Healthy public discourse on Future of Work prior to COVID-19
For decades, there have been discussions about how technology, demographic changes, and lifestyle choices will transform the way we work.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos last year, leaders and experts debated a range of issues like robots replacing humans, the decline of current job families and creation of new jobs, skills gaps in the workforce, the need for diversity and inclusion, and more.
In hindsight, what these conversations had in common was the comforting conviction that while planning would be necessary, the future would of course arrive gradually, predictably.
But sometimes, as the world works, events unexpectedly accelerate us into the future. Enter 2020 and the global outbreak of COVID-19.
An unprecedented global health pandemic with significant economic fallout
Over the last few weeks, COVID-19 has proliferated into an unprecedented health pandemic. With over three million infected, and 200,000+ causalities across 180 countries (as on 28 April), millions of people and thousands of businesses are being severely impacted.
The shocks to the system are sweeping, with industries like travel, leisure, and construction particularly hard hit. Worse, with global supply chains profoundly disrupted and manufacturing stalled, recovery will be more difficult than in past crises. Not surprisingly, stock markets have tumbled, and global GDP projections have been halved.
Organizational preparedness put to the test
So far organizations have been doing business continuity planning (BCP) based on the notion of localized exigencies like terrorist attacks, natural disasters, civil and political disturbances, etc. These were limited in geography and time duration.
But, as Peter Drucker memorably put it, “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic.”
The COVID-19 pandemic is global and ongoing. Businesses must consider disruptions at such scale as the new normal. BCP now must shift from addressing needs that are local and temporary, to needs that are global and far greater in duration.
A fundamentally altered discourse on the future of work
Taking the long view, there is little doubt that the pandemic will subside in time, even if pinning down exactly when is impossible. But already, it seems likely it will have accelerated digital adoption years ahead of prior expectations. If so, we will have to re-think much about business – particularly meetings, conferences, and the commercial real estate footprint.
Where once people would ask, “Why do we need to do this virtually?” we may increasingly hear, “Is there any real reason this must be done in person?”
The prolonged lockdowns have forced a previously unthinkable stress-testing of a virtual working world, and organizations are discovering it works. The barriers to online tools and virtual presence have fallen and will never be as strong again.
Immediate impacts to the future of work
1. Work from home will now be a real option for companies or employees.
Businesses that once resisted the work from home concept due to fears of data security or higher hardware and network costs will find there is no escape now. As success stories across organizations on higher employee productivity and quality spread and some will point to a BAU (business-as-usual) experience, businesses will find it hard to justify high real-estate costs.
As employees adapt to this new lifestyle and flexibility, they might find it challenging to go back to long commutes. This might mean that work from home becomes a foundational aspect of future of work. Twitter in the U.S. is reimbursing employees to set up their home office. A large IT services firm in India has announced that more than 75% of its staff will work permanently from home by 2025 Will this become a trend? Time will tell.
2. The proliferation of online tools will replace a physical presence.
Increasing use of video conferencing tools, virtual reality, and digital avatars, etc., will enable and further promote virtual meetings and collaboration. The finance functions would further emphasize the low economic returns on travel and may push for retooling the sales and marketing function to a more digital presence. The push toward cost-savings and practical utility of using automation to supplement a human workforce will accelerate. We can expect businesses to intensify the use of chat-bots, RPA, and AI to take over more and more processes and tasks because these are less prone to future epidemics.
3. Further acceleration of the gig-economy.
Firms will realize that work is becoming more decentralized and gig-oriented, and freelancers can bring desirable skill sets to the table. They can use gig workers to manage demand spikes, economic slow-downs, etc., creating a better balance of freelancers and permanent workers as a part of their overall talent strategy. This will give them flexibility to quickly adapt to unforeseen circumstances.
Topcoder is a 20+ year old organization that provides crowdsourced Talent as a Service to enterprises. It helps organizations by providing access to 1.6M+ gig workers in the technology space and ensures business continuity and scalability amidst current resource constraints. Topcoder also supports the workers by keeping them connected and engaged. Topcoder was acquired by Wipro in 2016.
4. Traditional sectors will transition to virtual environments.
This pandemic has forced many sectors to push their boundaries in ways that would have been unthinkable a few months ago. Social and regulatory barriers for virtual delivery in traditional areas like government, health, education, and events are shrinking, and it’s difficult to imagine that they will return to their former levels.
Government: COVID-19 has forced many institutions to go virtual. For instance, the Supreme Court of India has decided to conduct hearings via video conferencing. Can this be continued post the virus scare as well? Can the benefits of staying closer to their representatives push Parliamentarians to legislate virtually? Can voting be done completely online to increase inclusion? The benefits are clear, and the question of, “Can this really work?” will have been thoroughly answered. The new normal is unlikely to resemble the former status quo.
Health: To date, telemedicine has been on the sidelines as a cost-effective alternative to physical consultation. Here too, telemedicine has been put to the test and is working. Doctors today routinely consult with patients via telephone, or video through Skype, FaceTime, etc. As we will revive from the pandemic, both healthcare professionals and patients would realize the convenience of virtual consultation will effect a shift in healthcare delivery.
Education: The online revolution in higher education, with many renowned universities offering both degree programs and short-term certifications online, was already well underway. Once families successfully experiment with online schooling during the pandemic, there is likely to be an increased demand for full or partial online schooling.
Events: The Tokyo Olympics in 2020 have been postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak, which might result in losses to the tune of $6 billion. But people are also learning that crowded stadiums aren’t the only way to engage fans. In Europe, many football matches are being broadcast from empty stadiums. Global concerts are happening virtually. There is clear potential to expand event audiences far beyond singular, in-person events to multiple, virtual ones. That revenue potential will be hard to ignore.
Virtual working is not without its challenges
As remote working becomes more commonplace, society will need to upgrade systems and infrastructure to support a massive workforce working from home. Internet bandwidth availability, data security on home systems and networks, employee dependability and integrity, will be key issues that need to be answered before a transition to remote working becomes a reality.
In addition to technology, companies will need to have effective workflows and supportive organizational culture enabling employees to contribute productively.
This is a final call to action
Organizations must revisit their BCP strategy for future pandemics and disruptions of similar or even larger scale. There is an urgent need to:
- Create ways for job functions to operate virtually
- Develop succession exigencies for major executives
- Cross-train team members to perform critical functions to eliminate single-user dependency
- Document business-critical functions, processes, and procedures
It is unclear how many future pandemics will arise, or how frequently they may strike. Given that uncertainty, organizations with remote work strategies would be much better positioned for continuity.
Ready or not, we have already leapt into the future
In just a few short months, the world has learned a new – and in many ways, better – way of working. The future of work is already here, and while it will never completely replace the human touch, society has been given an opportunity to create a healthier balance between working physically together and using digital channels.
This is being called phygital, and it is already a reality. Together we need to navigate this immediate disruption, while at the same time remain aligned to long term transitions taking place at work.
Now is the time to plan and act on the future of work. The idea of “business as usual” has changed permanently. Now is the moment when we can also make that a change for good.