Groupware in the age of coronavirus

Above: Lily Zheng, Director, Microsoft China, posted these images of some of the company’s remote workers on a company blog.

BitDepth#1240 for March 12, 2020

In an  interview last week with Newsday’s Sean Douglas, Gabriel Faria, CEO of the TT Chamber of Commerce responded to a question about software to enable remote work by saying, “Not yet. We are not at that stage of thinking.”

He was referring to the potential impact of Covid-19, the fast moving, terrifyingly aggressive form of coronavirus that’s essentially shut down manufacturing in China and led to lockdowns in major infected areas.

By the start of this week, Covid-19 had racked up 90,000 cases leading to 3,000 deaths around the world.

Because the virus spreads most efficiently in close range encounters between people, workplaces have been the first and hardest hit in efforts to limit the spread of the disease.

In ground zero for the disease, Wuhan in China, infection has spread most aggressively in families. Once it gets into a home, it will infect everyone unless unusually strict measures are followed.

Businesses are suspending travel, deploying more hand santitizer and switching job interviews to teleconferences.

But Faria’s comment might also have applied to the workplace generally in Trinidad and Tobago, which has stoutly resisted the notion of remote work even in the face of debilitating traffic jams which routinely takes an incalculable toll on the capacity of its workforce.

Instead, this country has tended to embrace a colonial era infatuation with keeping an eye on the workers.

We may not employ whips anymore, but it’s a rare workplace that doesn’t have its own version of a modern day slave driver, another worker yoked to a treadmill of presence tasked with policing the work of colleagues a pay grade or two removed from their own.

All our systems are designed to enshrine face to face meetings and service the big economy, not the far nimbler gig economy.

Almost anyone who sits in a cubicle tapping away at a keyboard is probably well suited for consideration for remote work and the software to enable productive dislocation  from the workplace has been available for decades.

It now has a collective name, groupware, and its available from a range of vendors, from small, business sector focused web startups, to massive suites of software from which businesses can cherry pick the services they need.

Microsoft TT representative Darren Mohammed was quick to respond to Newsday’s story by noting the capabilities his company had on offer for remote work and citing the success of Microsoft China’s transititon to remote operations.

Half of the company’s worksites in China were closed to limit the spread of the virus and the company told Verge that a “large percentage” of workers are using the work-from-home option.

According to Mohammed, 60 per cent of large businesses in TT are already using Microsoft’s cloud services and is, understandably keen, to sign up other companies interested in using its tools, which are also available for timed rentals.

Other alternatives include the somewhat technical Slack, the web app Trello and Microsoft’s free versions of Teams, a new groupware product.

We’ve come some distance from Lotus Notes in the 1990’s, but separating personality from productivity remains a challenge in the modern workplace.

As a freelance contributor to publications, I’ve managed to be both a frequent, reliable supplier of writing and photographs and a complete stranger to most of the people I might have been sitting next to in thirty years ago.

I meet only my family in the corridors of my personal workplace, and while I respond quickly using modern communication methods I inhabit an odd netherworld of work in which I can be both widely known and an alien outsider.

Even worse, there is little in local law that supports, far less encourages this approach to the workplace. Employees are the desirable norm, and independent contractors remain oddities to government institutions, banks and businesses, despite their pervasiveness and importance to modern business planning and architecture.

Despite paying lip service to diversification, all our systems are designed to enshrine face to face meetings and service the big economy, not the far nimbler gig economy.

It may not even be necessary to use dedicated groupware to enable remote work. What most companies need is a mutually agreed on measure of what a successful day’s work looks like from the company’s perspective, a communications tool that everyone agrees on and a healthy serving of trust and confidence.

For many small businesses, including a small premium taxi fleet I traveled with a couple of months ago, it’s as simple as a WhatsApp group dedicated to updates on availability, location and problem reporting.

The problem has never really been software. It’s always been an approach to work that counts behinds on seats in view as more important than results recorded.

Until that changes, thousands of hours will continue to be lost to often needless travel every day and our economy will continue to be vulnerable to something as simple as a sinkhole on the highway, far less a nationwide quarantine.