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ACA Think Pieces: The world after COVID-19
Three months into COVID crisis mode in Germany, my daily life remains pretty “normal” except that my child no longer goes to the kindergarten and I am more involved in the daily operations of the ACA headquarters in Brussels. This is, however, because my present life has been rather “abnormal”.
Thanks to the European Union, I have been able to continue my employment in Brussels while living with my husband and child in Trier. Cross-border commuters living in Germany and working in Luxembourg are very “normal” in my area, the “Greater Region” (encompassing Luxemburg and close-by regions in Germany and France), but cross-border teleworkers residing AND working in one country for another remain rather rare. This becomes apparent when none of the authorities from both countries has “standard” answers regarding the social security, health care or taxation arrangements of cross-border employees working primarily in the cloud. Unlike commuters shuttling between two countries on a daily basis, cross-border teleworkers do not physically move. My daily commute to Brussels is through Outlook. Such virtual employment across the EU is theoretically and legally allowed, but practically subject to uncertain regulations because arrangements to ease cross-border employment are typically tailored for physically mobile workers. The lack of standardized regulatory arrangements for cross-border virtual workers could mean both freedom to try and freedom to risk.
During the COVID crisis, when national borders between Luxembourg and Trier were restricted and employees were encouraged to telework to slow down the spread of the virus, my abnormal mode of cross-border virtual employment suddenly became the temporary “norm” in my region. It didn’t last long but was sufficient to sensitize regulatory bodies, on both sides of the border, of the needs to clear the paths for another type of European mobile workers: cross-border teleworkers who do not move. Depending on how long COVID is going to linger on, we may even see some lasting changes if home office becomes the trend.
It may be hard for many to imagine home office being a post-COVID preference. Many are hoping that this is just an interim solution and are eager to return to the “normal” office the soonest possible. It’s understandable because even for someone like me, who has been working from home for years, home office in COVID mode was very difficult to cope with. All the “outsourced” family obligations fell back on my plate and online activities exploded in volume with regular meetings, emergency meetings, and a sudden surge of webinars replacing cancelled physical events or responding to the pandemic. For those who are new to home office, the switch from physical office to cloud-based office and the sudden loss of routine and physical social contacts, plus the restrictions on personal freedom of movement make it even harder to appreciate home office.
As I told my colleagues in Brussels, the home office experience we have now is not normal.
Normally, home office moms do have and need external support for childcare or household chores to maintain a work-life balance. Normally, many of those meetings and events now turned online are not even accessible to us. Normally, we have quiet moments to focus on work after the kid(s) and the husband left home to go to their respective school and workplace. Normally, we also have a social life, though it might be totally disconnected from our professional circle.
I also miss the calm of my normal home office sometimes. But having experienced the hustling and bustling online life, professionally and personally, I do hope some of these virtual experiments will take root and be mainstreamed to reintegrate mobility-challenged professionals living in remote regions or bound by family obligations, like me.
Technologically, cloud-based work environment has been ready for many years. Information access and exchange is no longer bound by physical locations as a result of the digitalization of work practices and documents. Social networking can also be initiated or sustained through online tools. In principle one just needs a computer connected to fast internet to work with colleagues from anywhere. Such “work from anywhere” arrangement has, however, not been mainstreamed because the majority of employees are still working from physical premises. COVID is therefore a global social experiment pushing a critical mass of office workers and their employers to adopt some of the digital tools and infrastructures that have been there for years. For once, these digital means are not alternatives for the minorities but essentials for the majority in some fields, like ours. This is not normal for the majority but neither is it abnormal for the minority. If we are serious about inclusive internationalization, such potential and feasibility should be kept and further developed in the new normal even after we overcome the COVID crisis.
With the easing of lockdowns and reopening of national borders, the online home office fever will very likely subside. When certainty surrounding public health is re-established through vaccines, professionals in our field would likely prefer physical meetings over online meetings as well because of our belief in the value of physical mobility. The convenience of virtual meetings and our newly acquired skills to navigate different virtual tools may, however, convince a critical mass of professionals to stay online for different reasons such as family obligations, environmental concerns, financial considerations, etc. The question is whether event organizers, knowing the technical feasibility after the test-runs in COVID times, will begin to organize dual track events for those who choose to travel or stay home. Will mix-mode meetings or events become a new norm? If so, how will the online and on-location participants be integrated seamlessly? Will online tracks become an appendix or a new parallel norm that is seen as equivalent to physical participation? How will online participation be recognized or priced if we argue that it is of equivalent quality to physical participation? All these questions may already have to be dealt with while waiting for COVID to disappear from our professional life.
COVID is here to stay. I am quite convinced that we cannot fly freely around the globe any time soon even though I would love to fly somewhere for holidays or visit my family in Hong Kong. It is no secret that we, people on this Earth, have missed the chance to break the chain of infection in the early days. As a new virus against which the majority of people around the globe have no immunity, it’s bound to disrupt our lives if we don’t want to be held responsible for crashing the medical systems or infecting our dear and near ones. It’s not just a legal constraint but also a moral constraint on what we should do. Until the vaccines are there, and are available to all, we will have to constantly weigh the merits of travel against the risks, liabilities, additional hurdles in the journey (e.g. tests, quarantine), and potentially negative perception if we accidentally create a COVID “cluster” in our international meetings. We may be forgiven for creating a cluster in March when we knew relatively little about the new virus, but the same cannot be expected now. The stake is high.
The future is hard to predict, only that reduced physical mobility is almost a certainty. The next question lies more on the kind of mobility that will be reduced on the conditions of practicality and essentiality. Given the high proportion of asymptomatic COVID carriers, it’s not unlikely that COVID test plus a two-week quarantine for incoming travelers, regardless of nationalities or residential status, will become an international practice. This will practically rule out mobility activities shorter than the quarantine period while enabling a safer reopening of national borders to long-term mobility. Such practicality, or rather impracticality, of physical movements in a difficult situation may also call into question the essentiality of mobility. This will certainly affect the frequency of mobility as long as travel restrictions stay in effect, but it may also leave irreversible impact on how we assess our needs to meet physically or online in the long run.
For sure, the negative impacts of COVID will outweigh its positive impacts. Human cost is not recoverable. Economic ramifications are unavoidable even with state interventions. Coming from Hong Kong, it’s hard for me to be an optimist hoping for the return to normalcy after COVID. Nevertheless, having experienced the death of Hong Kong in 1997 and the end of the world in 2003 during the SARS epidemic, I don’t believe this is the end of anything but rather the beginning of something new, depending on how we shape it. The future is in our hands now…
Queenie is Project Manager of ACA. She joined the ACA Secretariat in Brussels in 2010 and has, since 2018, continued to telework from ACA’s satellite (home) office in the Riesling region of Trier. Queenie is a specialist in international education marketing and branding, rankings, EU-China mobility and funding. She’s the mother of a four-year-old and a doctoral candidate of Ghent University and the University of Kassel.
The World after COVID-19 is a series of ‘think pieces’ which ACA is publishing every Tuesday since early May. The pieces are authored by well-known experts in the field of international higher education. The basic question posed to them all is if and how the post-COVID-19 world will differ from the one we have until recently been used to.