Are we going all virtual?

The world has changed a lot in the past few months. Within a few months this pandemic has turned the world upside down. Everyone around the globe has got impacted. Whatever plans any of us had for the year, are tossed out. Not only it disturbed existing set-ups, but the prolonged nature of this pandemic has also brought a lot of uncertainty about the future. Something that we humans are not very good at dealing with.

If you don’t know if next week your city will be under a lockdown or not, if you don’t know when will schools open and kids will no longer need to be entertained whole day, if you don’t know when it will be safe to travel and see your loved ones, if you don’t know when you need to start to go to the office and get a chance to get out of pajamas, if you don’t know how thousands of other things that we used you take for granted, will turn out to me, it’s very difficult to plan anything for future.

But we are by default planners, we still want to assess the future and be ready for it. This is one of the reasons, among all this uncertainty, there is already a buzz about what will be new normal. We want to know today how will the future look, although you don’t know if the delivery slot will be available or not in your grocery app tomorrow.

We have always tried predicting the future looking at past information and trends. This time it’s not going to be easy. There is no past comparable to this event. Nothing like this has happened in our lifetime. When something similar happened 100 years back, the world was a lot different place. In terms of trends, things are changing so fast and it’s such a short span (although it looks like an eternity that we have been locked inside our houses) of time, its difficult to find any trends to predict the future.

That’s why no one knows how this pandemic will impact society, markets, education, employment, and our day to day life. Whoever is telling you anything about how this will turn out to be, is making guesses. There is nothing wrong about making guesses and hearing those as long as we know that these are just guesses.

Let me tell you about my guess. One question that I got recently in one of the webinars was, how will education get impacted by this pandemic and resulting lockdowns. Will education completely go online?

Here is my take. Before we entered this era of the pandemic, there was a lot of buzz about how the future will be only online learning and how colleges will become obsolete in the coming years. Now, with all colleges going 100% online, you may be tempted to assume that those predictions have come true.

But hold on. All those predictions also told us that it will be a great time when all colleges will be virtual and online. It will give flexibility to students, democratize education, and make it more effective and affordable. As a result, it will be preferred mode and eliminate physical colleges. But fast forward today, is that reality?

Now that all colleges are virtual, is education better? Are students more satisfied? Doesn’t look like. According to a survey of 13,606 college students in the United States by study guide platform OneClass, 75% of college students are unhappy with the quality of online classes and 35% have considered withdrawing from school. [1] Roughly 20% of first-year students have deferred from Harvard, one of the top-ranked university. [2]

That should confirm that the future doesn’t always turn out to be as we expect. All those (including me) who were very excited about virtual education, should have realized now that pure virtual is not a solution. Of course, during this time we will see more and more e-learning start-ups because there is demand but that doesn’t mean when things go back to normal, offline education will go extinct.

My prediction (read it as a guess) is that before this pandemic, we already saw technology entering the classrooms and a lot more online education, that process will accelerate but offline learning will not go away completely. You cannot replace real classrooms with pure zoom (or any other app) classes. That energy, that brainstorming, that real discussion, that live connect, is not possible over video calls.

What we will see is a great mix of offline classes and virtual learning. May be professors don’t need to teach everything in a real classroom. Some of the standard lectures can be recorded and given as pre-work to class, classes can be kept for only real discussion. Maybe you don’t need to be at campus full year, you can take a few online assessments for a few months and then be at campus for other classes. Whatever it may be, it will be a balance between offline and online education. I recall reading it somewhere that MBA from a great college, is a highly paid networking event. If that’s true, you need to meet people in person. (but I don’t know how correct that is, as I am neither an MBA nor good at networking. 😀 )

While we are on the topic of virtual, what about the workplace? All around the world millions of people are working remotely. In the US itself, 42 percent of the labor force is now working from home full-time [3]. For many years now, there have been predictions that remote working will be the future of work. Flexibility will be the norm and there will be a day when everyone will be able to work from wherever they want and whenever they want. It was projected as a day of ultimate freedom for the corporate workforce, a day of nirvana when work will not feel like work. A lot of people dreamed of getting a job which is remote and you don’t need to show-up at the office.

So now we are in that day of nirvana, but does it feel like that? Do you feel you have got ultimate freedom and work no longer feels like work? Far from it, now actually home doesn’t feel like home. Of course, it has given a lot of flexibility to us but hardly anyone can call it a dream situation.

Let me quote the latest WSJ article to give you a sense [4]

“It’s hard to fig­ure out work-life bal­ance when work and life hap­pen in the same place. It’s hard to stay fo­cused on that client doc­u­ment, that Power­Point deck or even that ex­pense re­port when you can see your child get­ting paint all over the cof­fee ta­ble, hear your spouse con­duct­ing her own Zoom call, and smell that de­li­cious batch of cook­ies your teen is bak­ing in the oven. It’s frus­trat­ing to try to brain­storm with col-leagues or write a re­port to­gether when you’re used to work­ing to­gether face-to-face, with the ben­e­fit of body lan­guage and a gi­ant white­board. And it’s time-con­sum­ing to man­age your own soft­ware glitches and video-call hic­cups with­out the on-site help of your IT de­part­ment.”

People are already predicting that this pandemic will make the office a thing of past and work will remote for always. My guess is, the answer lies somewhere in between.

Before this pandemic, one of the hurdles to work from home was acceptability. Will people be as productive from home as they are in the office? That question is settled for always. If you can run a company fully virtual for six months without any major hurdle, how would you argue in the future that work from home is not efficient? Now, no one is saying that people are working less from home compared to office, in fact, it’s reversed and now companies are forcing employees to take time off to avoid burn-out.

In the future, companies will be more acceptable towards flexible work locations/hours and employees will realize that actual long term work from home is not as exciting as it sounds. There will be models with a mix of work from home and actual office. What is the right mix will vary by industries and companies. May be some jobs can be done from home or some non-peak months can be worked from home, maybe a few days in a month are fine to work from and few days teams will work together to brainstorm and network.

These are just my guesses and as good as yours. But two things I am sure. First, don’t take anyone as an authority about the future, at least not at this point in time and not even me. Second, usually the answer lies somewhere in between extremes.





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