Our working lives have long been open to disruption from tech and other external forces, but the arrival of COVID-19 has shifted the world of work at a rate of change that few could have predicted – and has raised urgent questions about how employment will adapt
1. How much and how will the current proliferating COVID-19 pandemic and its economic and social consequences change the world?
After the virus the world is going to be quite different. Whether the current lockdown lasts for weeks or months (heaven help us, years?), very little will remain unchanged by COVID-19. Geo-politics will change – will European solidarity withstand the pressure for Germans to prioritise Germans, Italians their compatriots? Will China be ostracised by the global community? Or further embraced? National politics will change – will populism surge or will deep states reassert themselves at a time when only governments have the scale to deal with existential threats? Socio-economics will change – the overnight nationalisation of economies in avowedly capitalist countries will supercharge simmering debates about wealth inequality. Will faith in capitalism be weakened, or strengthened, by the stress test economies around the world are facing? Business will change – will global supply chains withstand breakdowns in what has become business as usual over the past generation or two? Will reshoring and localisation require a complete about-turn for how multinationals operate? Will Mr Justin Time survive?
2. What particular effects will it have on the future world of work?
COVID-19 has shown that “heads-down work” can be done anywhere – typing, coding, form filling and so on. This has been obvious to “future of” folks for years but custom, inertia, conservatism, presenteeism and so on have kept many people stuck in their office cubicle. Many senior executives have told us how a) they’ve seen their (and their teams’) productivity go up through not having to travel and being able to bounce from video call to video call (from Sacramento to Sydney), and b) how they’ve enjoyed the reduction in physical wear and tear from the reduction in travel. Yet the COVID-19 interregnum has shown that “heads-up work” is still best done face to face. While we’ve all coped with video calls and business development has held up, there is still no substitute for being “in the room” when you want to create, collaborate and close. The net-net of this is that large white collar employers will need less office space in the future (our guestimate is 20% over the next two to three years), and the 80% remaining will need to be reconfigured for heads-up work over the next five years. The heads-up reconfiguration will see the demise of cubicles and the design of social/collaborative spaces (with social distancing protocols in place initially). “The office” will no longer be regarded as a white collar factory but bifurcate into a “showroom” and an “R&D lab”. The showroom will be to impress clients and the R&D lab will be where the “secret sauce” is cooked. Most other work (accounting, procurement, legal, admin and so on) will happen in low-cost hubs (India or Indiana) or people’s homes. Companies will hold local monthly social/collaborative shindigs rather than simply global/regional annual ones to create, maintain and extend culture and team building. This will be one of the main functions of the physical space going forward. The office is not dead, nor is the city, but the suburban commute to a cubicle will go the way of the dodo in the next 24 months, and only dodos and dodo companies will maintain that model.
3. What established, emerging and new technologies will become a ubiquitous part of our daily life at work, home and elsewhere?
The infrastructure to facilitate working from home is ubiquitous, but it still has some way to go; please don’t imagine Zoom is as good as it gets – see StreamYard and Mmhmm for more glimpses of the future of your meetings. The Lidar capabilities of Apple’s iPhone 12 give a clue as to where augmented and virtual reality will take non-in-person meetings soon, as does the virtual concert platform created by Wave XR. Currently, that’s being used by John Legend and Dolly Parton for their gigs – soon you’ll be using it for your 9am conference calls.
4. Will the depth and breadth of digitalisation continue at its current highly rapid pace and become a permanent, dominant feature of work and life for all around the world, including poor people and poor countries?
COVID-19 is acting as a catalyst for a “great online leap forward”. The impact of the internet in the past 25 years has been staggering, yet vast aspects of society have really only been marginally affected. The virus will change this and act as an incredible catalyst to the world being digitally transformed. Education, health, shopping and entertainment will all become materially more online and virtual. Everything that can go online, will go online.
5. Will the digital divide continue to grow, in and beyond the world of work?
Tech is accelerating the compounding of winners and losers. At an organisational level, COVID-19 has exposed the pre-existing condition of many organisations around the world – that they were pre-digital enterprises, unfit for purpose in the modern world, holding on (just) through custom and inertia – their own and their customers’. As the world migrated online during the spring and summer of last year (many aspects, permanently), those that had laid the foundations for a fully digital future saw those investments pay off. Those who had hemmed and hawed saw their indecision become final. The same is true at an individual level. Live in a postal code full of code? Life has never been better. Live in an analog town? Protectionism and wall-building can seem like the only option.
6. How can G20 leaders at their Riyadh Summit best act to shape a better world of work for all?
Digital competency is the primary competency as the Fourth Industrial Revolution unfolds. Leaders of countries, of institutions, of companies need to continue focusing on helping their audiences a) understand this, and b) act on it. Education has always been the way individuals and countries have risen historically, and this will continue to be true in the future. Those who can leverage the means of production, now literally in everybody’s hands, have incredible opportunities ahead. Leaders will ensure that more and more people can take advantage of them.