What even is work? Thoughts on our post-pandemic reality

It’s the end of the (work) world as we know it, and I feel fine. REM’s hit song has never felt more prophetic.

A laptop sitting on a tray table of a train, the sun is shining through the window and someone is typing on the keyboard.

The Great Migration, hybrid work environments, wage inflation—sometimes it feels like the working world is spinning out of control, hurtling towards an unknown new normal that has yet to reveal itself. 

Is the office on a fast track to extinction? Will the pendulum swing back to highrises filled with cubicles? Or is there some happy medium that awaits us in this new world of work? 

Twenty years ago, our response to the pandemic wouldn’t have been possible. Many of the tech advancements that enable remote work have to do with the evolution of cloud computing, so let’s start there. 

Making modern work options possible: A brief history of the cloud

Indulge me while I let my inner tech nerd show. Don’t worry, I’ll stick to the short version. 

Let’s jump to the late 90s when modern cloud infrastructure first came to be.

While originally used as a term to describe the space between provider and end-user, Salesforce should be given much of the credit for leveraging the cloud for software and business functions.

Founded in 1999, Salesforce was one of the first companies to use the cloud to deliver its software directly to customers. Businesses with internet access purchased the software, downloading it straight to their computers—no more trips to Best Buy, no more loading an application by inserting a disc into your CD-ROM drive. 

It all seems pretty standard these days, but at the time, it was revolutionary. They were the first to say, “You don’t need all of these on-premises resources.” 

Many SaaS companies emerged over the next decade, allowing businesses to move towards cloud-based practices. QuickBooks Online launched in 2001, Xero came onto the scene in 2006, and Zendesk and Zuora joined the ranks in 2007. 

Something else happened in 2007, too: the iPhone debuted. 

Now, not only were businesses given the option to eliminate their servers, but they also had the next generation of mobile capabilities, which allowed some work aspects to be completed efficiently from the palm of your hand. 

It’s important to note that many accounting firms did (and still) run servers in their offices because their software hasn’t yet evolved into the cloud, but that’s for another article. 

As mobile capabilities collided with cloud advancements, much of the workforce was able to operate within increasingly flexible frameworks. 

In tandem, communities started investing in infrastructure, increasing internet speeds to support the changing needs of the workforce. 

Over the last 20 years, we’ve lived through a significant era in computing history, witnessing the birth of a new modern architecture that challenges our definitions of work.

COVID: The catalyst of the digital nomad revolution

Pre-COVID, technology-enabled remote work, was a gradually growing trend. But when COVID-19 entered our lives and communities were forced into lockdown, businesses everywhere were thrown into a new way to work. 

The global crisis not only redefined our office structures, but also pushed us to re-evaluate our priorities. 

Where do I want to live? What’s the state of my mental health? Do I wish I had more time for my family? Do I want to work five days a week? The traditional 9-5? What parts of the world have I yet to explore? 

It wasn’t just about sourdough starters. It was about quality of life. It was about values. 

It’s no wonder that as a result of the rapid push to remote work, digital nomadism is en vogue. 

In 2021, 65 million Americans reported aspirations to embrace the digital nomad lifestyle

Individuals are picking up their work lives and taking it wherever the wind blows. For example, 2.6 million Americans are embracing #VanLife (a 37% increase in 2021), working from the road. Meanwhile, others use remote capabilities to embrace extended vacations

Why work from the same desk five days a week when you can take your calls from a beach in Costa Rica? 

Where do we go from here? Philosophical musings on work in a post-pandemic world  

As we begin to resume normalcy (whatever that means), things look drastically different.

Remote work has become more culturally acceptable. As a result, increasing numbers of people are taking advantage of remote options for various reasons—not just to satiate wanderlust.

  • My accountant recently dialed in for a meeting with me from his newly-purchased boat (good on him).

  • I recorded an episode of the Accounting Leaders podcast from my hotel room in Mexico while on vacation with my family.

  • Others I know are moving in pursuit of communities not yet ravished by climate change. (For anyone looking to relocate, I’m always happy to chat about why Lake Tahoe is a dream come true.)

  • Recently, a Karbon customer shared on LinkedIn how remote work allows him to balance the responsibilities of parenthood. 

Digital nomadism isn’t just about the working professional who picks a new country to visit each quarter; it’s about the ability to build more flexible lives and embrace our values. Digital nomadism is about living the life you’ve always wanted

At Karbon, we’ve settled on a hybrid model. It feels right for our current needs and demands as a company. It’s essential to craft an ideal work arrangement around your own needs, the needs of others, and the needs of your organization. What that looks like for you may not be the same for everyone else—and that’s okay. No judgment here. You do you. 

But suspending judgment is easier said than done, and therein lies a big problem. 

Do we need a work-life balance paradigm shift? 

For some reason, there’s still this knee-jerk reaction when taking a call from certain locations over others that challenges our assumptions about work. 

Why, when I dial in from a beach, is there a different reaction than when I dial in from my office? People become apprehensive when they learn I’m taking a meeting while on vacation.

Why do we have this inclination to judge? 

The reality: I chose to schedule a handful of meetings while on vacation. I didn’t have to, but I wanted to. Sometimes vacations are a lighter lift when I build in a bit of work versus blocking off multiple days and preparing to be out. On the other hand, sometimes a vacation isn’t possible unless I tune in periodically, and that’s a compromise I’m willing to make. 

If it works for me and it works for my family, and it doesn’t affect my performance, then what does it matter if I’m sitting on a beach or sitting at a desk? Who gets to make that judgment about what is or isn’t okay? 

But what about work-life balance? You may be thinking. 

Conversations around work-life balance are nothing new. So much of the narrative surrounding work-life balance is about finding strategies to prevent work from infiltrating our free time. But if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us fail at our efforts. 

Maybe we fail because we’re solving for the wrong problem? Work-life balance conversations are rooted in fundamental notions about what work should and shouldn’t be. 

Don’t work late at night.

Don’t work on the weekends.

Don’t check your phone for emails while on vacation.

Unplug! Unplug! Unplug! 

I’m all for unplugging, but what that looks like for me is likely different than what it looks like for others. 

Maybe we’re failing at work-life balance because we’re approaching it from the wrong angle. Who am I to pass judgment on someone who vacations in Costa Rica but decides to still take my meeting requests?

If that’s what they want to do, then more power to them.

An important caveat: There’s a difference between wanting to peruse your emails while on vacation because it puts your mind at ease and feeling you must check your work emails for fear your performance reviews will suffer. Leaders must also understand how their blurry lines between work-life and home-life can unintentionally set standards and expectations for their teams if not addressed directly. 

But assuming we’re choosing these unconventional approaches to work-life balance, perhaps it’s time for a shift in thinking. 

Maybe it’s time we step back and ask, in today’s society, where we’re constantly dialed in, what even is work these days? 

Here are my two cents: There is no right answer. It’s about being true to yourself, defining what works for you, and finding a good employer/ employee fit. So go for it—start embracing your own definitions of work, life, and balance. 

And on that note, I’m off to Mt. Rose.