5 Ways the Tech Industry Will Evolve After the Hellscape of 2020
No one can predict the future, especially now that it has become so uncharitably, uncharacteristically uncertain. In its astounding rudeness, that future has obliterated nearly all of the old methods, processes and policies we would have turned to in an emergency like COVID-19. One could be forgiven for barely knowing what will happen tomorrow — let alone in the far-flung netherspace that looms beyond 2021.
As an art director and UI/UX designer and mentor for the past 20 years, I feel my experience in the tech industry’s Renaissance gives me a sight-beyond-sight. I’ve worked in the trenches for innumerable put-out-this-fire gigs, and I’ve been involved in a few once-in-a-generation titles for Microsoft, EA Sports, Activision and more. This panoramic exposure has offered a vision of what the future might possibly hold.
1. Tech Companies That Don’t Go Remote Will Face Collapse
Those who preserved their jobs through lockdown have proven for months that they can provide digital deliverables and still keep themselves and their families safe. Calls to return to the office will largely be interpreted as code for, “The part where you and your family stays safe is fairly incidental to us now.” Talent has rarely had to choose between their immune system and their income — but now they’ll have to do so regularly.
Companies will reach a boiling point where they’ll either have to allow employees to work remotely as they please, or they’ll have to terminate them on the spot and hire new employees who have no such objections. As Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft trail-blaze a fully remote future where nobody needs to make that choice, it will be that much harder for smaller companies to implement a scorched-earth policy on clocking in.
If a company chooses to terminate the “holdouts,” it’s difficult to say at what capacity they’ll be able to function. The loss of even one or two team members sends ripples throughout an organization, and few tech studios can survive if 10 to 25 percent of the team refuses to come in or is laid off. And what if core talent or directors refuse to come back to the office? Can you fire the star coder or the CEO in mid-stride?
2. A New Breed of Pandemic-Tailored Studios Will Rise Unlike Anything We’ve Seen Before
While there are pandemic-specific needs that simply didn’t exist prior to 2020, certain tech fields like games and app development remain evergreen in a recession. Unemployed techies with a penchant for networking will band together to form new companies. But unlike offices of the past, these will be tailored for 2020’s unique biological, economic, emotional and social challenges.
Smaller companies will benefit the most from remote non-offices, so you can expect a shift toward leaner and meaner studios — even micro-organizations with one or two full-time employees and the assorted hired gun. Starting a large, fully remote company during a pandemic seems daunting, and I wouldn’t expect to see this kind of next-generation firm deploy any larger than a dozen strong.
These special studios will, by inches or by leagues, reimagine the long-established conceits of employment including:
- A stronger emphasis on paid-time off and sick leave.
- A laissez-faire attitude toward vacation time — or perhaps the complete annihilation of “work vs. play.”
- Hot-seat interviews where employees ask their future employers, “How do you plan to keep me safe?”
These new models won’t just be a reaction to COVID-19, they’ll be a defiant photo-negative of corporate life as a whole.
3. There Will Be Frequent Project Delays Because of Health Concerns
Hopefully, you and yours are safe and will continue to be so indefinitely. But the fact of the matter is that 2020 has shown us that the future holds a spate of unpredictable calamities that cause project-wide disruptions with spectacular novelty. Team members falling ill or bowing out to care for the sick will frequently rock production, particularly at small businesses.
This will be especially true if a company stolidly refuses to go fully remote. If there is an outbreak inside the studio, they’ll have to shut it down for a deep cleaning, and the team will temporarily go remote anyway. Shutting down an entire operation, even for a day, is enough to waylay a perfectly stable project.
Waves of roll-call whack-a-mole will also force production to be proactive about fluctuations in personnel. When any team member can get knocked out for days or months, contingencies will have to be built from the ground up. This also requires a much heavier emphasis on process rather than the bottom line: You can’t release a product if nobody’s around to build it.
4. The ‘Workplace’ Will Become Far Less Personal but Far Healthier
Remote work absolutely guts the feeling of intimacy and connection with your coworkers, especially if you’re a new hire. If you’re a new remote contract worker, you might as well be the world’s most elaborate Turing test. The new workplace will be a world of cooperation, pleasantries, delayed facial reactions — and precious little else.
The boon, however, is the blessed excision of commutes, cubicle walls, microwaved halibut, inter-office politics and all the other obstacles that can beset a creative problem solver.
A lack of workplace affability also means more of a reliance of socializing elsewhere. Office camaraderie will come in sporadic moments: perhaps in the form of game nights or celebrating milestones. But for the most part, the age of making close friends at work may be a bygone one.
5. Nobody Is Going Back to the Old Ways Because They Never Really Benefited Anyone Anyway
The present health crisis has created a global economic upheaval. Companies still need to turn a profit, but tech is blessedly location-agnostic. Clearly, nobody is returning to the old ways of traditional offices and office policy any time soon. That means all our temporary measures and makeshift policies are slowly becoming foundational layers. The idea of going back to the old ways implies a destruction of that foundational layer — the foundation that got us this far!
Tech companies, especially the early adopters, will revel in the benefits of our new reality:
- breathtakingly low overhead
- a reimagining of operational costs and spending
- home environments that reduce anxiety
- and a personal freedom unimaginable in 2019
What could possibly seduce upper management to return to expensive office space, costly equipment and utilities while there’s — what was it, again — a global pandemic in full swing?
And let’s talk about that elephant patiently squatting in the room. The virus has been politicized, making the wearing or non-wearing of a mask an issue that just might lead folks to pugilism. HR will need a phonebook-sized manual to deal with anti-maskers causing mask-wearers to call in sick.
Or perhaps the polar opposite will play out in some environments: What if the boss has a strict no-mask policy and you have a weakened immune system? Office drama was always on the table, but it was never lethal. What litigious-wary company wants that?
The Bottom Line
Most of the traditions you see around you are less the result of careful iteration and more the lazy sawdust of, “This is how we’ve always done it.” I believe companies will stubbornly hold out for their traditional ways — that is, until they look at the numbers while they’re waiting. Everything, from production costs to a politically toxic environment, fades away like the snows of yesteryear. The old ways are burning because they were always meant for kindling.
Yes, that always uncertain future looks a shade more ridiculous than it did before. We’re not just living in interesting times, we’re living interesting lives, lives that are witnessing the end of old values, old rules and old limitations.
Like a wildfire sweeping through dry grasses, this is a violent and abrupt shift from the way things were. But such cataclysm is also the perfect fertilizer for radical, challenging ideas to sprout forth into a bright new future.