Thought Experiment: Work From Home meets User Groups

One of the reasons I maintain that my International Relations degree is better than somebody else’s Computer Science degree is because in International Relations, we are constantly encouraged to undertake some “thought experiments” on a more formal basis; if you work for one of the various government institutions that are part of the government (or support them), like the Department of State or Department of Defense or one of the various intelligence agencies, you are often called upon to imagine a particular scenario, postulate what the immediate results would be, and then present what the President and/or US government should do in such a situation. These are often called “position papers”.

In college, I was taking a course with a professor I’d had a few courses with before, and when she asked the class to write up a five-page paper on a foreign policy decision the US had made in the last twenty years and its results, she actually asked me to do something a little bit different: Write up a five-page position paper on what decision the US should make in the event something were to happen. We settled on “What should the US do in the even the Zapatista rebels successfully break away from the Mexican government?”

Now THAT was a fun paper to write.

Not because of the source material (although wow, did I learn a few things about what was going on in that region of Mexico and man, it was complicated), but because it was really the first time I was challenged to do more than “research what other people wrote”. This was really one of the first times I was asked to exercise some creativity and analysis. I didn’t have to figure out how the rebels would accomplish it, but I did have to examine what the likelihood that they would be doing so with full popular support (as opposed to intimidation, such as the cartels use), whether they were keeping their breakaway localized or whether they wanted to take over all of Mexico (rebellion vs revolution), what US strategic assets or resources were tied to the region, what the popular feeling in the US was at the time, including media coverage, and so on. (If you’re curious, I eventually concluded that the US best response would be to offer assistance to the Mexican government, keep a small contingent of troops mobilized in the event of wider chaos spilling across the border, and quietly but firmly encourage the Mexican government to negotiate and button this thing down; a generalized civil war on the US southern border would NOT be a good thing, but not the disaster it would’ve been before the Berlin Wall came down.)

This is an exercise that a lot of Computer Scientists seem to struggle with routinely.

So here’s an example of that exercise that popped into my head recently that I thought I’d write out here and share; note that where I cite probability factors (marked with a “p” suffix), they’re always between 0 and 1, and usually the extremes are 0.2 (very, very unlikely) and 0.8 (almost certain) and they’re all my projection/guess:

Given that many companies are still in a work-from-home protocol, or moving to a hybrid work-from-home (WFH)/work-from-office (WFO) model, what implications can we imagine for user groups that are now starting to begin meeting in person again?

Companies have been slow to bring people back to the office, mostly because they appear to be getting a lot of pushback at doing so. (This is based on the popular memes and media that I’ve seen–I have no insight or access to any hard empirical data on this.) Some companies, like Twitter, are choosing to stay with an entirely-remote model. Others, like some financial institutions, are choosing to push harder on an in-person/work-from-office model, and are seeing some employees leave as a result. It’s not likely (0.7p) that this is going to change any time soon without a major economic push in one direction or another–a recession might do it, and that’s a reasonable possibility (0.5p) given how the war in Ukraine is shaking things up.

But assuming that the current resistance-to-WFO holds, then it’s also reasonable to assume (0.7p) that workers will take the absolute minimum of office time needed to hold their jobs. That means that less than half of these downtown office spaces will be occupied–and that assumes that the company hasn’t let their office lease go (as some have). Roughly speaking, then, that means that these user groups are looking at a potential attendee pool of less than half of what they had three years ago.

However, it’s also reasonable to posit (0.5p) that those who are in the office include a non-trivial number of employees who, in fact, want to be in the office. Some of the studies I’ve seen posted about the whole WFO/WFH discussion suggested a nice thirds-split between “I want to work from home”/“I want to work in the office”/“I want kinda both”, which means that those who are downtown, want to be in places where social activities and opportunities arise.

Therefore, a reasonable guess (0.6p) is that user group attendance numbers will be down for the first year or two, but the attendees themselves will be a higher concentration of “regulars” who are looking for socializing opportunities. In other words, casual attendees will be down significantly, leading to smaller crowds, but those that do show up will likely be eager to hang out and discuss.

That suggests, then, that user group organizers should be thinking about how to deepen the connections among those regulars, and seek to build a solid “core” of attendees that will be committed to the group’s long-term success–maybe even look for a few volunteers to help organize, run, and promote the group. In any event, though, user group organizers should probably expect attendance numbers to be about 30-50% of what they were three years ago, before the lockdown hit.