Covid-19 is changing where we work and what we do. 

Remote work isn’t new. It’s long been trending at Silicon Valley start-ups and some old-school companies that begrudgingly allowed it as a perk for special employees. But, thanks to Covid-19, it’s being implemented at speed, at scale, and with mixed effects.

“From an employee perspective, working from home is beneficial,” says Bronwyn Williams, a futurist, economist, and business trends analyst at Flux Trends. “You don’t have to sit in dreadful traffic, losing hours every day. It gives you more freedom and flexibility, particularly if you have to get kids to school or after aftercare activities. It also allows people to integrate their working and family lives that much more.”

It’s harder to maintain employee morale through a virtual environment...

Working from home is a blessing and a curse

Telecommuting is a double-edged sword, particularly for those with small children that require care and/or aren’t going to school. Suddenly, what many gain in productivity from not commuting, they lose from the distraction of dealing with family.

“This is a temporary challenge – schools opened eventually – but there’s still some choice in whether or not to keep working at home, which, for certain people, is more productive than in an office,” Williams says. “In theory, employees can do more work with less time wasted due to needless meetings and watercooler chitchat.”

From an employer perspective, there are huge savings and efficiencies from distributing the workforce. Companies don’t have to maintain such large buildings, can cut back on energy costs, and reduce their overall carbon footprint from having fewer employees on the road. But it’s a double-edged sword once again.

“It’s harder to maintain employee morale through a virtual environment – to get team spirit, passion, and drive towards a common goal,” William says. “And there’s something to be said about the serendipity of ad hoc conversations that aren’t necessarily ‘productive’ but could spark an insight that leads to a valuable idea. That’s why we’ve seen some companies initiate virtual coffee dates to promote relationships.”

Telecommuting requires mutual trust

Managing a workforce remotely requires trust. And even though it’s become a matter of business survival, not all employers can pull it off, especially those accustomed to counting “bums on seats”. While Williams admits that it’s a lot easier to lead and persuade people in person, the challenges aren’t insurmountable.

“When you allow remote work, there has to be a reciprocity of trust,” she says. “Employees shouldn’t surf Netflix all day instead of doing their work, and employers shouldn’t cross the line into ‘surveillance management’ by installing webcams and screen tracking to make sure people are being productive. We have to balance it; otherwise, the relationship breaks down.”

Based on how the world reacted to lockdown laws, it’s clear that people who feel like they’re not being trusted often push back. Indeed, trust is one of the macro trends society is grappling with, whether it’s about trust between communities and the government or between parents and kids. The last thing anyone wants is for a previously productive and motivated workforce to only do their jobs because they think an authoritarian boss is watching them.

“There’s a fine line between dictatorial management and respecting individual responsibility,” Williams says. “We’re already seeing pushback from employees saying they don’t like being spied on in their homes because it makes them feel like they’re not being trusted. And while employers should talk to employees who aren’t doing their work, most adults don’t require someone breathing down their necks or an alarm that goes off whenever their gaze switches away from the screen. Most people, left to their own devices, will actually produce more work, so you have to force them to take breaks.”

Performance management isn’t black and white

Remote work is also changing the nature of employee evaluation. In the analogue world, this is based on things like attitude and a willingness to learn. But Williams believes that “when we reduce human management – dynamic, irrational human management – to a rubric managed with software code, we lose a lot of subtleties that allow us to identify which employees have the potential to grow.” In other words, what we gain in superficial fairness, we lose in other ways.

“On the playground, popular kids get away with more than their unpopular peers,” she says. “And while these learned behaviours can continue into adulthood, working from home takes a lot of ‘smoke and mirrors’ away. Employees can’t hide behind a charismatic attitude or the great in-person relationship they had with the boss. With remote working, everything is transparent, and people are judged on productivity, not personality.”

This can have terrible consequences, as seen in the many cases where companies used algorithms to hire staff or manage performance, only to find that the tools were downright racist or sexist. So, when it comes to employee management, Williams cautions that the code that companies use must be fair and won’t perpetuate biases. Also, we should never default to a computer that supersedes human intuition, human relationships, and “the grey areas that make us what we are”.

“Humans designed technology and how we use it is up to us,” she says. “We can either use the platforms and applications to increase trust or to decrease trust, just like we can use them to increase efficiency or decrease efficiency. Businesses can use technology to democratise information flows, but they can also use technology to entrench hierarchy. So use it intentionally.”

Technology could eliminate micromanagers

This speaks to an even bigger, higher-level trend that she’s been looking at for a long time: technology is cutting middle management functions out of the workplace. For example, if software can check that people are logging in on time, that role no longer needs to be done by human hands.

“When it comes to automation – and which jobs, roles, and functions are at risk – the tasks that machines are going to do are those that are only ‘cost centre’ functions in a business,” she says. “So, if your role is a value-adding one, your job is probably not at risk. But if your function is to police people rather than to motivate or train them, or if your job is rote-based, you should be concerned.”

...we should never default to a computer that supersedes human intuition... 

The same applies at a business level. If you’re in the business of extracting tolls and rents from the market, your business is set for disruption. This has already happened in advertising, music, and other industries where middlemen placed a ‘tax’ on buyers and sellers. But there’s hope for business, and hope for individuals, too.

“Just because the job is at risk, doesn’t mean the person is at risk,” Williams says. “People can be redeployed. It might involve a conversation with the people that employ you – saying that you want to add value to the company, rather than extract it, or that you have an interest in a new area. This requires proactivity and reskilling to a certain degree. But everyone has value to add. It’s just a case of finding out what that value is.”

Most people, left to their own devices, will actually produce more work... 

Top 10 emerging roles

1. Data analysts and scientists

2. AI and machine learning specialists

3. General and operations managers*

4. Software and applications developers and analysts

5. Sales and marketing professionals

6. Big data specialists

7. Digital transformation specialists

8. New technology specialists

9. Organisational development specialists

10. Information technology services 

* This reflects the fact that these roles might be seeing stable or declining demand across one industry but be in demand in another.

Source: World Economic Forum

Top 10 declining roles

1. Data entry clerk

2. Accounting, bookkeeping, and payroll clerks

3. Administrative and executive secretaries

4. Assembly and factory workers

5. Client information and customer service workers

6. Business services and administration managers

7. Accountants and auditors

8. Material-recording and stock-keeping clerks

9. General and operations managers*

10. Postal service clerks

* This reflects the fact that these roles might be seeing stable or declining demand across one industry but be in demand in another.

Source: World Economic Forum

Redesigning buildings for Covid-19 and beyond

Our best defence against the coronavirus is to avoid it through physical distancing, hygiene practices, and more. For Raghmah Solomon, director of Vortex Design Solutions, this extends to workplaces.

“Barriers have taken various forms, such as masks and perspex screens,” she says. “These have proved reasonably effective. But we still need to interact on a daily basis, whether it comes to simple needs or luxuries.”

Ultimately, we must create more hygienic environments that have a reasonable number of barriers to prevent unnecessary cross-contamination between individuals. Here are Solomon’s three long-term suggestions:

1. Large buildings are moving back to one type of use to encourage safer habits. For example, shopping centres shouldn’t be mixed with apartment blocks and office space. Also, because air conditioners can carry germs between spaces, ‘strip malls’ in the suburbs are encouraged over indoor shopping centres.

2. Gone are the days when a lone security guard decides who enters a building. Instead, picture a “conference centre” that acts as a barrier. Tenants would use a private entrance and meet clients at the conference centre, with no member of the public allowed on the tenant’s side.

3. Particularly for older (and therefore more vulnerable) employees, offices should create “safe zones” that are placed on the perimeter of the office near openable windows, have additional filters in the air-conditioning supply, and have extraction installed to remove air impurities.

“It’s essential to implement more stringent cleaning rituals, not leave any clutter lying around – whether it’s crockery or parcels that were delivered days ago – and ensure that we protect everyone who enters a space after we’ve been there,” Solomon says. “Clean building solutions are the best way we can move into a more productive, effective, and sustainable future.”

Four scenarios for the post-Covid world of work

· Fast economic rebound + low social trust = digital enclaves. People adopt new behaviours, preferring virtual interactions and small groups. With local interests taking precedence over global concerns, the digital divide remains and offers better opportunities for the privileged few.

· Fast economic rebound + high social trust = tech-powered humanity. People crave human connection and, with the virus well-controlled, balance virtual and physical interactions. As companies become more efficient and tech-enabled, the private sector fuels growth.

· Slow economic rebound + low social trust = a growing divide. A prolonged recession, coupled with a fear of the virus coming back, leads to massive unemployment. As industries consolidate, workers are treated as commodities, and people lose faith in government policies.

· Slow economic rebound + high social trust = ‘in this together’. Government bailouts lead to a significant focus on upskilling to close the digital divide. A high expectation around transparency leads to significant public-private partnerships to drive cooperative innovation around science and technology.

Source: Heidrick Consulting 

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