Work Life After the Pandemic

Yesterday, I was in a meeting with work colleagues in the pre-pandemic style: in person. There was coffee. There was the usual round robin introduction segment. There were at least three other NSF alumni besides myself and the subject matter was fairly banal–that is not management of a crisis. So it really felt a bit like my old life running NSF’s biological sciences directorate, even though there were a few masks in the room. To complete the illusion, my current building is about 4 blocks from the old NSF headquarters and so the view out the window was pretty comparable.

But of course, it’s not 2017. Office buildings here in Arlington Virginia are still conspicuously empty of people. The dog days of summer add to the ghost town feeling. Zoom calls are still the normative mechanism for bringing work colleagues together where the phrase “you’re muted” has become the most common utterance no matter the specifics of a particular meeting. Work has changed fundamentally and to my view, probably permanently.

I have colleagues who mostly work remotely–some from overseas–and I’m sure that’s fairly common. This is the case even for running laboratories: checking in on graduate students or postdocs and looking at their latest results does not require occupying the same space. Scientific teams can write proposals and manuscripts collaboratively in the cloud. Coming into the office for the mandatory 8:30AM meeting in the director’s office probably was close to obsolete even before the pandemic hit.

So what comes next? Actually why does anything need to come next? It could be argued that the greatest crisis here is localized to commercial real estate developers and that work life will continue more or less as it is, changed permanently by COVID, but not for the worse. Just different.