How do you balance in-person and remote collaboration after the pandemic?
It seems there isn’t a straightforward answer to the question these days, even four years since COVID-19 hit (yes, really), with some tech events and meetups continuing to meet virtually and others making a comeback to a personal format.
The debate about remote vs. personal also affects the world of work, with some companies requiring employees to return to the office at least some of the week. On the flip side: Technical.ly has heard that several prominent growth-stage companies are cutting back or giving up their once-glorious urban leases. (Look for more reporting on this trend soon.)
In a virtual meeting last month, we asked technologists named to the 2023 RealLIST Engineers list in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh about how they navigate this dichotomy and what impact they feel it has on their local tech communities.
The general consensus was that there are pros and cons to both formats, and perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the middle. (PS Here’s what these honorees had to say about how AI will change the careers of software engineers, too.)
Remote vs. The impact of IRL events on the community
First to set the stakes: The local tech community do exists, said Tom Boutell, CTO of Apostrophe Technologies. (We just asked to be sure.) It just looks different these days—and event organizers should keep in mind that community members have different circumstances and availability.
“One of the most inclusive things I think you can do is continue to offer remote events,” he said. “Obviously, I recognize that some people benefit more from in-person events, and it’s also important to try to have them at hours or nights that are easier.”
Post-pandemic, it can feel harder to leave the house for in-person meetings and events — a phenomenon Jason Blanchard, engineering manager at Employee Cycle, calls a “COVID hangover.”
Noah Lee, senior business data analyst at SEPTA, noticed a surge in events about a year ago because events that had been canceled or rescheduled finally came back and people were eager to reconnect. He feels the momentum has started to wane now.
“I’m still finding that balance between, OK, how many events do I want to commit to a week or a month, and what kind of events and where is that balance,” Lee said. “I think a lot of people are still in that phase of finding equilibrium.”
Before 2020, University of Pennsylvania IT director Jeremy Gaten said he attended a lot of tech events found on Meetup.com, but now he mostly attends events connected to the Penn community. Similarly, in Pittsburgh, Toyz Electronics co-founder Wole Idowu noted that he mainly gets access to the tech community and entrepreneurial events through Carnegie Mellon University, where he is an alum.
Remote vs. IRL in the workplace
The mindset about telecommuting has also changed, said Rebecca Stark, senior software engineer at Crossbeam. She used to think that she would never go completely secluded because she liked going into the office; now she never works from the company’s Center City office.
“As someone who was very much not open to telecommuting because I liked the collaboration you get in the office and the socialization and all that, it’s kind of interesting, even just in myself, to see that shift,” Stark said.
However, she noted that she misses the personal collaboration and bonding that comes with IRL work.
Telecommuting also shifts job opportunities, Blanchard said, because any opportunity in any location is up for grabs if it’s completely remote. This means that job seekers are competing against even more candidates.
“It’s not this hyperlocal, ‘I’m just going to hang out in my community’ [scenario]. Now it’s like I have to hold out against anyone in the continental United States who is reasonable to work in that time zone,” Blanchard said. “These things add up, there’s a lot of volume in the market, now you’re competing with everybody because everybody’s at a distance, and that creates a lot of noise.”
He hears from peers that it takes much longer to find roles that are a good fit.
And yet: Apostrophe Technologies was already remote when the pandemic started, and its executives thought they would hire people who lived anywhere, according to Boutell. But they found that different time zones were a challenge and that proximity to customers matters.
There’s also a lot of paperwork and overhead when it comes to hiring people in other states with stricter employment laws, and it’s expensive to keep track of all those regulations, he said.
Idowu agreed that there are many moving parts when hiring people across states. He has seen the challenges and benefits of being a completely remote company. Sometimes having people in different time zones and contributing remotely is helpful, he said, but other times it doesn’t work so well.
Sarah Huffman is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
Series: Resilient Tech Careers Month 2023
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