Remote Working and Black Swans

In general, IT teams tend to be very bad at reacting to unannounced changes. We are not a discipline that is good at dealing with emergencies – we do not like emergencies. We like everything to be set out, planned and agreed.

But recently, IT teams throughout the country have been tasked with dealing with an overnight change from everyone working in an office, to a distributed workforce mostly working from home, By all rights, given how badly IT teams are at dealing with unannounced changes, this shift should have been an unmitigated disaster and should not have worked. Yet it did. If you had tried to do this in 2010, it would not have worked. What changed in those ten years?

In particular, two things happened. Firstly, there were no issues with bandwidth – intuitively you would think that pulling all the commercial internet usage out of office buildings and running it through domestic broadband should have overwhelmed the domestic networks. It did not. Secondly, IT systems are typically designed with a “fortress” mentality – everyone outside is bad, everyone inside is good. Decamping people outside of the fortress should have resulted in everyone being locked out and frustrated. Again, they were not, or if they were there was a suspiciously easy switch to flick in IT departments all over the country. Why did it work? Because a) BT, Sky, Virgin, et al have been tuning their network to deliver all TV and video content over home broadband, and hence there was enough broadband, and b) everyone now keeps their data in the cloud, and hence the walls of the fortress were highly permeable.

Covid-19 is a “black swan event” – an event that happens without warning, that changes everything, and will no doubt be rationalised with hindsight. Somehow we magically happened to have, nationally and internationally, from the biggest corporate to the smallest SME, all of the tools required to remain productive in a situation where effectively every office building had closed, and every meeting cancelled. Most businesses can get floored by an unexpected fire alarm, or a set of lost keys.

If you’re a long-term watcher of the IT industry, this is without a doubt the most bizarre situation the industry has ever seen. An IT project at planetary scale with millions-upon-millions of moving parts and dependencies with no planning, and no warning, simply self-organised itself and worked. How?!

For me, this comes down to generational shifts in information technology. Every 12-13 years, everything changes. Some universal change in modality pops into being and we sweep away a whole way of working and replace it. Whilst it looks like this happens overnight, what really happens is that we have all the technical pieces in place, they just haven’t been put together in the right order – yet. Once the pieces do come together in the right order we get this generational shift.

In the 1960s we went from having no computers to mainframe computers. In the 1970s, mainframe computers were replaced with mini-computers. In 1981, IBM launched the Personal Computer. In 1995, we see Windows 95 and mainstream adoption of the internet, creating the internet-connected PC. In 2007, we see the launch of the iPhone. In each case, we had all the pieces, it was the putting together of them that was different. When the iPhone was launched, the management of BlackBerry thought it was a joke, because they knew what all the pieces that made up an iPhone were, it’s just no one had thought to put them together in the way that made an iPhone.

Covid-19 occurred 13 years after the introduction of the iPhone, and what we see in the change in application of technology lines up with this key requirement of a generational shift in the IT industry. We had all the pieces to support a dramatically different way of working – in 1968 AT&T were demonstrating video conferencing systems, and every home has Wi-Fi, every laptop has a webcam and a microphone, and every IT team has been moving data from on-premises out into the cloud out in the cloud.

For me, the workplace will never be the same again. There won’t be a return to mandatory attendance – it’s fundamentally cheaper and benefits employers to have people working from home from either most of the time or some of the time, and we know now that working in this way doesn’t have a (or have an immediately obvious) detrimental effect on productivity. The question remains whether Covid-19 will turn out to embed a generational/relationship change with IT in the way that we saw with previous generations.

By Matthew Reynolds