Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 20, Issue 49;   December 2, 2020:

Anticipating Absence: Why


Knowledge workers are scientists, engineers, physicians, attorneys, and any other professionals who "think for a living." When they suddenly become unavailable because of the Coronavirus Pandemic, substituting someone else to carry on for them can be problematic, because skills and experience are not enough.
An empty office

An empty office. This is what many offices look like today. In some cases, everyone is working from home. In other cases, offices are empty because work has been temporarily suspended. In still others, the company is shut down.

The Coronavirus Pandemic is now officially frightening. It threatens us all, to varying degrees, with sickness and loss. Generally, the threat to knowledge workers — personally — isn't as acute as is the threat to, say, first responders, leisure industry workers, or those whose employers must close or curtail operations. Still, disruptions in knowledge work will likely have widespread and costly effects for years to come. And all of us will feel those effects.

A significant and yet manageable part of the problem arises from pandemic-induced absences of knowledge workers. Knowledge workers include engineers, scientists, designers, programmers, physicians, pharmacists, architects, accountants, attorneys, paralegals, academics, and any other workers who are required to "think for a living."

When knowledge workers fall ill, their work is interrupted. In some cases, that interruption can be very costly to society financially. But those interruptions can also degrade the Earth's environment, cause unnecessary injuries, and cost lives. We can limit these effects by anticipating absences, and modifying the way we conduct knowledge work during pandemics.

In this post I'll Interruptions in knowledge work can
have very serious effects on the
health of the planet, and the health
of people who depend on the products
knowledge workers produce
suggest how interruptions in knowledge work can have very serious effects on the health of the planet, and the health of people who depend on the products knowledge workers produce. And I'll survey some reasons why knowledge work is so difficult to defend against pandemic disruptions. In the next post I'll suggest a strategy for limiting these disruptions, and therefore limiting their effects.

The consequences of knowledge work disruptions

Consider items as critical as the computers found in modern automobile or truck engine compartments. These computers run software. And that software, like all software from time to time, has defects commonly called "bugs." Some bugs affect the vehicle's operating efficiency. And some bugs are much more critical, affecting, for example, the ability of the vehicle to stop without locking its brakes. Bugs that affect vehicle efficiency cause unnecessarily high fuel consumption, which can degrade the Earth's environment unnecessarily. Other bugs, though extremely rare, are acutely safety-critical, and present very real risk of injury or loss of life.

Repairing most bugs requires the attention of people — knowledge workers who might be software engineers, testers, or project managers, to name just a few. And in this pandemic, people get sick. Some of them recover quickly. Some might be unable to return to work for weeks or months. Some might not return at all. Some might not survive. We can anticipate these absences, not person-by-person, but statistically speaking. Absences will happen. And when absences happen, work is disrupted. Those disruptions delay the work of knowledge workers.

In our example of automotive control software, delaying the repair of bugs that limit efficiency causes a delay in reduction of fuel consumption. Delays in repair of a safety-critical defect can cost lives.

Repairing automotive control software is just one of many tasks knowledge workers perform. We can probably estimate the effects of, say, 5% of the knowledge workforce missing a month of work in the next year. I haven't done that, but the potential effects are frightening.

Why knowledge work is so vulnerable to disruption

In general, replacing workers who fall ill is often a matter of finding enough people with the necessary skills and experience. That task can become difficult when demand for qualified people is high. We're already seeing this in some occupations, such as nurses or respiratory therapists. Shortage of qualified people is a serious problem, and for knowledge workers, it's just the beginning of the trouble.

Knowledge workers are a bit different. When a new person takes over for a knowledge worker who has fallen ill, that new person must determine the current state of the work underway. Skill and experience do help, but they are not enough. Determining the current state of that work might be difficult indeed.

For example, suppose the work underway is a re-design of a troubled subsystem of our automotive software. And suppose that the person who has fallen ill is the lead architect of that effort. I'll call her Alicia. We might try to find a replacement for Alicia, but unless she has left behind copious notes about vision, intentions, and discarded approaches, her replacement might have difficulty replicating what Alicia had in mind. And if Alicia has been intubated and cannot speak, communicating with her will be slow and difficult.

In many of these situations, the wisest course is to just halt the effort until the absent individuals recover. Halts are indeed disruptive, but the alternative can be worse. If we don't halt the work, the risk is that Alicia's replacement might not be able to determine what Alicia had in mind. If he or she cannot do so, and pushes forward anyway, the end result might lack the coherence and elegance that are necessary for a reliable, maintainable, extensible product. The consequences can be severe and they can last for years.

Replacing a knowledge worker, even temporarily, is unlikely to go well unless the replacement as access to detailed knowledge of the state of the work. In my next post, I'll suggest a strategy and several tactics for capturing that knowledge.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Anticipating Absence: How  Next Issue

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