Marcel Pelgrom

Marcel Pelgrom consults on analog IC design.

8 September

The same accountants of this world who decided that we need to manufacture our products far away will now want to try and keep us from joining workshops, meeting colleagues and visiting customers.

One and a half years ago, I arrived on Schiphol from my last business trip. For the last time, I smelled a classroom full of students and visited a live workshop. One and a half years ago, 18,000 fellow Dutchmen were unaware of the terrible fate they were heading for. Covid hit us hard.

Business adapted rapidly to the new reality. Perusing my agenda, I see only one telco in November 2019, while in March 2020, there’s only one visit in person – to my dentist. Telcos are now the standard communication medium in business. Internet watchdogs report an increase in capacity and usage of respectively 35 and 40-50 percent in one year. Consumers spend 4 hours per day online. For industry workers, that soars to 6-7 hours.

That’s quantity, but what about quality? The easy access to meetings often leads to a considerable number of listeners-in. Perhaps some snippet of useful information is coming their way. Leaving the meeting is neither embarrassing nor limited by the need to catch a plane.

In old-fashioned meetings, an attentive chairperson would keep everybody engaged. In telcos, attention can be spread out. People go on mute to do some ‘useful’ work while keeping half an eye on the presentations, missing that crucial hint. Drawing a schematic, cross-section, or power split-up during telcos is cumbersome.

Starting a discussion suffers from a threshold as you’re unable to sense the other attendees’ interest. Questions have a more formal status. Preparing stuff en petit comité ends up in a Teams invitation. There’s no opportunity to catch one of the participants during a break for further explanation. The lack of non-verbal communication in a telco becomes a real hindrance when working with people whom you’ve never met in person.

Are these objections visible in next quarter’s turnover? No. That’s also the answer to the question whether we’ll return to the 2019 normal.

Remote education is the superlative of a business telco. Previously, some 20-30 people would show up for a virtual talk in industry or academia; recently 750 persons joined a worldwide broadcast. There’s a kind of long-tail effect: people join even though they’re only remotely interested. Little costs, little gain.

Attendance in post-grad electronics education went up by a factor of 3-5. That’s not surprising when realizing that attending a workshop in regions like Silicon Valley comes at a 3000-4000-euro price tag, while an online workshop registration fee is 400 euros. Employees can watch relevant sessions before or after office hours, minimizing loss of productivity.

Again, missing informal contacts with colleagues, building a network, probing for collaborations and such isn’t expressed in financial terms. So will live workshop and conference attendance bounce back just like the economy? Again, no.

There are more financial benefits to be gained in the eyes of accountants. Trends from the past accelerate through Covid. Three years ago, a major bank moved into a new building with 1,400 workspaces for 2,000 employees. Their next office will be far smaller. Office jobs will no longer be carried out in offices. Working in a design team in one room is much more inspiring than having a daily telco. Informal deliberations are paramount for developing a prototype, building a software system and analyzing experimental results. Will that return?

The lesson Covid should teach us is that we’ve made ourselves dangerously dependent on the global economy. At the start of the outbreak, there was a lack of almost all necessary medical equipment and protective gear when China closed down. Although the most effective vaccines were developed in Europe, other foreign companies, through their acquisitions, got a head start. The lack of integrated circuits still slows down parts of the car manufacturing chain. The EU has insufficient production facilities for: medicine, integrated circuits, medical protective gear, spare parts for almost any equipment, electronics appliances and so on.

The financial gurus that now deprive us of visiting workshops, colleagues and customers are the same people who decided that all these 21st-century essentials are better produced far away. Hopefully, this pandemic sparks the political insight that our economic zone must become self sufficient, including having a European microelectronics ecosystem around a 2nm foundry.