With the ongoing COVID-19 situation and the likelihood of a new normal once the worst of it abates, businesses will be looking to change their processes. One of the biggest changes we can expect in the near future is the proliferation of work-from-home options, even after the lockdown eases. A large proportion of the workforce is likely to see an increase in the frequency with which they are working from home.
So, what does this mean for the field of data science and its practitioners?
I have now been working from home for the past month and a half. I can say for myself that I’m having difficulties with time management, not connecting with others face to face, and facing the continual stream of really horrid news. During all of this, I’m also trying to make some sense of what the future of our work will look like when it comes to data science.
Look for New Opportunities
The way we do business is in need of a major overhaul. Because the world has changed, many of our old business processes will also need to change to adapt to the emerging reality. For retail, this means creating new ways to shop that both incorporate social distancing measures and mitigate panic buying. Transportation, optimization, pricing, and supply chain models will have greater personnel and capacity constraints. Further complicating things is the fact that buying patterns have changed drastically in recent months, and the novelty of this situation means that we can’t rely on past data to find patterns. An important question we need to answer now is how to identify patterns in real-time during a calamity without sufficient past data existing at all.
Retail isn’t the only sector that will be affected, either. Think about the credit models for a bank. Would those credit models be accurate enough right now to decide whether a person should be given a loan or not? Or can we trust current fraud models to capture all the new types of fraud we might begin to see after this pandemic?
I could point out numerous examples where our past data is no longer representative, and we’re going to need to come up with novel ways to do effective work. In the past, I often thought: “What more is there for data scientists to invent or innovate? Everything is already done!” Now I realize that’s no longer the case. Although this isn’t how anybody would have hoped it would happen, we have a huge chance to shape the future of data science.
Everyone is nervous right now and with good reason. The world is experiencing an upheaval, unlike anything most people can remember. But we can also view these times as an opportunity to innovate and come up with new ideas for the data science profession. The work we do right now may prove to be vitally important, finding a place in the post-pandemic world. Everyone is starting at square one right now. Let’s look for ways to change our field for the better when this is in the past.
Don’t Develop Bad Habits
A huge part of any data science project is communication. Whether you’re consulting with your business partners about the project’s requirements or within your team to discuss potential ideas, clear communication is crucial at every step. I have realized that the coronavirus outbreak has affected this chain of communication badly. It has reduced the possibility of a lot of investigative work that arises from instant discussions. I can’t just look around and ask someone from my team to get me something or discuss various approaches to a project . Instead, I need to set up a time for everything I need to discuss, no matter how small.
Because of these communication problems, we are at great risk of going back to a bunch of bad habits that we had actively discouraged in the pre-COVID-19 world after realizing they don’t work. For instance, a lot of my time right now is eaten up by meetings and calls rather than working on my projects. The increase in meeting time is particularly frustrating because it’s already pretty well established that excess meetings don’t correlate to greater productivity.
Another bad habit we have developed is an erosion of the boundaries between our work and home lives. Right now, no clear demarcation exists between working hours and downtime as the laptop has entered our bedrooms. The lack of real, meaningful downtime can lead to burnout and increased stress levels. Right now, I’m seeing this across different regions. Working from India, I can see my business partners in the United States responding to inquiries at ungodly hours; the same is true for me as well.
We have to take bold action to avoid letting these bad habits overwhelm our ability to function. For one thing, we need to strike a fine balance between holding enough meetings that we communicate effectively and so many that nobody has time to get their work done. Instead of setting up a whole meeting, see if you and your colleagues can handle simple questions with an instant message or a phone call. Although people don’t really use them this way anymore, I remember when phones were mainly for calling other people.
Also, I’ve found that assiduously maintaining a separate space for work in my home helps with setting clear boundaries as well. Crucially, the place where you sleep should be kept free of work. I myself have a good monitor and an ergonomic chair in my study corner to keep it as close to my old office environment as possible. These simple changes have increased my productivity by leaps and bounds. I maintain good posture throughout the day and have lots of screen real estate while I’m working. This set-up also helps with disengaging from work when the day ends. Your home was not designed with your data science work in mind. A dedicated workspace really helps you to create work environment that’s effective for your overall work needs.
Documentation Is Crucial Now
In the past, we had an environment that offered us many ways to collaborate and put our ideas forward. We could talk to people face to face or set up conferences to explain our ideas. We could go to a colleague’s desk to ask about a particular piece of code. We could set up working sessions with other data science folks to get something working. In a way, the office environment offered a lot of transparency and insight into other people’s work that helped with your own projects. But now, as we’re limited to trying to communicate through collaboration tools like Slack, Zoom, Jira, and others, we need to acquire some new habits.
Although documentation has always been a crucial aspect of working in data science, its importance has increased manifold now in the absence of these past avenues of sharing. This includes code comments, writing detailed emails to your business partners, and documenting each and every process relentlessly. In the past, data scientists were always present to explain their analysis and results in full. But under our current circumstances, thoroughly tracking everything and documenting even the most uncomplicated parts helps to get our ideas across clearly in the absence of tools like whiteboards and presentations. Right now, I not only document whatever I do on a day-to-day basis on my project’s confluence page, but I also look at other people’s confluence pages whenever I feel the need for more insight into their projects. Although this documentation effort ends up taking a little more time every day, this helps me get my work across and also helps everyone involved to understand and make conclusions in a more meaningful way. It has the added benefit of further reducing a lot of unnecessary meetings. Furthermore, good documentation helps your project manager to keep track of the project, provide ideas and suggestions, and get hold of important information and results quickly.
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Find a Way to Cope That Works for You
Let me stress that it’s really OK if you’re feeling overwhelmed with work right now. We all are. With the ongoing uncertainty, growing demands from businesses to do more with less, and the inescapable feeling of despair all around us, it would be hard not to experience some measure of burnout.
Keep in mind that you’ll have good days as well as bad ones when working at home, just like when we worked in the office. We have all formulated our own ways of dealing with bad days at the office. Some people go out with friends, while others might just sleep through the bad feelings. But now, a lot of us are facing bad work days infiltrating our home lives for the first time. In this new normal, seeing friends is off the table and sleeping through the ordeal probably isn’t an option either. So while we’re all looking forward to the days when this nightmare will end, we also need to maintain a healthy distance from the 24/7 news cycle and take our minds off things once in a while. I have made it a point to limit my exposure to the news. I go through the day’s events once in the morning and once in the evening. Personally, writing is also a useful therapeutic activity as I try to keep sane. You might do it a different way, whether that’s by taking a stroll, exercising, or just talking to your friends and family members. But what’s important is finding a way to cope that works for you.
These are trying times, and it will take a lot of willpower on everyone’s part to get through them while maintaining sanity.
In this post, I have offered some ways that have worked for me in handling this situation. Essentially, we need to look for the opportunity to innovate, create new products, manage our time effectively, be ready to say no to meetings, document fiercely, and find ways to cope with the ordeal. Perhaps most importantly, though, we need to remember to forgive ourselves when we falter.