Preparing for the New Normal


We’ve figured out how to use technology to help conduct business without needing to be face to face, and in many ways it’s a lot more efficient.

Probably the biggest question on most people’s minds these days is wondering when this coronavirus madness will end so that we can get back to normal. Sadly, I don’t have any insight on that. I know with polio, work on a vaccine began in the late 1940s, with a working version announced to the public in 1955 and major vaccinations starting in 1957. So it might take a while.

What I do see glimpses of, however, is what our new normal might look like after COVID is finally defeated. I seriously doubt that things will completely go back to the way they were before. Piling into crowded offices, attending massive conventions, shaking hands with those we meet and eating lunch face-to-face with others is not something most people of this generation will ever feel comfortable doing again.

I came to this realization because in addition to writing this column for Nextgov, I also review quite a few products aimed at the federal government, businesses and enterprises for various publications. I also sometimes speak at conventions and more frequently moderate panel discussions with technically-minded guests and federal officials. Over the past few months, all of those activities have changed quite a bit in what I think is an early look into what may be our so-called new version of normal.

Let’s start with the product reviews and focus on the ones that I evaluate for use in federal agencies. Up until recently, these usually included everything from enterprise-level cybersecurity platforms to large office equipment. These days, the gear I test is decidedly smaller and designed for personal use, almost like a consumer product. And keep in mind that these products are mostly chosen by my editors after consultation with federal officials looking to find out about different kinds of technology that might work well in their agencies.

This weekend, I reviewed a MooreCo Interactive Projector Board. The product is basically a hybrid whiteboard and projector screen, so I did some reflective lumens analysis with a variety of LCD projectors and also some readability testing using a webcam and a makeshift conferencing setup. The board did very well and was sturdy to boot. But I don’t think most federal agencies would mount one on their walls.

The thing about the MooreCo board, at least at the size that I tested, is that it’s clearly designed for home use. It’s fairly lightweight and acts as a great cornerstone for any kind of teleconferencing setup. You can use it as a whiteboard with a camera in front of it or throw a good quality image on it using almost any kind of projector. I am thinking of getting one for my home office.

The other product that floated my way this week that I evaluated for use by federal agencies was the Epson Expression Premium XP-7100 multifunction printer. Here again is another good product, but not one that I would ever have thought could be perfect for federal use. It’s a tiny all-in-one device that can print, scan, fax and copy documents. Epson even cleverly calls it a “small-in-one.” And while I would love to have this high-quality unit in my office, the fact that it only has a 30-page paper tray means that it’s not really meant to be shared.

I’m not quite sure what the federal agencies that pushed to have me review these products, and a few similar ones, had in mind. For the tiny printer, it’s possible that they envision giving everyone an all-in-one at their desks to create a kind of self-contained, non-shared workspace within the office to promote social distancing. Or they might be thinking about equipping workers with tools for their home offices. In the case of the projector board, that’s probably the only way they could go, though I suppose personal or very small workgroup conference rooms at the office are a possibility.

Whatever their plans, it seems clear that agencies are taking the recent OMB Memorandum 20-19 very seriously. The memorandum directs agencies to use whatever technology they can, to the greatest extent possible, in supporting their missions and keeping their workforces safe from COVID-19.

In terms of conventions and meetings, obviously they are no longer happening in person. But they are still very much going on. I am scheduled to moderate three webinar discussions with members of the intelligence community and the Department of Defense this month on the topics of technology innovation and protecting our nation’s cyber assets. Normally this would involve me putting on a suit and heading downtown for the talk. But now, all of these events are going virtual.

I’ve done a few talks like that before and even virtually attended a whole convention last month. At that event, I asked some of the feds who were there (virtually) what they thought about this new kind of conference. Their response was overwhelmingly positive. Most said they hoped that we would still do things virtually once the pandemic was over. The general consensus was that they could get all of the valuable information they needed without having to worry about travel, extra expenses—and exposure to potential viruses.

That more than anything else makes me think that we may not ever go completely back to our old ways even after this crisis has passed. We’ve figured out how to use technology to help conduct business without needing to be face to face, and in many ways it’s a lot more efficient, to say nothing of being healthier. 

Now that everyone has seen and experienced this new normal, I don’t think we can put the genie back in the bottle. And I don’t think we probably even want to. 

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys