These days we’re all like Robert Kelly


Living – and working – with the lockdown

These days we’re all like Robert Kelly

Three years ago we had fun at the expense of the so-called ’BBC Dad’, politics professor Robert Kelly, who became a viral star when his four-year-old daughter Marian happily skipped into his home office and gate-crashed an interview with BBC reporter James Menendez. These days we’re all like Robert Kelly: we sit in our home office, trying to work and avoid distractions from the family environment. We have been forced to get to adapt to a way of working that was already the everyday life for many people.

Before the coronavirus lockdown, 28 percent of the entire Swiss workforce already worked from home for at least one half-day each week. (In fact, half of all Swiss employees would potentially have been able to do their jobs from outside the office.) A third of the remaining 72 percent would like to be able to do so in the future[1]. Recruiters have reported that in recent years the opportunity to work from home has played a critical role in the job choices of millennials and Generation Z, and has become a must-have for employers. Without the chance to work from home, four out of ten of them – a larger proportion than in any other generation - would not have accepted a position[2].

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Robert Kelly's children interrupt BBC News interview

The coronavirus accelerates digitisation

The coronavirus crisis will accelerate digitisation and will further reinforce the trend towards working from home. However, the option of withdrawing to a personal workspace is not available in every sector: Something that could be arranged quickly for workers in IT, services, finance or insurance is out of the question for those in industries such as transport and logistics, nursing care or catering, whose jobs involve direct personal interaction.

What’s more, those for whom working from home is a viable and rational option depend on having a strong and stable data infrastructure. I am noticing that some of my contacts in Germany are struggling with low bandwidths in their home offices, especially if they live in a rural region with poor IT infrastructure. This is where the low level of digitisation comes back to bite. Many industries and regions have simply missed out on the expansion of the digital infrastructure and the trend towards Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things.

Most of the work done in home offices involves computers and depends on having reliable data lines and the tools for communication. “The increased trend towards working from home offices is showing businesses whether they already have the right tools – from communication software to cloud services – to enable them to function in the era of the Internet of Things,” says digitisation expert Carolin Proft from the Federation of German Industries (BDI)[3]. Numerous businesses, including many in Switzerland, are playing catch-up and are only now realising that they don’t have the right equipment, and that their existing infrastructure needs an upgrade or is completely inadequate.

Will the data lines bear the load?

Many people are already asking whether the data lines will bear the load. In the past week alone, the data traffic from video conferences has doubled at the world’s largest Internet node in Frankfurt am Main, according to a report from operating company DE-CIX[4]. It claims that group calls are now 1,000 percent longer than before. Services like Skype, Teams, Slack, Webex and Zoom are the big winners here. It is hardly surprising that the price of shares in Zoom has risen significantly in recent weeks.

Many of those attending video meetings are noticing that exchanges are much faster, more concise, and more to the point. People (so far) are dispensing with the unnecessary introductions and tiresome circular discussions that have been a common feature of meetings in the past. Participants now concentrate on the essentials. It is to be hoped that this remains the case in future.

Perhaps users will also be happy to use video conferencing after the crisis, instead of flying to London or Madrid for a two-hour meeting. The phenomenon of ’flight shaming’ was on the increase even before the coronavirus outbreak, On 13 July 2018, Flightradar24 reported that there were more aircraft in the air on that Friday than ever before. It counted a total of 205,468 flights worldwide on this single day, and at peak time there were more than 19,000 aircraft in the air at the same time[5]. While we now sit at home 80 percent of these flights no longer take place, and we are reducing emissions of carbon dioxide by millions of tons per month. I don’t expect commercial air travel to resume at the same level as before, not least for cost reasons.

Personal interaction will remain important

However, alongside all the clearly defined processes, facts and results, commerce is also a highly emotional business - it´s a people business. Personal contacts, getting to know one another and sizing up the other person, are extremely important. The most important decisions at manager meetings are often reached during an informal coffee break or over dinner. This is not something that can be simulated in virtual reality. 

On the other hand, you also get a personal insight into the private lives of your colleagues and partners: their personal coffee cup, bookshelves, family photos and furniture are suddenly there to be seen, bringing you closer to your colleagues. It is even possible to organise a virtual lunch table and to sit down to a midday meal and chat with your workmates. One employee of a PR agency even surprised his colleagues by turning up to a videoconference dressed as a bag of French fries. This led to speculation that he might have been infected with carnival fever, giving everyone a lift. At times like this, a little silliness is perfectly fine. The main thing is to keep your spirits up.

Combating COVID-19 with resilience

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