We are seeing the blissful welcome light at the end of what had at one point seemed like an endless dark tunnel. We will soon be back to our real offices and our real classrooms and our real labs, rather than having to make do with the confines of a few monitors perched on our table. We will again be surrounded by our colleagues and by our students. We will again be surrounded by excited chatter — of new students arriving for their on-campus experience, of my colleagues excitedly discussing their new innovation, and even of my academic community doing what it loves to do, have passionate discussions about the minutiae of academic life. I for one cannot wait to hear all that excited chatter .
The question that I am pondering is what will this return to normalcy do to our efficiency at work? Will we be generating our better ideas faster? Will we have the physical instantiation of our ideas — the papers and the proposals — coming out in faster torrents? Will our teaching material be more instructive and our classes more memorable?
A Look Back
Our world was thrown into unexpected tumult a year and a half back. Classes came to a screeching halt. The buzz of the machines in our laboratories gave way to eerie silence. Our spirited discussions around the research table (imagine there is an instance of such a table we gather around for our most fruitful brainwaves) gave way to quietude. The coffee house discussions with colleagues on all things relevant and irrelevant ran headlong into the cruel dictates of social distancing. It seems that we in our ivory towers are not so immune after all from the forces out in the real world.
Our trips across the world to commune with colleagues from our technical communities also came to a stop. The symposia (a word coined by Greeks to mean the drinking party after a banquet) we love to frequent gave way to their insipid counterparts conducted through an ever increasing mishmash of Discord-s, Slack-s, Zoom-s, and Team-s. So in a way our local and our global community collapsed into the confines of our monitors. Vying for headspace with calls for attention from toddlers or not-so-young-toddlers acting like toddlers, and with the alluring fridge only a few yards away. The electronic distractions became even more distracting — the same monitor could take me to my meetings as well as show my favorite sports event in progress.
An Idle Question
So as we are looking at the end of the veritable tunnel, an idle question that pops up in my head is what did this seismic change do to our efficiency? Were we more productive in our research output? Were we more effective in the (virtual) classrooms? Were we more fruitful in creating and sustaining the technical communities we inhabit?
The unsatisfying answer is that even for the narrow slice of society that academia is, I do not have the complete answer. I have not put in the hours and hours that would be needed to answer this question with any degree of authority. My subjective take on this matter is that different members of my academic community have been affected in vastly different ways.
So what are the different hues of the effect on our productivity?
For a plurality of people, we have come out slightly on the negative side of the ledger with a small dip to the productivity averaged over the entire time of our forced isolation in home offices. Toward the beginning of the period, as we had to get used to the unfamiliar routines, there was a big hit and then as we got used to these routines, we started inching our way toward normal efficiency. I happen to fall in this bucket.
For the second most significant fraction of my colleagues, there is a small increase in productivity. As we did not have to endure long commutes. As we did not have to endure interruptions in our offices. As we did not have to bother with the physical transposition from one physical location to another. And as we could ensconce ourselves with the fast T1 connection in our home offices and have the world’s wisdom comes to us. I can only imagine life in this pool and feel envious.
Then there are the smaller, but not insubstantial, numbers that were deeply negatively affected for all the reasons that we know about — medical situation in the near family, child-rearing responsibilities, the mental stress of it all, and a long list of others.
To get an objective look at the answer, albeit an incomplete one, let us look at the talisman of research productivity, our most competitive conferences. And track the number of submissions to them. I looked at the four areas that I am most familiar with — Systems, Security, Mobile systems, and AI/ML. The raw data and statistics can be found here.
Look at the last column for the most telling metric — the percentage increase (positive number) or decrease (negative number) in the pandemic year relative to the previous three years. I used a linear curve fit to extrapolate. Most conferences see only a small increase or decrease in the number of submissions. (OSDI/SOSP is an outlier because it went through a change in the submission cycle and Sensys saw a big jump due to one of those many subjective factors that are hard to know, like maybe a charismatic PC chair or an organizing committee member.)
This statistic tells a mixed story, perhaps indicative of the above observation of different hues of the effect on our productivity. There are no big dips in productivity nor is there any big increase (which one would not expect any way). So we stumbled along on the research front taking the disruption in our stride. Even though we may have been a little, or greatly, more stressed while finishing these submissions, we kept the pipeline going. That is of course a great testament to the grit of our graduate students, who spearhead most of our submissions.
To sum up, I am really glad that in the academic sphere, we look poised to go back to a form of normalcy, albeit diluted and with some misgivings, with in-person interactions. Looking back, we had a jolt of Titanic iceberg proportions when the pandemic sent us scurrying to our home offices. But with all the economic and social advantages that most of us in academia enjoy, we recovered well enough and in the end, it only had a marginally negative effect on our productivity. This conclusion is drawn looking at the arguably narrow lens of research paper submissions. Another look should consider how our teaching was impacted, either negatively (more likely) or positively (say, due to the imperative to develop online material). The sun is peeking from across the horizon and the welcome chatter of students and colleagues is beginning to fill the hallways.
 This post is relevant to parts of the world where the pandemic is under (relative) control and vaccines are plentiful. I am lucky that I live in such a corner of the world (the US).