The show must go on(line) — the future of work after Coronavirus

Crises accelerate change. Developments that would’ve normally taken years are now happening in weeks or months. How will the coronavirus pandemic fast-forward us to the future of work?

1. Mass unemployment feeds white-collar gig economy

Since the global financial crisis in 2008, we’ve seen an enormous boom in the gig economy. Driven in part by new technology and companies like Uber and Deliveroo, nearly five million people in the UK and 15 million in the US depend on gig-economy jobs as their primary source of income.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, a report by MasterCard predicted that the global gig work market would more than double from about $200bn in 2018 to $455bn in 2023. This is likely to accelerate as more people lose their jobs in the downturn. In just three weeks before Easter, 16 million Americans registered as unemployed — and these workers will have to try to find new employment.

‘As the economy rebounds, I suspect gig will play a key role as employers will value the flexibility it provides while they navigate uncertain demand’, Mathieu Stevenson, CEO of gig work platform Snagajob told Forbes in April.

But whereas gig work used to focus on driving around customers and their meals (57% of the gig market was transportation-related in 2018), the post-pandemic gig workers will be increasingly white-collared. Trending skills on freelancing platform Upwork include ‘HR consulting’, ‘proposal writing’ and ‘risk management.’

Gig and freelance work will be more task-based with specific short-term goals to meet, but employees will have more flexibility to work when they want, with the potential to earn more if they have the hours and the energy.

However, as more people move into gig work, there will be a need for more legislation to protect these workers and their conditions of employment. Brands that want to be best prepared for a more flexible workforce need to start developing ethical and attractive HR policies for the best on-demand talent.

2. Remote working can enhance productivity, but also competition

When Coors Light branded themselves as the ‘official beer of working remotely,’ little did they know how big of a trend they tapped into.

The first month in lockdown has shown that office jobs can be perfectly done from home. But the virus has also leapfrogged remote working in more unlikely industries, for example, healthcare and education.

Before coronavirus, only 1% of doctor’s appointments in the UK were done over a video link. In April, telemedicine companies Push Doctor and Docly told the New York Times that their weekly orders had increased by 70– 100% from one week to the next as the virus spread. According to McKinsey, nearly one-third of consumers in France and Germany have used telemedicine for the first time during the coronavirus crisis. In China, the number was almost 40%.

After years of scepticism towards online education, schools and universities around the world have also gone online in the last months. Studying and working remotely is not only flexible. It also has the potential to reduce global inequality. A talented student from Bangladesh would not have to move to Boston to go to Harvard. On the other hand, this can come with ever fiercer competition in the global job market. If your team is working remotely, why not hire professionals from Mumbai or Bangalore, where salaries don’t need to cover the stellar rents of New York, London, or Palo Alto?

Even if tasks can be performed and information exchanged remotely, things like trust, togetherness and team spirit are harder to take online. In a Stanford University study with China’s largest travel agency, employees who were allowed to work from home were more productive, worked longer hours, and were less likely to leave the company. However, when offered to work from home 100% of the time, most employees chose not to — they felt too isolated.

Companies with a strong culture were best positioned to the sudden shift to working from home. Now all businesses will need to focus on team building and employee engagement — let it be with Zoom happy hours, online book clubs or virtual movie nights.

3. Coworking returns with a 2nd wave of the WeWork pandemic

Remote working has myriad upsides: less time and money spent commuting, less CO2 emissions from business travel, less space and money needed for office rents. Working remotely, however, does not mean that all of us would want to work from home. Sitting on sofas, beds or at kitchen tables for months on end is already taking its toll on our posture.

Once we are allowed to come closer than two meters to each other, we may see a second wave of the WeWork pandemic: lots of businesses will try to copy the infamous workspace provider’s model and let people hire desk space by the day or less.

The hospitality industry has been hard hit by the pandemic. One way to potentially recover income is to try to increase occupancy throughout the day, including areas where people can work comfortably all day long. Sheraton Hotel & Resorts is revisiting over 400 lobbies to make the spaces more work-friendly. If there will be fewer travellers, hotels could convert part of their rooms to virus-proof pay-as-you-go offices. Coffee shops, bars, and restaurants could also start providing facilities like meeting rooms, high-quality printing and super-fast Wi-Fi to meet the needs of remote workers.

The aim is to bring more flexibility into how people work, creating a new space beyond the office and the home. Some individuals will join local spaces so that they can get cheaper rates and guarantee space on certain days. Companies will need to reassess where coworking is likely to happen based on where their offices are and their employees live, working out contracts so that they can offer high-quality facilities to staff to work closer to home and trying to make it easy for their staff to access productive work areas.

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