CEO of Ozcode (www.oz-code.com)
Governments around the world have instituted lockdowns to try and slow the Covid-19 pandemic, saying that only essential workers should be still going into work. But that just raises the question: who is an essential worker in a pandemic?
The doctors, nurses and hospital staff on the front line are obviously essential workers. So are workers in supermarkets and pharmacies, delivery drivers, farmers, pharmaceutical companies and police. But keeping things running also takes essential workers, in power stations, transportation, repairs, the news media and, of course, in IT.
Tech workers are often essential workers, keeping everything else working from banks to hospitals to the Government itself, as well as the websites and apps we’ve come to rely on.
Tech workers are also the bridge that enables other employees to work from home, keeping whole sections of the economy running.
If tech workers weren’t still working, we’d have no Zoom or Microsoft Teams for meetings, no Netflix to watch in the evening and no online ordering for groceries, not to mention no phone or Internet service at all.
Much of the work needed to keep the world’s software running can be done from home as long as employees have a laptop and appropriate network access.
Developers can develop; testers can test and; with a cloud debugger (I build the one I just linked there, in the interests of full disclosure:); bugs can be squashed from sofas, kitchen tables and even the occasional bed. With cloud-based workloads, good corporate VPNs and proper security measures, a big proportion of the world’s software infrastructure could be maintained by people working from home.
That said, not everything can be done remotely. Some data is too sensitive to be trusted to clouds or even VPNs. Some on-premises servers need hands-on TLC to keep them working smoothly and fix any problems. Sometimes physical backups need to be accessed, wired unplugged or temperamental equipment given a loving kick. And even if it would have been possible in theory, many workplaces don’t have the VPN capacity, security requirements or other tools needed to keep their software running without going into the office.
Some essential tech workers, then, are still going into the office because they have to keep the world running.
They face extra challenges as they continue going into work. Within the confines of their offices, they need to steer clear of each other as much as possible, sitting in separate rooms or widely spaced out in more open-plan layouts. They must take their hygiene to the extreme, washing their hands all the time and wiping surfaces before they touch them.
These workers could struggle to travel into work in towns where public transport has been stopped or curtailed, and might have to prepare their lunch at home because restaurants and cafes might be closed.
These office-based workers have to adapt to a mix of different work interactions, with both their colleagues who are coming into the office, and remote interactions with the many employees who are working from home.
All these constraints and context switches will make it more difficult to get things done. Companies need to understand that just as from-home workers are adapting to new conditions, the same is also true of those few who are still coming into the office.
But there is also a positive side. Those people who still need to work from the office should justifiably feel like they’re on a mission. They are truly essential, part of the critical group of people responsible for ensuring that the show goes on: that many others can work from home and that part of the underlying infrastructure of the economy – the infrastructure underneath the infrastructure – keeps running.
To the extent that they can, anyone who is going into the office should also be working on ways to make as much as possible remote. This could mean instituting new emergency procedures, installing remote management software or scaling up the office’s bandwidth.
However, some jobs will never be possible to completely do from home. Burst pipes will need plumbers; fallen power lines require the electric company to fix them; broken servers will need tech workers on hand to get them running again.
Those tech workers, whether they work in small startups or large enterprises, from cutting-edge innovative companies to the vital utilities we use every day without thinking about it, are essential workers, and they deserve our gratitude and our respect.
Shimon Hason is CEO of OzCode.