Powerful Prototypes: The Work World in 2021

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” This often-used statement (or often-yelled statement by my junior high school football coach) has always struck me as being a bit odd. I’m sure my coach intended it to mean that when things are really difficult, tough people will try harder. However, due to the idiosyncrasies of the English language, it could equally mean that those with strong character will turn tail and get the heck out of Dodge.

I don’t really know which stands correct in this setting, but I’m stuck at home, so there is no Dodge to get out of. Without the ability to keep doing business as usual or head for the hills, I’m left in my little box to contemplate what life will be like once all of this is over.

I miss coming into the office, but I actually see some colleagues more often through video chat than I ever did in person. The biggest loss I feel is time out on the production floor. In normal times, whenever I’m feeling a little stressed or lost, I will spend some time looking at all of the PCBs being built. At any given moment, we may have 100 or more different board designs in the process of being built, and being surrounded by that much concentrated innovation is therapeutic (Figure 1).


Figure 1: Panleized PCBs ready for solder paste.

I will be able to get back to the boards sometime, but many things, I suspect, will change for the better. With that in mind, here are five ways I see the working world being different in 2021.

1. Video Connection

The concept of video phone calls or conferences has been around for almost as long as the telephone and wireless voice transmission. The development of the technology required for video transmission started nearly 100 years ago. The first closed-circuit (a non-changeable connection between two specific locations) was put into use in the 1930s. AT&T (the monopoly telephone company in the USA for much of the 20th century) demonstrated a working two-way video phone at the 1964 World’s Fair; it is not a new idea.

Despite the passage of all of that time, the ability to make a video call from wherever you are to almost any location of your choice without the need for exotic hardware only goes back to about the turn of the 21st century. Even then, it was awkward, difficult for some, impossible for others, and never really fully out of the prototype stage.

That all changed mid-March 2020. Once remote work and social distancing became the order of the day, people had to make video calls work or lose out. Most of us found that video call tools were easier to use and more practical than thought. Video calling in March 2020 was far better than being cut off from all visual human contact or risking getting or giving a new and frightening virus.

Video conferencing will be far more common and will be almost as accepted as an in-person presence. The next step will be tablet stations, such as small, tabletop tripods for tablets that can be remotely turned to face someone. These will allow for better mixing of telepresence and live presence. Taller versions on wheels will become commonplace too.

2. Commuting vs. Remote Working

Remote working is not for everyone, but I think it’s safe to say that it works well for a lot of people. A week or two isn’t really enough to change behaviors or thought processes, but two or three months likely is.

Before my current job, I spent most of my career with anywhere from a 20-minute to a 90-minute commute. If that is all you know, you don’t have anything different to compare it to. If it is your only choice, you adapt and deal with it. In my current position, I live close enough to walk to work in all but the most inclement weather. It didn’t take long after starting that the thought of going back to a job with a long commute became almost unthinkable.

Some people don’t have a home situation that lends itself to easily being productive, but if you are one that can make it work, the thought of going back to that commute could be a rather hard pill to swallow.

3. Commercial Real Estate vs. Remote Working

Your reticence to go back to a life of commuting may very well be a good thing for your employer as well. The debate about the effectiveness of working at home has been around for many years and may very well be put to rest due to the experiences of these few months. Some companies refuse to believe that their employee can be trusted to be productive without a manager breathing over them.

Some companies trust their workers but believe that the benefits of a physical presence outweigh any advantage that remote working can give. Again, these few months will be a big slap in that face. After this is over, the ability to work at home or the need for a position to be in the office will be little more than a job attribute as is the need to lift heavy objects, and far more jobs then we could have ever imagined will fall into the “can work remotely” category.

Imagine the commercial real estate market in 2021. If a company needs more office space, working from home might be more often seen as an alternative to expensive office expansion. “If we did it in 2020, we can do it now.”

4. Cloud and Collaborative Computing

Cloud computing and remote collaboration were already in a stronger position than work from home before this happened, but it now has all the proof it needs to knock out the last of the naysayers. There are organizations that have, for a long time, primarily consisted of remote workers. We used to call those “virtual companies.” Now, we just call them “companies.”

Through this, I’ve been working with a team that is distributed across the world. Before the forced extended work at home, I would have said that I periodically meet with people from around the world. Today, I would say that I work with them and collaborate with them. There is no longer any advantage to being in the same physical office over being in a remote location.

While I may prefer to see folks in person, the “need” to be in the same room has turned from what I thought was a requirement for efficiency to being merely a personal preference. The next time I need to hire someone, I’m going to be hard-pressed not to have remote work as an option from the start.

Some of the tools do need a bit of work still, but more and more software systems are making remote collaboration a reality. I still haven’t found a good remote substitute for a big whiteboard, though. Would one of you engineers out there get to work on that?

5. We Were Close: Now We Are There

All of my points cover work practices or concepts that have been around for a while, and some for a very long while. The COVID-19 shut-down has just proved the viability. The working world has gone virtual, and there really is no going back.

Some jobs do require a physical presence, such as manufacturing. But that only applies to the people actually driving a soldering iron or moving the parts and boards around. For anyone in an office setting, location is now a preference and not a requirement.

Please keep yourself safe and spend some time contemplating what you want your work setting to be once we are through all of this.

Duane Benson is marketing manager and CTO at Screaming Circuits.



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