Engineers and the boom of the Zoom Town

Locales such as Cape Cod have become attractive to engineers and other workers who can use cloud-based CAD tools, Zoom and broadband to substitute for commuting to a big city office. (Getty Images)

The list of what has changed during the pandemic—and what might not entirely go back to pre-pandemic conditions—feels like it is getting ever longer even as more and more of the population gets vaccinated. So many industries have been working from home for so long, the prospect of returning to the office can feel odd. Or, perhaps, employers have been doing the numbers and there might be some positives to not having all employees on-site for every workday.

There is also the reality that some employees have more permanently moved into areas much farther from their company headquarters than could reasonably be commuted. These so-called Zoom Towns—places like the Hamptons, Cape Cod, Aspen, and so on—have seen their housing markets grow by as much as 50% over March 2020.

Zoom Towns are a bit of the rosier side of the coronavirus pandemic. Remote working conditions enabled many—especially 30-something millennials who retained their jobs—to leave behind small apartments in expensive cities in favor of buying a house in more affordable suburban and rural areas. This could mean more typical vacation areas like those listed above, or just places with a little more space and greenery. Wherever they end up other than busy tech cities, both long-time employees who have moved away and new hires who have not relocated to the headquarters means engineering workforces might be spread across the country and beyond.

Engineering leaders are coming around to remote work themselves. Companies such as Microsoft, Twitter, Amazon, and more are increasingly adopting extended work-from-home policies. Andela, a talent network dedicated to building remote engineering teams, found in a September 2020 survey that 66% of engineering team leads indicate that they plan to continue allowing remote work even after it is safe to resume work in-office. The survey included 100 CTOs and VPs of Engineering from both high-growth start-ups and large enterprises. Prior to the pandemic, 13% of engineering teams were fully remote, so 66% remaining so is quite the jump, and only a small dip from the 74% who have been fully remote during the pandemic. Everywhere you look, there seems to be the same refrain: we’re probably not going back to the way we used to do things.

While engineering companies are finding that more and more of their processes can be performed remotely, this will of course not be true for every job—especially those in manufacturing. These companies are for more likely to retain accounting, marketing, sales, and admin positions as remote. But with recent developments in the field, the desire to work in remote teams may be possible even among design and manufacturing teams, aided by continued broadening of the functionalities of engineering software.

Many, including computer-aided design and product lifecycle management, have been evolving to serve globally dispersed teams and can continue to adapt to be used by the home-office engineer. In the past, engineers have been unable to host the large files their work requires on a home desktop, instead needing a computer tied to the enterprise server. When users have been able to run CAD as software-as-a-service it has often been limited to checking files in and out, but companies such as OnShape are now offering CAD which runs fully on the cloud.

                                                       Credit: Lucas Law on Unsplash

It’s not just the hefty programs that are adapting to a new normal, however; the ways in which engineers communicate in remote settings are different than in-person. Leveraging platforms that have emerged and developed over the past few years, teams can manage code repositories on GitHub, utilize JIRA for workflow management, and use Slack for asynchronous team communication. All of this collaboration software works just as well no matter where the end users are located. When all key interactions can happen via SaaS platforms, location becomes irrelevant. And, according to Andela, remote software can actually be utilized to make meetings more productive with the proper internal adjustments.

But all of these new ways to work—platforms, behavior and culture adjustments—are just that: new. Remote work won’t ever be a return to “business as usual,” and it requires adjustments on both individual and organizational levels. While this opens up many possibilities, any position going fully remote will still lose important features that propelled industries and individuals in the past—for instance: facetime with coworkers, mentorship, and cultivation of other career- and morale-boosting relationships. There are no more impromptu conversations, and whiteboarding ideas is not the same.

Particularly for new hires, working from home can be isolating and preclude establishing connections at their company. But employees also gain the potential of lower cost of living, more flexible schedules, little to no commuting, and more time with loved ones, while employers stand to gain greater access to talent and higher employee engagement and retention.

There are trade-offs and adjustments in any situation, but it seems the engineering world has found enough benefits to remote work that it is here to stay. As collaboration platforms evolve and improve, the option only becomes more attractive. On top of everything else, the new behaviors that remote work seems to promote are good for industry practices. Companies that are fully remote tend to have better documentation and internal processes, relying less on familiar behaviors that drive in-person office culture. Where there are issues, new solutions crop up, and whatever Zoom Towns engineers find themselves in, they are likely to be able to stay.