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Results of Pandemic Impact on Tech Comm survey

by Tom Johnson on May 26, 2020 •
categories: technical-writing

The results of the Pandemic survey are available here. The survey is still open, but with 230 responses, I'd like to describe a few highlights and thoughts about it.

Survey highlights

As of May 25, 2020, here are the highlights from the survey:

  • 36% are working more each day
  • 40% have gained weight
  • 5% have lost their job
  • 28% have taken up a new hobby
  • 13% have been furloughed or had their salary reduced
  • 41% had open headcount reduced or cut
  • 47% experience better audio in meetings
  • 11% are creating more content for self-service scenarios
  • 36% have seen a noticeable traffic increase on their doc site
  • 32% say it’s easier to find information due to increased online footprints
  • 15% had their budget for online training reduced or cut

How will the pandemic impact tech comm in the long term?

  • 48% say WFH will be more acceptable
  • 18% say the job market will be more competitive
  • 10% say there will be an increased demand for tech writers due to cutbacks on call centers and other live support
  • 14% say more there will be more focus on projects related to media, gaming, meditation, online commerce, and other areas thriving in the pandemic, etc.

You can browse the results here:

Freeform comments

Survey respondents added freeform comments at the end of the survey in response to the question, “Would you like to share any comments, feedback, or insight about this topic?” You can read the full list in the survey results. I selected about 15 comments that I thought were particularly insightful:

Connecting with customers is more important than ever

Biggest impact is no commute

As the number of available positions are reducing, what should be a good way to approach the organization and increase our visibility?

There’s less meetings for the sake of meetings, which is a plus. Also, I can concentrate better as I don’t have to block out chatter. No real downsides.

I suspect that once the pandemic is over things will drift back to the way they were, people are creatures of habit and like the familiar. I think in about 18mths the way most of us work will be similar to pre-covid as companies will still prefer to see people in the office. That’s just based on experience and from the UK, London area.

Initially, people may show increased appreciation for technical communicators, especially those who lost them for awhile. Long term impacts depends upon how long this lasts and what business changes come out of this crisis. If companies adopt WFH more widely and prioritize communications (internal and external), we may reap the benefits of increased perception of value (training, headcount, salaries). If not, with the economy in shambles, and with the inability (b/c it doesn’t make sense) to point to metrics to show how much money we make/save the company, we will be seen as opportunities to save money, with our training, head count and salaries cut as they were post dot-com bust and 2008 crash.

I don’t believe society is going to change after the pandemic. There are too many powerful people with a vested interest in the way things were (workers driving long commutes, eating out at lunch, renting office space) for us to learn anything about the benefits of teleworking.

I worked from home before the crisis, so the biggest impact to me has been the lack of childcare.

I think we’ll see a pronounced rise in the demand for ultra-fast Internet with faster WiFi and markedly increased bandwidth at all hours. The days of “cable” are over; high-speed fiber will rule.

I think the impact of Covid-19 on our jobs will be highly dependent on the industry that technical communicators work in. I work in software, and my job has been largely unchanged, but people in manufacturing or other areas may be affected in different ways.

An entire role (with multiple people) was cut in my department, so my responsibilities have increased to help cover the gap left by the cut. Since people cannot meet face-to-face for training, we anticipate seeing an increase in demand for help documentation and online training over the rest of this year.

In a company with about 140 people, 40 were laid off. I survived as the sole technical writer. Other positions in the teams, mainly developers, testers, and project managers, were cut.

Apart from the disruption caused by closed schools, during the lockdown/shelter in place we’ve continued at about the same rate and productivity. The development team that I support maintained their productivity too. While others without kids have had more time and started hobbies or projects, with younger children although there’s been relief in some areas (e.g. outside activities) it’s been quite intensely busy for me.

As face-to-face interaction and trade shows are reduced, I’m curious if the overall increase in communication via video will have some spillover effect to content creators of all types, marketing and technical.

Covid-19 is the great equalizer for remote workers, true!

I’ve seen a lot of companies that have been looking for a long time suddenly decide to fill reqs, often with imperfectly qualified candidates. My hunch is that they fear losing their reqs and are picking the best available talent who’ll give them a quick “yes.” This is the opposite of what has been happening for the past 18 months, where Goldilocks searches stayed unfilled forever.

Projects are increasing. No one is taking vacations which means we are not getting any releases held or cancelled. There is just a lot of work at once.

My Analysis

In this section I’ll attempt some analysis of the results. I welcome your attempts to analyze the survey data as well.

Why are 36% of the respondents working more each day? In part, because focusing on work gives us a sense of direction and continuity when the rest of life is disrupted. It is our attempt to reclaim normalcy. Also, without a commute, it’s easier to start work early and stay late. And since so few are taking vacations, the pace of projects has increased (at least within industries not directly affected by COVID).

Why have 40% have gained weight? Tech comm is already a sedentary occupation, and now without commute times (for biking to work), without gyms, without sports, and with more time spent working, we risk transitioning to Walle scenarios. I’ve tried to do more walking and biking, but now that the summer heat is starting up, the window for exercise is even smaller.

The physical toll isn’t limited to weight gain only. As I’ve worked more hours in front of a computer screen, I’ve experienced greater eye strain. A few weeks ago, it became so bad that every evening at around 9 pm, I started closing one eye because the other eye was so sensitive/agitated/tired. My kids made fun of me when my eye “collapsed” and I started looking around with one eye. Eventually I switched to blue-filtered lenses, which have helped out tremendously. I also increased the resolution on my monitor, and I try to avoid focusing on objects close to my eyes, such as holding a smartphone in front of my face for a long time. As a plus, not only have these changes fixed my eye strain problems, I also sleep better.

The fact that only 5% have lost their job is excellent. This is the best news from the survey because 5% is dramatically lower than the general percentage of workers who have lost their jobs due to COVID -19. (For example, in late April the Pew Research Center found that “28 percent of respondents had lost their jobs or been laid off because of the outbreak…. A third have had to take pay cuts. A combined 43 percent said one or both applied to them.”)

However, I think there are waves of impact. If lower-income workers suffered the largest hit first, their lack of income/spending will likely affect larger companies in the coming months. In other words, for companies that make software, if there are fewer potential customers with spending power for this software, this will in turn impact the company’s revenue, even if initially it seems unscathed. That said, with more people interacting online, software and other online tech has probably experienced increased demand overall, so maybe it all offsets.

11% are creating more content for self-service scenarios. Most documentation is intended for self-service scenarios anyway, so this question is somewhat vague. But maybe your company had a call center and decided to scale it back in favor of more online content. Overall, I’m not sure how frequently tech writers specifically target content applicable to call centers. Perhaps instead of live training, more training is going online. I’ve seen this at my work. For new hires, rather than all-day orientation meetings in person, they complete modules online.

36% have seen a noticeable traffic increase on their documentation site. This question assumes you’re tracking hits on your doc site and are familiar enough to gauge trends over the past several months.

15% have budget for online training reduced or cut. In part I asked this question because I’ve been contemplating how to run my next API workshop. It seems that most company training budgets are unaffected, but it might be limited to online training only. I’m not sure how many people would be willing to fly on a plane or to sit in a small room with others all day, though perhaps if distanced six-feet apart it could work. I am contemplating creating an eight-week online learning course. (Many have already been asking for this anyway.)

Personal impact

I think we’ve all wrestled with attempts to make sense of this pandemic and the way it has disrupted our lives. I can mostly do my job from home without too much trouble. Most of the impact for me has been with my family, as I have four children. My college-age daughter, a first-year at UC Santa Barbara, had to return home and continue studies online, which isn’t the same. She can’t go to the library to concentrate or do study groups with friends. Worst, she’s now back at home with her sisters and family instead of enjoying college life and friends.

My youngest child is in 4th grade. Her online school is literally 10 minutes a day (that’s it!) followed by a list of online activities that she dislikes doing. At some point she just stopped completing her homework. She was also in competitive soccer with practices twice a week and games on weekends. That stopped and transitioned to “virtual soccer,” which is online drills over Zoom for 40 minutes. That’s no fun either. She used to also attend after-school daycare that she loved, but that was also canceled, so now she’s home all day. With my wife and I working all day, she doesn’t receive as much structured supervision and interaction as before. Garfield-watching time has skyrocketed. Overall, it’s been pretty hard on her.

I have two other children in grades 7 and 9. They’re doing all right, but they miss their friends. My 9th grader spends hours on the phone in group calls. Have you ever listened to a one-sided rambling conversation for 3-4 hours non-stop?

Probably the biggest change is that with everyone living at home (a family of six living in 1,000 square foot home with one bathroom), we were bursting at the seams in terms of space. Before, with five at home and one at college, usually some were out and about. But now everyone is home all day every day. There was simply not enough space.

As a result, my wife championed moving to another house. She also felt that moving would be a good distraction for us all during the pandemic. We found a larger single-family home rental about a mile away. So for the past month, my life has been consumed with moving — first, several weeks organizing and packing and cleaning, and then after the move, another two weeks getting settled in our new house. (If I haven’t been blogging as much lately, that’s why.)

Our new house has the garage converted into a second family room, which means more space. My youngest two children (who used to share a room and fight all the time) now have separate rooms. The house also has a small pool in the back, which has been a huge point of focus for the kids. The house also has an office where I have set up everything. The wifi signal was poor, so I laid a 100’ Ethernet cable across the house (invisibly tacked into corners of walls). I also replaced my Netgear Nighthawk router with 6 Eero mesh routers placed all over the house because if we’re all online all day, we need the internet to be fast. My next task is to install a window air conditioning unit in my office.

Overall, the new house was a good move for us and is helping with everything. It’s now much more comfortable for everyone. We like to watch movies together as a family. First, we watched all the Harry Potter movies, and then all the Twilight Saga movies. But like many, I long for the pandemic to end and to return to normalcy.

Practical advice

One reason I wanted to create this survey was to hopefully arrive at some well-thought, evidence-based conclusion about the best strategies for success in tech comm during these times. I’m not sure any specific strategies surface apart from the same strategies for career stability regardless of pandemics. I can endure the quarantine and the disruption to life as long as I have a stable job (my wife too). So I’d say the best measure you can take to make it through these times is to safeguard your job by staying as marketable and skilled as possible.

In some ways, technical writers have more assurances than other positions because many of us are the only resource in this job category at our work. In my recent survey about Developer Documentation Trends, the results found that 34% of respondents are lone writers, 31% are part of small teams with 2-4 writers, and 12% are part of teams with 5-7 writers. I think companies are hesitant to get rid of every resource for a job function.

Regardless of the pandemic, what can you to do keep your marketability and skills at the top of your game? Here are a few focus areas:

  • Build expertise in setting up authoring/publishing toolchains and systems
  • Increase your familiarity with programming languages and other technical tools/concepts
  • Put together a strong portfolio with persuasive examples of documentation you can share
  • Make your resume convincing and current

My strategy, like many others, is to hope for the best, plan for the worst. What’s the worst that can happen? The most likely worst-case scenario arising from the pandemic is an extremely tight job market, where technical writers must compete fiercely for available jobs. In the transition to working from home, with 36% of us working more, I’ve let my personal skills training languish a bit as I’ve just tried to keep pace with projects and other efforts. I’m one of those 36% who has been working more; in fact, some weeks I’ve become a workaholic. I need to avoid this rat race and carve out more time to work for technical learning.


If you didn’t take the survey and still want to, you can do so here: Short survey about quarantine/pandemic impact on tech comm.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.

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