The COVID-19 crisis has dramatically affected the labor force. Many sectors with high physical proximity shut down; workers deemed essential continued to operate albeit following newly instated and strict health measures. However, the greatest impact (and one that is likely here to stay) of the health pandemic on employees and businesses is the substantial transition to remote work.
Furthermore, the pandemic enabled consumers to make a fast move toward online channels – e-commerce registered an increase in share at a rate of 3.3 in 2020 in the United States – pushing companies to adopt or improve digital technologies at a never-before-seen (and never-before-expected) speed. In turn, the accelerating digital transformation generated an increase in demand for security and continuous and reliable deployment of services. Executives finally realized the importance of implementing DevOps practices for businesses to survive (and maintain competitiveness), thus putting a strain on DevOps and Site Reliability Engineering teams.
Moreover, as an undeniable part of the sectors with the highest potential for remote work, the crisis impacted the geography of DevOps teams. Prior to the pandemic, many executives were skeptical about deploying their DevOps and SRE teams remotely. Nonetheless, the COVID-19 crisis served as a catalyst to a shift that proved the world of DevOps is ideally suited to work remotely. A 2020 SRE Survey Report suggests that before the pandemic, only 19% of SREs considered long-term remote work as a possibility. In contrast, today, almost 50% of SREs believe they will continue to work remotely.
Regardless of the effects of the COVID-19 crisis on the workforce at large, the DevOps space remains unequivocally unbound from a physical location. The DevOps practices are essentially performed iteratively and remotely. Sure, DevOps is a culture centered on continuous collaboration, communication, and shared responsibility; this, however, does not require physical proximity. DevOps teams communicate almost entirely via virtual mediums.
An often disregarded (or underestimated) aspect of a DevOps/SRE’s work is its creative component – remote work may provide an environment conducive to creativity, ultimately leading to an increase in productivity. Just like any other creative endeavor, writing code is a different experience for every developer. A creative environment to one may be distracting to another. Some developers may feel more creative in the morning, others at night. The flexibility to choose when and where to work allows engineers to set up conditions that cater to their individual creative needs. Additionally, allowing DevOps and Site Reliability engineers to work out of the confines of a strict daily schedule may foster a more productive workflow. Zach Holman of GitHub supports the idea of asynchronous communication and encourages executives to “let responsible people handle their own priorities on their own timeline.”
Another potentially long-term effect of remote work in the DevOps and SRE space is access to a larger talent pool.
In the Harrison Clarke 2021 DevOps/SRE Compensation Survey, we found that the majority of respondents work in California, followed by New York. The finding suggests that DevOps and SRE specialists are concentrated mainly in two metropolitan areas synonymous with innovation and startups. But as giant tech companies publicize their intentions to augment remote work, setting new standards in the workforce, opportunities widen for organizations to attract and retain engineers regardless of physical location.
Naturally, the shift to permanent remote work raises a few crucial challenges. SREs may feel they are missing out on the office environment. Lack of human interaction may negatively affect engineers working remotely, as they get less involved in the organization’s daily life. According to the same 2020 SRE Survey Report, more than half of respondents said they had trouble staying focused and maintaining a good work-life balance. But is this a consequence of working from home or of the stress caused by the pandemic? Also, it might be easier to deploy remotely an already established team. Still, the challenge comes when organizations may want to integrate a new Site Reliability engineer into the team. An even greater issue arises if a company decides to build its first remote DevOps team.
Other studies have shown that employees working remotely during the pandemic have stressed the importance of open communication. For example, the ever-growing pressure on DevOps to deliver higher quality products fast or to address the increase in security vulnerabilities calls for a committed effort to maintain a healthy level of collaboration and shared goals. The 2020 Octoverse Report states that developers worked more hours during the pandemic, suggesting that a lack of clear communication could easily lead to burnout. As leaders, executives should strive to give employees a sense of connectedness, identity, and purpose. When DevOps engineers identify with the organization’s values and feel that everyone is working toward the same goal, their motivation and attachment to the company grows, resulting in a significant increase in productivity and profitability. Another survey found that the COVID-19 crisis prompted nearly two-thirds of employees in the US to re-examine their purpose in life. Unsurprisingly, their work supplies this sense of purpose.
As the world slowly comes out of the pandemic, giant tech companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon are talking about making a permanent move toward remote work; and businesses worldwide consider implementing a hybrid labor force. If before 2020, remote work in the DevOps space had team leaders and company executives divided, the COVID-19 crisis shifted the balance of the debate in favor of the work-from-home approach. With a high potential for productivity increase, employee satisfaction (in a post-pandemic environment), and location-related cost reductions, remote work in the world of DevOps is likely to persist.