Work in the time of Corona

Love in the Time of Cholera, the Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s epic tells of a secret relationship between the two main characters, Florentino and Fermina, despite the strenuous objections of Fermina’s father. The father takes his daughter to another city to force her to stop seeing Florentino. Even with this enforced social-distancing, Fermina and Florentino continue to communicate via the telegraph, the latest technology of that day, and the affair continues to blossom.

The cholera epidemic has given way to the Corona pandemic. The virus has hit our planet like a meteor, threatening to disrupt life as we know it, and one of the major human activities that it is reshaping is Work. For many years now, there is talk about the Future Of Work (FoW), or how technology, changing demographics and lifestyle choices will entirely change the way we work. We have been slowly but inexorably heading towards a new construct of work; however, sometimes lifechanging events greatly accelerate the future to suddenly make it the present – Work in the Time of Corona. I believe that the current pandemic will hasten the Future of Work and pull up the future to the present.

To understand that, let us look at the Nine Key Tenets of FoW,  and how COVID 19 is fast-forwarding them to the present:

  1. Work is distributed, work force is decentralised: the first impact that the virus had was to immediately decentralize work, and many organisations have mandated people to work from home. Suddenly, no centralized offices.
  2. Newer technologies enable collaboration: Videoconferencing instead of travel (The VC app Zoom’s market value shot up 38%), conferencing and collaboration apps on mobile phones, chatbot interfaces replacing actual humans – all of these have been turbocharged. There are still no robots entirely replacing human beings yet, but every company and VC has put automation as their No. 1 priority. Biological viruses (still) do not bring down machines.
  3. Always-on work: When working from office, we could at least pretend to shut shop and go back home, but now, we have to be always on. We will need to learn how to manage this new reality of our work place and home becoming one, being always available and ready to do work. Even when the virus goes away, I suspect 24×7 work will not.
  4. No job-for-life: However cynical this sounds, this might be forced on people as the economy slows down, companies close, and jobs for life are no longer there for life. We will be forced to reskill and look for other things.
  5. Lifelong learning: A corollary of above, where we will need to continuously learn and develop new skills to survive in this new world. Not only skills related to our functional expertise, but also how to work effectively remotely and from home.
  6. Work becomes fluid: I believe that the pandemic, will accelerate the rise of the gig-economy, as people look for more non-traditional work to do. Avoiding crowded restaurants will encourage food delivery (Zomato has already announced contactless delivery), taxis will be deemed safer than crowded public transport and so more Ubers and Olas, home grocery delivery will be seen to be less risky than crowded supermarkets. The delivery gig-economy will boom, and the world will need more gig economy workers.
  7. No differentiation between temporary and permanent workers:  Companies will realise that as work becomes more decentralised and gig-oriented, they need to treat temps and outsourced employees the same way as permanent. A great example is Microsoft, which has decided to continue paying its hourly workers in corona times.
  8. Events, education become virtual: Large gatherings will not be safe, and the event and conferencing industry will need to adapt. Collision, the big tech show in Toronto, has decided to turn 100% virtual. Education is really nothing but an orchestrated series of teaching events, and Harvard and Stanford have led the way by announcing virtual classes.  Virtual Reality may become mainstream much faster.
  9. Organizations work for purpose, not only for profit: This might be a fond hope, but the pandemic shock will make corporations realise that there is more to life than just managing quarterly growth, and the threats to our planet are existential. Thus, they might develop a purpose, and work for it, rather than only for Wall Street.

While the FoW will get accelerated, technology will never completely replace human contact, and as the threat recedes, we will hopefully develop a healthy balance between working physically together and working remotely, between the present and the future. Even in Marquez’s book, the two lovers could not sustain their affair remotely forever. Fermina realized that her relationship with Florentino was nothing but a dream since, and she broke off her engagement, only to be reunited much later in life when they actually met and spent time together!

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