Not many know that the famous novel, ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’, written by the Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez is actually set in the times of the cholera pandemic in early twentieth century. It recounts a clandestine relationship between the two main protagonists, Florentino and Fermina, which is much to the displeasure of Fermina’s father. The father whisks his daughter away to another city so that she can longer meet her lover Florentino. Even with this enforced social-distancing, Fermina and Florentino continue to communicate via the telegraph, the cutting-edge technology of that time, and the affair continues to blossom.
A century thereon, we now have the COVID-19 pandemic, disrupting our families, relationships, social lives, businesses and, importantly, how we work. It is a curious time — much of the world has come to a stop or at least slowed to a crawl, but it is also a time of furious change. This is what I call the COVID Paradox: The pandemic has slowed down the world, yet accelerated change. One of the most visible manifestations of this paradox has been the acceleration of what is often referred to as the Future of Work. Future of Work, or FoW, has been talked about for many years, and has become a bit of a buzzword in human resources and technology circles. It describes how technologies such as AI and Robotics, 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 life-changing events — and inarguably the COVID-19 pandemic is one of them — greatly accelerate the future to suddenly make it the present. I believe that the current pandemic will hasten the Future of Work and pull up the future to the present.
In how we work, the future became the present in a snap. Almost overnight, everyone everywhere was sitting in their lounge wear, staring glassy eyed at their preferred screens, and the Zoom window array became iconic of how work is now done. The same people who used to wax eloquent on how great office spaces were to foster collaboration, productivity and innovation discovered some benefits of remote working, and started talking of the demise of the office. Twitter proclaimed that work from home is permanent for their workforce, Facebook expects half of its workforce to work from home in a few years, and even TCS wants 75% of its gigantic workforce to work from home.
It might be a curious piece of news for Mark Zuckerberg that more than half the American workforce worked remotely even before the pandemic! They did travel to a central office for occasional meetings and appointments, but predominantly they were not in office. In fact, the status of the office as central to work was diminishing ever so slowly, as the Future of Work called for a more distributed work construct; it is just that the pandemic has greatly hastened it.
One of the best thoughts on offices and future of work I read was by Catherine Nixey, in 1843 by The Economist, called ‘The Death of the Office’. It describes how the office is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was only in the twentieth century, “the people who had once designed factories turned their attention to offices. The moving parts in these machines were humans and their output merely paper but, it was reasoned, the same principles surely applied.” In fact, she says, there was no concept of the office for the Romans. “Their tablets and styluses were every bit as portable as our own, a feature that elite Romans took full advantage of. About two millennia ago, Pliny the Younger, said that he had found a splendid new method of working. Instead of going about his business at a desk, he had decided that day to combine it with a boar hunt. He concluded that this was a remarkably productive way to work since “the mind is stirred and quickened into activity by brisk bodily exercise”. He concluded by advising, “whenever you hunt, to take your tablets along with you”. Sounds eerily familiar two thousand years later. Mary Beard, professor, Cambridge University, wrote how the Romans had a reverse construct from ours, where leisure is when you are not working. They called the normal state of play otium, only when you were not at leisure, and you were doing business, was it the negative, negotium.
While everybody did in Rome what the Romans do, how has COVID-19 brought in the future of work instantaneously to us? To understand this, let us look at the Nine Key Tenets of FoW, and how the pandemic has fast-forwarded 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 (Zoom market value skyrocketed off the charts, Teams suddenly became the software du jour for Microsoft), 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, as 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 workplace and home becoming one, being always available and ready to do work. Even when the virus goes away, 24x7 work will unfortunately not.
4. No job-for-life: However depressing or thrilling this sounds, depending on your point of view, it 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 byproduct of the 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 during the time of corona.
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 sooner.
9. Organizations work for purpose, not only for profit: This might be a futile 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 all the above play out over the next few years, I predict three big immediate changes:
One is that the office is not going to go away anywhere, but it will greatly change. As Nixey continues, “Humans need offices. Work-related video meetings are too often transactional, awkward and unappealing. No Skype chat can replicate what Heatherwick calls the “chemistry of the unexpected” that you get in person.” So, I believe that we will work in a hybrid manner, a percentage of our work time in office and the rest elsewhere. Hopefully, this will have other benefits – less traffic, cleaner air, smaller commute times. I also believe that this will result in ‘decentralised offices’, where rather than having one massive central office building or campus, companies will have smaller offices or pods distributed across the city, distributed across where people actually live.
Second, co-working spaces will develop a new business models. Switzerland-based International Workplace Group (IWG), formerly known as Regus, has signed a global deal with the Japanese giant Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT), where NTT’s 300,000 employees can choose to sit in any of the 3,300+ Regus offices worldwide; this is their new distributed office! I also see some coworking spaces having a hybrid model: they will install and manage standardized desks and infrastructure from people’s homes so as to build them a home office, plus a collection of meeting rooms at central locations.
Third and finally, I do not believe that we are transitioning to a WFH or Work-from-Home only system; the world will move to a WFA, or a Work-from-Anywhere; the anywhere could be home, office, park, coffee shop, or a co-working space. This was what the Future of Work promised, the pandemic has fast forwarded that.
While the FoW will get accelerated, technology will never completely replace human contact, and as the pandemic 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.