Cost-saving, flexibility and afternoon siestas? Coronavirus outbreak gives a glimpse into the future of work culture as millions are forced indoors

The coronavirus has managed to do something in a space of weeks that not even the world wars or worst natural calamities of past years managed to do – send populations of entire countries indoors.

Samrat March 25, 2020 10:01:42 IST
Cost-saving, flexibility and afternoon siestas? Coronavirus outbreak gives a glimpse into the future of work culture as millions are forced indoors

Joining the Dots is a weekly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire

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The coronavirus has managed to do something in a space of weeks that not even the world wars or worst natural calamities of past years managed to do – send populations of entire countries indoors. The immediate implications of this on work are evident to everyone who is suddenly working from home. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it is mine.

I started working from home three years ago. Since then I have been doing a bunch of things including writing this column and bringing out a couple of quarterlies. The people I have to communicate or collaborate with for these are in different cities. In fact, for the quarterlies, we do not have any two people in the same city. This makes absolutely no difference to our work, for which the simplest tools – Google Docs, mail, group chats via WhatsApp and occasional phone calls – are quite enough.

The difficulties in getting work done lie more in getting our own days and time organised. It is absolutely essential when working from home to have a daily routine that factors in all the things that you like to do and want to do in a day. For instance, if you like an afternoon siesta followed by a cup of coffee, my advice would be to put it in the daily routine. Just make sure that you have your work time organised so that the two don’t clash. Otherwise, you might find yourself trying to work, but dozing off, and then jumping out of bed to wake yourself up with coffee – in the process getting neither good work done, nor good sleep, nor even good coffee.

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Representational image. WikimediaCommons

The practical difficulties of working from home are not hard to handle. People will soon get used to it and start to find its benefits, such as flexibility and the absence of long commutes. Companies and organisations, too, will start to discover that they don’t really need so many people in the office every day, and the benefits of lower rentals and running costs for smaller office spaces may well convince managements that the danger of an employee actually having an afternoon nap can be tolerated in the interest of money saved.

At present no one really knows how long the coronavirus scare is going to last, or even how bad it might actually get. It could be two months or four, but in either case, it is long enough to catalyse changes in the nature of work that were well underway even before the virus struck. These changes relate to working from home, but go far beyond it. They are based on quite fundamental technological shifts.

The growth of artificial intelligence and robotics has been phenomenal in recent years. A 2018 white paper of the World Economic Forum prepared in collaboration with Boston Consulting Group titled Eight Futures of Work: Scenarios and Their Implications began by noting that, “The world of work is undergoing a period of dramatic change. As automation, primarily in the form of robotics, artificial intelligence and other new technologies, are developing at an unprecedented rate, and are having a significant impact on multiple industries, they are leading to wide-ranging changes to the jobs, tasks and skills required within each sector.”

The biggest change to many jobs is that many of them are simply disappearing. A 2019 report of the International Labour Organisation’s Global Commission on the Future of Work tabulated a range of estimates on the extent to which technology may transform labour markets. At the higher end, the estimates cited are for 56 percent of jobs in ASEAN countries being at risk of automation in the next 20 years. “Two-thirds of jobs in the developing world are susceptible to automation,” the report quotes an earlier estimate by the World Bank as saying.

AIs and robots are not prone to biological viruses. They do not require holidays or salaries, and they do what they are built to without complaint. Their rise was inevitable but the corona scare may have helped to accelerate that process.
A part of the reason for the rise in politics of xenophobia around the world was the increasing insecurity of jobs and livelihoods for which such techno-economic factors are among the critical causes. Keeping out potential competitors from elsewhere, and keeping diminishing jobs at home, were among the promises that propelled Donald Trump to the United States presidency and drove Brexit and Boris Johnson’s rise in Britain. However, stopping migration is not going to stop technological change. The Luddites of today will face the same fate as the Luddites of the past.

The robots and AIs will not be the only entities coming to take away increasingly scant jobs. The sudden acceleration in work from remote locations means that going forward, anyone from anywhere with the right skillset can potentially apply for a job in any other part of the world. Call centre work from rich western countries was already being done in Asia long ago. However, that’s not the only kind of work that can be done remotely. Barring work that requires constant physical presence of a kind that cannot easily be automated, such as those related to medicine and healthcare, it is likely that even high-end jobs can migrate to remote locations.

The barriers to doing so even before the coming of the coronavirus were cultural (in the sense of work culture) and mental rather than technological. Much of it had to do with control-freak managers with trust issues, and with ingrained habits and ways of doing things. The coronavirus lockdown is going to force at least some amount of rethinking and cultural change in these matters. It may even force some changes in habits.

The future of work may arrive much sooner than the World Economic Forum and the ILO’s global commission had anticipated.

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