we’re based, has issued a state of emergency. On paper, it’s just giving additional options and additional abilities to help treat the current coronavirus in Massachusetts. One of the items that the governor had brought was an encouragement of “work from home”. Now, TSP and the Grepcast are large proponents of working from home using systems that we have talked about ad nauseam on the podcast. But, it is interesting to now see work from home as this new, fun thing that companies will start embracing. There are three articles that will be in the show notes that we’re focusing on today: two of them from Vox, from the Recode branch, and one from The Boston Globe. The first one that we’re going to talk about is written by Rani Molla, called “How coronavirus could force the work-from-home movement.”
MO: It’s very interesting, right? I mean I’m sitting here recording Grepcast from the shed, and this is like, normal stuff for me. My wife works from home. TSP is very used to me being here. But, most companies still very much rely on that workforce coming in. Work from home has been a benefit. It’s been something that if somebody asks for, they get. But we’re turning this corner where suddenly this thing that people were like “oh it would be really nice to have” — [now] you HAVE to do it. We’re doing it for public health reasons, but it’s fascinating to see how quickly this has changed, amongst other things, like health coverage and sick pay coverage for part-time workers, little things like that. This has the potential to change what people have been calling the future of work. How work happens.
KF: Yeah, we’ve been doing this for a while. And it’s to the point now, where if I have calls with my friends, I immediately set up a Google Hangout [everyone laughs]. I’m like “I need to see your face!” [My friends] are like “I’m sorry, what?” But I mean, it’s a good thing, I think. I’ve worked at a lot of companies, and for the most part for the past 20-odd years all in IT, and there has always been this fear of working from home because people will “slack off”. But, case after case, it’s like “actually, no. I work harder, and I’m more stressed out, and the digital leash is real!” Mike can speak to the digital leash, I’m sure. But it’s different for you too, because you know, it’s your company so you’re naturally online more.
MO: [laughs] But there are people that can’t work from home very well, right?
AF: It’s me! I’m bad at it! [everyone laughs]
MO: Some of it is understanding the discipline needed, and some of it is just in the physical setup. I read this one article that basically said [to] put on your shoes to go from your bedroom to your desk, because there’s a psychological effect.
KF: It’s a cultural change. Along with saying “we’re going to do this”, there also needs to be an understanding of how this is going to shift your work day. Some things that came up that I’ve seen, mostly on Twitter and from friends in the publishing industry is that people are saying “hey, isn’t this is great that we can work remotely and not live in New York City?” Because typically, publishing is very white. It’s very…I mean, there are class issues there. If you want to work in publishing, you have to live in New York City, and that’s just not affordable for the majority of people. So it’s like wow, maybe [work from home] could be a leveler. And this was also brought up, going back to Shalene’s article, [in regards to] people with disabilities having more options. Because remote work is definitely helpful. So, industries and workplaces that allow this more will only help more people.
AF: According to the Vox article and a financial data platform named Sentio, in 77 public transcripts, they mention work from home or working from home. Which is up from 4 – four total mentions last year. So the trend is increasing. Maybe it’s because of the aforementioned coronavirus or just…work is changing.
KF: I think it’s the former [laughs].
MO: It is, but that number’s going to be hundreds. It is now everywhere. With the state of emergency in California, New York, and Massachusetts, these are big states with huge amounts of workers. And of course, there are a lot of challenges here. Most people with work-from-home setups, if they’re a working family and both people are working, they probably only have one setup. And their house may not be big enough. And I’ve actually heard of situations where people that are going to MIT as post-docs are being told to work from home; well they have to work from an apartment. And then the kids that are upstairs are being told to stay home from pre-school or whatever, and you have many more people running into each other. So, there are a lot of challenges that are going to come with [working from home]. But, I think the net effect is hopefully a very positive one. That it opens the eyes of managers everywhere and people in businesses to show them that with the right tools and technologies, work gets better.
AF: And one of the biggest things from this article is that this is a thing now, and it’s going to be very difficult to turn off once the panic clears. Which isn’t a bad thing. This is an opportunity for organizations to test it and to say “you know what, will this work better for our organization overall?” For example, Takeda, which is a giant pharmaceutical company with a Boston-based headquarters — 5,000 [of their] workers have been told “Please work from home. And if you’ve got to work here — at least no more than 10 people per gathering and keep a minimum of 6 feet of distance between people.”
KF: I’m also curious about what will happen once the C-suite starts to realize that remote work is really great and how [that will start] affecting office space.
AF: Well, there’s a buzzword for it [laughs]
MO: Well, it’s already happening. In Amsterdam, I went to this company Edge, that works on smart buildings. And one of their things is they do this analysis for big companies like the Microsofts and Googles of the world, and basically look at, in a big building, how much of the building is actually being utilized. And they are seeing that the metrics show the assumption is that the number of square feet you actually need can be reduced by 50% in many cases just because you have a flexible workforce. Now, if you take that to the extreme and people are forced to work from home, and then at the end of the day, you’re like “hey, I’m still able to run an effective company”, you can still make that argument of “we don’t need this office space. Next time we move, it can be less than half”.
AF: To throw a buzzword out there, it’s called “agility analysis”. It’s actually a really interesting concept. When you’re looking at real estate, a lot of the time it would give you a calculation of 200 square feet per person. Under an agility workforce, which is people working from home more often [and] people jumping into conference rooms here and there, it cuts it down to 140 square feet per person, because you just don’t need the space the same way.
But, as a quick bummer, technology for coronavirus also brings some bad stuff, such as AI-powered drug discovery — that’s good! But then there’s AI-powered “hey, are you wearing a mask and maybe we’re creating a better surveillance state” — a little bit bad.
KF: Yeah, I have a feeling that those Jet Blue facial recognition boarding passes that we were [saying] “NO WAY” [about], we’ll see if we all do it.
MO: There is this really interesting double-edged sword in China’s reaction to this. As of recording, Italy has basically copied [the reaction]. It’s all about sustaining the healthcare system to be able to deal with the peak of the virus. China’s effectiveness, some people are arguing, is because of its authoritative regime and its ability to track people and monitor where people are going. So, in a pandemic situation, that data has been tremendously useful, or that’s the argument. But time will tell if that’s the case. Time will tell if other countries that don’t have that combination of things will be able to work as effectively or not. But It is quite interesting to see that there’s a privacy backlash, and now it’s going in the other direction because of COVID-19.
KF: I was thinking about how one of the articles was talking about the self-driving vehicles that are delivering supplies to medical workers. I was like “oh, remember those little robots that were delivering food to students on campus? I want to see those!” So this is terrible but also exciting but also kind of scary. I mean, the illness of course [is scary], but also scary in terms of privacy concerns and what will come out of this. It’s an interesting time to be witnessing all of this.
MO: It comes down to that theme that we see time and time again. That technology is morally agnostic in how it’s used, right? The difference between a delivery robot that’s delivering pizza, that’s delivering blood supplies, or a vaccine, or you know, porn DVDs; it’s the same technology, it’s just how it’s being used […] People just view it different ways. How can you regulate the technology on its own? Well, you can’t really. You have to regulate how it’s being used. But it’s a fascinating time.
AF: Pulling from an article written by Rebecca Heilweil — this is “Coronavirus is the first big test for futuristic tech that can prevent pandemics.” A quick glean of the cool tech: we have robots being used to disinfect rooms, we have robots being used to communicate with isolated people, we have less-cool-tech of robot doctors that won’t see you — I get it, but [it’s] a little weird. We also have self-driving vehicles, [as] we talked about, delivering supplies, we have drones delivering supplies, and we also have that aforementioned AI being used to help develop vaccines and scan through stuff. But then, we do have AI being used to identify people who are wearing, or not wearing facial masks.
MO: Which may or may not be actually useful in this situation.
AF: Right. But the last cool thing is companies integrating thermal imaging to help identify those with fevers. There’s a lot of ever-growing and ever-changing technology [and] things coming out in crises that I am cautiously optimistic about and also maybe a little bit afraid of what it brings us next.
KF: But also, be nice to your local grocery store robot. You may need it!
AF: The big robot at Stop & Shop recently had its birthday. I’m blanking on its name, it’s probably Marty, but it was his birthday. Don’t push him over. He’s doing a great job.
MO: And let’s also be nice and consider those that actually HAVE to work in the service industry, that are making food and serving food, delivering food. And Ubers and Lyfts. They’re at tremendous risk and a lot of them can’t really work from home. This is that question of “what happens next?” And “what’s going to be good and what’s going to be bad?”. Does this create this new class society with knowledge workers, people that are coding, people that are doing what we’re doing, being able to basically survive because we can isolate ourselves and be productive and earn money, where a bunch of people can’t do that because that’s just not the nature of their work? So it is very interesting times.
AF: Tip well.
KF: Tip well! Tip extra. Ideally in cash.
AF: That you take out of your pocket with washed hands [everyone laughs].