Whether we like it or not, the world as we know it has changed - and our way of working has changed with it. Yet as all clouds have a silver lining, those who have been able to adapt have found comfort in a greater degree of flexibility and autonomy over their working hours and conditions.
This begs the question: How much has COVID-19 shifted things further along the trajectory towards decentralized labor, igniting a dormant appetite for remote work that was fully realized when this became the "new normal?"
Would this eventual shift have happened regardless, as both creatives and companies come around to the advantages of remote working, in their own time?
At this point, it's important to note that decentralized labor isn't just remote work. It's a complete rearrangement of resource, infrastructure, and technologies away from one specific location or "hub" - and 2020 saw most businesses rapidly switch to this setup out of necessity.
As realization dawns that working life post-COVID may not look the same as before - whereby improving remote working technology and capabilities fuel a more scattered, decentralized approach to labor - it's worth exploring the advantages, challenges, and opportunities that this presents to a workforce in flux.
FORCES FOR CHANGE
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, recovery from COVID is undoubtedly driving the trend of decentralized labor at the present time. But it was certainly an upward trend that existed before, fueled by many non-pandemic related forces.
Tax credits and incentives, for instance, created competitive hubs that chased these credit programs before they expired. This culminated in nomadic, tribe-esque workforces that ultimately left artists feeling unsettled about where they'd be located even a year down the line. As a result, many opted to stop chasing tax breaks by either going freelance, setting up their own studio, or working for a previous company with a more permanent, convenient address. Central "hubs," which nonetheless moved at will, no longer flew for those who wanted a better work/life balance.
Advances in technology also played their part. Traditionally, the only way you could get a group of people working together on one project was through very expensive technology and infrastructure - storage racks, server racks, and so on - and you'd need to have enough scale to make this pay for itself, lest you go under from the capital investment you'd need in order to make it all worthwhile.
Nowadays, that's less true. Advances in cloud technology, GPU capabilities, and so on keep workforces connected and costs down, even when not all under one roof.
With new technologies come new ways of working and, crucially, new types of work. The astronomical rise in episodic streamed content means that vendors and artists are no longer working on three-year projects to the same extent. Instead, TV shows and series, wherein each episode is often completed in a matter of months, have created a new model of working. Smaller groups of people can use more readily-accessible technology to work together over the course of a much shorter time span, without the need for a giant corporation to aggregate the cost of capital.
This shift comes off the back of a wider reaction to the reality of labor becoming more decentralized. It's certainly been a long time coming: With so much work involved in any one production, this necessarily needs to be spread out. It's becoming less and less likely that an individual vendor can take on the sheer amount of shots needed to get a production to the quality expected by audiences today, and what we're seeing in recent tech and infrastructure trends is the industry responding in kind.
While there are undoubtedly challenges to this way of working - namely, how do you keep a commanding control over things like security, cost, accountability, predictability, and so on during production? - the benefits are immediately tangible.
Most notably, decentralized labor provides more opportunities for individual artists. A wider global reach has the advantage of encouraging studios to explore areas or regions that may have been previously uncharted territory, but nonetheless hosts unexpected, very strong talent. India is a great example. Formerly an outsourcing hub, it has benefited from having a more sophisticated remote production infrastructure in place, resulting in local studios taking on work that is closer to the creative decision-making.
What's more, having people create and build on their home turf not only makes a career in visual effects more accessible for them, but it's also cheaper for the studio involved, and stands as a much better distribution of resources.
In addition, globalization of resources and capabilities means we're going to get smarter about finding new ways of delivering these in the hands of distributed groups of people. Besides the potential for new technologies that this holds, a major benefit is that anybody can take their talent, map it directly to the tools, and get the tools they need.
No longer does having the biggest renderfarm make you the best artist for the job; instead, the playing field gets leveled out, and the best artist is appointed based on talent and merit, rather than access to tools.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Underpinning everything is the unique position that 2020 has put businesses and workforces in. COVID-19 has forced the worldwide realization that working remotely works. What was previously a hot debate became a thing of necessity last year. The question is whether we pursue ways of making it more practical and sustainable, given the inherent benefits it presents: lower overhead costs, wellbeing gains, and so on.
Early inroads into managing the shift to home working came in the form of remote workstation software such as Teradici. Crucial to recovery, Teradici kept teams connected when not all under one roof, but in reasonable distance of one another.
The challenge lies in managing distributed teams using this same method as physical distance grows between members of a previously tight-knit team, and the creative process becomes more and more decentralized. Remote desktops in this instance don't hold up; instead, the solution for long-term recovery is going to be a different set of technology altogether. Cloud, for instance, lets everybody be in their own physical place, working in an office in the cloud. It doesn't matter where the office is; it doesn't even have to have a physical location. There's no limits.
It's Foundry's firm belief that decentralized labor is the workforce of the future, and we strive to facilitate this across our software. Flix, our story development tool, rides on the premise that "creativity has no borders" - remote access means anyone can access and use the tool, wherever they are in the world.
Meanwhile, Nuke Studio was built for organizing many compositing artists together, and aggregating many shots for efficient collaboration across these. With the introduction of SyncReview in Nuke 12.2, teams are given the ability to sync multiple sessions of Nuke Studio, Hiero, and HieroPlayer together, while allowing two or more users in multiple locations to review and annotate footage collaboratively.
In all this, the ultimate aim is to empower workforces to have complete dominion over where they want to work, who they want to work with, and what terms they want to work on. That's the biggest force for change - one we're completely on board with. Every new technology, every shift in infrastructure, should be tailored towards achieving this vision for the future.
Mathieu Mazerolle is Director of Product - New Technology at Foundry.