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Working through COVID-19

Opinion

Published by:

12 May 2020

Author: Chris Sanderson

Image: Workplace Wellness. Photography by Niti K

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Our co-founder Chris Sanderson looks at the future of work and society post Covid-19, and predicts how the pandemic will change the trajectory of The Transformative Twenties

It doesn’t take a futurologist to tell you that the world of work is predicted to change in some pretty fundamental ways in an inter-Covid-19 landscape.

So, let’s look beyond the temporary incursions we’ll have to bear in the short term and consider some of the more far-reaching shifts that our liminally challenged communities can expect to endure/enjoy in the future working environment.

The ICT (information communication technology) revolution that began in the 1960s propelled us into a new millennium with new tools, new jobs and new working norms. And yet, for the majority of us, the structure of our working life has remained pretty much the same; eight plus hours a day, five days a week, forty-eight weeks a year – sandwiched by an arduous, uncomfortable and mind-numbing commute. It’s this archaic structure that’s been fundamentally upended.

This much we know – and appreciate. It’s a way of life many of us would like to unshackle ourselves from, and it seems that the disruptive, shared experience of the coronavirus may well be that catalyst for change. Events that impact on an entire population in a similar fashion are a once in a generation occurrence. The last time that a large percentage of the world’s workforce was displaced in the manner we are currently experiencing was during WWII. Back then work was still defined by the notion of labour and burgeoning mass production, unlike our current world of trading intangibles and tapping out digital instructions.

When the pandemic started to spread across Europe in March, The Future Laboratory moved to a home working scenario for all of its team, ahead of government advice. We were able to do so (as a non-manual business) quickly and efficiently for two reasons.

Firstly, our forward-thinking IT team had already ensured our entire workforce had all the tools required to work proficiently and productively from home – no mad rush to buy laptops, install cloud-based software, upgrade security protocols or train everyone up to new systems. In tandem we had already introduced a home and flexible working policy and so were not challenged by the concept of monitoring productivity or obsessed by the notion of presenteeism.

The second key reason was the temperament and innate soft skills of our team. Most either come from a freelance career background, have that mentality or are young enough to have never experienced the strict regimes still endemic across the majority of desk-based businesses around the world.

I recall a conversation at the time with a colleague about his sister. Whereas he worked for us in an environment where we all optimistically packed up on Friday 13th March and reconvened on Microsoft Teams the following Monday, she found herself struggling with an employer which had never moved beyond a strict enforcement of a 9-5 attendance policy, no working from home, no personal emails at the office and no cloud sharing. This is when ‘fucked’ is an allowable technical term to describe a terminal outlook.

Grammarly office designed by Balbek Bureau, Kiev & Cuckooz Nest Farringdon, Photography by Billy Bolton, London
‘Many of us would like to unshackle ourselves from the archaic structure of our working life’

When the lockdown is relaxed, why believe your structurally-challenged IT, HR and OPs departments are suddenly going to deal well with flexibility and the level of proactive innovation required to retro-fit an inter-Covid workforce into a pre-Covid environment? According to research from the University of Chicago economists Jonathan Dingel and Brent Neiman, as featured in a recent article on Forbes.com, it is estimated that approximately 37% of jobs in the US can be ‘plausibly done from home’. This is an important consideration when many managers are wrangling with the nutty issue of how to ‘get back to normal’ (or move on to the ‘new normal’).

My first prediction here is that we’ll have much more rigorous guidelines around what meaningful distancing should include within the workplace. All the research to date is supporting the fact that regular and scrupulous personal hygiene protocols, such as handwashing and not touching your face remain the most important prophylactic activities when it comes to minimising infection, over and above standing two metres apart or wearing a face mask. And let’s start talking about professional distancing so that we can begin to separate what happens in the workplace from home or the public, social arena. This I believe will help to ease the anxiety that the term social distancing has already caused, and the way it is driving a wedge between the emotional and physical connections upon which we humans thrive. 

Next, and before I make another prediction, consider the importance of uncoupling the disruption coronavirus has caused from the manifestations precipitated but undeniably extant prior to its emergence. All our research in 2019 pointed to a growing number of citizens exhibiting the following behaviours: a conscious deceleration of lifestyle; a desire to consume more sustainably; an acceptance of living with less, an imperative towards being rather than doing; a fundamental reset from the mechanisms which defined capital success in the last century.

It’s these underlying shifts in the mindset of our society which will have a greater impact on the shape of the professional arena in the years to come than the disruption caused by coronavirus. Our response here in the 21st century has not been that of our forebears who endured the travails of war; we’re all itching for change and expect to see it effected. As employers and managers, we’re still not ready for a workforce who believe what they do outside of the office is more important than what they do in it; that they are less driven by salary; that not only will they stay with us for a shorter period of employment, they will ceaselessly retrain and flip careers; that a mercurial mentality is as sure a marker of professionalism as once was a suit, collar and tie.

Long after we move from the inter-Covid-19 years to the post-Covid-19 era, our society will look back and, with hindsight, draw comparisons to the unpreparedness for 9/11 – described by the US Commission report as ‘a failure of imagination’. Then we were shocked at the awesome scale of terror, destruction and death another human being could bring upon another. In this instance we’ve been poleaxed by our lack of immunity, the frailty of our systems and the immutable facelessness of this particular enemy.

Covid-19 is the harbinger of far more disruptive forces we can expect during The Transformative Twenties, the decade upon which we have just embarked. The changes that will come after it will be more profound and far reaching. What we can hope to learn in the short term – at work, at home and in public – is that our global interconnectedness, so cheaply negotiated in the 20th century, will be dearly paid for in the 21st.

Learn more about your sector's changing landscape with our Covid-19 Series, updated frequently with news, trends and market analysis. 

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