Amidst the turmoil and tragedies of 2020, the way that businesses and households responded to the disruption has demonstrated the pervasive power of technology. For it was technology that allowed many office-based workers to switch to remote working with surprisingly little fuss (although the often-overlooked tech workers who faced a race against the clock to kit out workers with laptops and productivity apps deserve a shout-out).
While some organisations and workers were already comfortable with this modus operandi, many more were forced into the world of remote working for the first time.
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But it wasn’t just about the switch to working from home: old PCs, smartphones and more were pressed into service to keep us entertained, educated and connected during a period of isolation that many had never expected or experienced.
SEE: Top 100+ tips for telecommuters and managers (free PDF) (TechRepublic)
If the COVID-19 crisis had arrived 15, or even 10 years, earlier the situation would have been quite different.
Working from home would have been all but impossible for the majority, either because home computers were much less common or because the relevant applications and services could not be accessed remotely. There would have been no video chat with lonely relatives, and no contact-tracing smartphone apps to help slow the rate of coronavirus infection.
Day-to-day, barring outages, we now barely register the presence of broadband, Wi-Fi, cloud services and cheap computer hardware. Without that familiar infrastructure, 2020 would have been even more cruel.
However, this year has also highlighted the limits of technology.
While Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Slack have seen a huge boost in popularity, there’s also a recognition that the tools we have for collaboration are still frustratingly limited. There is still a long way to go before these applications can replace the richness of face-to-face collaboration.
Remote-working tools may have kept us productive, but they have done less to keep us inspired, and being more digitally connected than ever before has not prevented people from struggling with isolation and loneliness.
It’s also worth noting that cutting-edge technologies like augmented reality and virtual reality, which have promised to bring us together virtually when physically apart, have proven less than effective.
Then there’s the fact that the events of this year have worsened the economic divide between knowledge workers who can comfortably work from home and others – in front-line services like nursing or teaching, or in hospitality and retail – who cannot, and have been forced to continue to risk physical contact.
Furthermore, digital technologies will only deliver benefits to those who can afford them; for children at home without access to a connected PC, 2020 has been a year of lost education on top of all the other deprivations. No wonder there are calls for a new tax on working from home.
The past year has demonstrated how reliant we have become on technology, but it has also reminded us that the benefits are neither absolute nor shared evenly. As we look towards 2021, we must deal with these challenges rather than ignore them in the rush to return to normality.
ZDNET’S MONDAY MORNING OPENER
The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet’s global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America.
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