You will be reading this anywhere but your office. All aspects of life have been touched by the coronavirus pandemic, including the nature of work. But COVID-19 may only exacerbate already pronounced differences between white-collar and blue-collar industries.
While white collar and knowledge workers have been able to transition fairly easily to a work-from-home setup, the mass of manual and physical jobs – except in some ‘essential’ industries – has largely been furloughed or otherwise displaced. So when we look toward the pandemic’s aftermath, signals we can see suggest that trends will bifurcate work, simultaneously driving us toward a more universal and more local landscape.
In the white-collar workspace, the first change we might expect is a decrease in international business travel. After months of fully remote working have demonstrated how much can be achieved through video interface, we suspect that all but eliminating travel budgets will be an easy way for cash-strapped corporations to save money. In addition to saving cost, a move in this direction will also contribute to climate-related CSR and protect employees from possible secondary outbreaks of the virus. Though some business travel is sure to resume when it’s safe to do so, the surging share price of Zoom suggests investors think our reliance on video-chatting may be more than just a stop-gap measure. On a call recently, a major global hotel chain gloomily predicted a minimum of two years to return to 2019 levels of revenue.
The heightened prevalence of video-conferencing tools may alter the traditional work/life boundary, already under assault by the ‘always on’ nature of smartphone working. While we may not be getting any face time with our colleagues, we’re spending an awful lot of time in their living rooms and with their families – making it harder to separate the two. As recently as March 2017, having a child interrupt a video call was noteworthy enough to attract more than 35 million views on YouTube. However, since the start of the quarantine, children and pets are almost encouraged to make an appearance – though they don’t necessarily contribute much to productivity, these signals of humanity have become ever more important to leaders trying to demonstrate the commonality of their experiences with their employees. While the rise of flexible working has been on the horizon for quite some time, coronavirus means it is here, now. Nearly overnight, millions of people around the world became remote workers needing to juggle the demands of their job with home-schooling, elder-care responsibility and animal care.
Large parts of the workforce may never fully return to a standard five-day, office-based working schedule, either because the crisis has shown them a better alternative, or because bosses realise they can free up millions in rent by moving to smaller, more flexible, hub-like offices for around half their staff.
As the share of the population working flexibly grows, we further foresee a redefinition of ‘presenteeism’. Traditionally, presenteeism has been defined as the belief that being physically present has a substantive relationship with performance. During lockdown with employees having to juggle work with caring responsibilities, we are seeing a plethora of different work schedules at play as people deal with the unexpected. So, in the post-COVID-19 world, will presenteeism be denoted by a new type of metric than being in the office for longer than the typical 9-5?
As much as we anticipate office-based workplaces becoming more boundaryless, we anticipate there may well be renewed energy behind localising service, manufacturing, and other blue-collar industries. The rise of craft breweries and ‘farm-to-table’/locally sourced restaurants signalled a shift in this direction pre-coronavirus; however, the supply chain issues faced by all countries in its aftermath suggest service providers need to build in more local resilience to supply chains and capabilities. The virus’s initial stronghold in China dramatically disrupted the supply chains of several global corporations: even if the virus had been largely contained geographically, the economic and material impact would have been felt worldwide.
From San Francisco to Poland, COVID-19’s swift destruction of large parts of the gig economy has made clear that zero-hour contracts and labour markets need to be supported by effective state welfare and unemployment support. What the future will hold for Uber, Deliveroo, and the rest who rely on freelance, gig economy workers is unclear. Will more countries crack down (as California is trying to do) on app providers classifying workers as contractors rather than employees? Will we see the end of the gig economy in its current form? Alternatively, if fiscal support for individuals is removed as the initial virus wave passes, the gig economy will be flooded with workers as people grow desperate for income.
Overall, we have seen a dramatic growth in state intervention in the private sector, which has seen government indebtedness soar to record levels. Even before the virus, the public supported higher government spending. Now we have a much more interventionist state all over the world, with rising levels of public support in most cases – is this the deathknell for neo-liberalism in the west? Across the west, will we see recognition that a minimum average income for out of work/furloughed employees is needed – permanently. If we have, it’s an early signal that the role of work may indeed change in ways far more dramatic than we’ve imagined.
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