The “future of work” is early

Guido van Nispen on why a global pandemic might change how we make a living

by Guido Van Nispen

Future of work 09 April 2020

Until recently, we were in the tightest labor market in years. Businesses and organizations held emergency meetings to find out how people could be hired for key positions. 

Then COVID-19 came to the stage and disrupted the mental model of the ‘Future of work.’ Efforts to contain the outbreak are continuing to create a job crisis — causing the sharpest spikes in unemployment filings in history.

A United Nations report has called for a global, coordinated response to address the COVID-19 pandemic, while the International Monetary Fund has warned that the economic recession caused by the pandemic is likely to continue until at least 2021.

Here is an excellent article by Maria Flynn President and CEO of Jobs for the Future describing this problem in the US, where the impact of job losses is even greater than in Europe. 

Business models and organizations will shapeshift

Now that we are faced with the possibility of high unemployment, millions of redundant workers will soon look for jobs. Those jobs will, for a large part, be very different than the ones they had before.

First of all, a dramatic shapeshifting of business models and organizations from physical to digital/online will take place. Where analogue or physical activities were, until a few weeks ago, the cake under the icing of digital income,’ organizations must now envision a scenario where the reverse will happen at light speed… as Robert Wolcott wrote in his article in Forbes. 

Zoom Video Communications CEO Eric S. Yuan thinks the response to the COVID-19 outbreak could lead to a fundamental, permanent shift in how people work according to GeekWire. “Given this coronavirus, I think overnight, almost everybody really understood they needed a tool like this,” Yuan said of his company’s video conferencing software on an earnings call this week. “This will dramatically change the landscape. I truly believe in the Future; everyone will [use] video for remote worker collaboration.”

What are the structural solutions?

As we are still early in this new reality, we are too far out to come up with clear answers. But those answers will be in a solutions ‘grab bag’ that most likely consists of the following:

  • Government (financial) support for many of the unemployed.
  • Renewed, serious interest in a Universal Basic Income (UBI) as the economy is not capable of recovering fast enough.
  • Shapeshifting, more or less overnight, by many sectors like events, entertainment, travel, education, and many others. For example: the immediate arrival of Spotify, instead of the slow 20-year pace with all of the intermediate steps that came before it, changing the music industry from analogue to digital.
  • Accelerated development of AI and exponential scaling to connect people to work.
  • Accelerated development of skills and education programs, with a short runway.
  • “Next Gen” video-communications products that make remote-working friendlier and of a higher quality.
  • Home-working as the new normal.

As Kai-Fu Lee (former president of Google, China) said: “Work will be necessary for all for at least the next 50 years. Not only for income but also for social status. That will not change by the current pandemic. But it will look different, and that is a major challenge.” 

The digital disruption, now accelerated by COVID-19, requires a reboot of the economy and the “Future of Work.” Now is, therefore, the time to innovate. That means limitless learning, networking, and upskilling. Opportunities abound and great ideas are born in a down market. Never before have we had such ample access to free online resources.

What to do?

  • For individuals, what if you have extra time, are looking for progress, or you’re in-between your next job? Stay focused, grow, and benefit from this unprecedented time of change and the availability of online resources.
  • For organizations, first of all, survive … and shapeshift. Despite government support, many businesses and non-profits will not survive. That ‘doom-and-gloom’ scenario should not freeze your activities but should accelerate your thinking and acting. 
  • For governments, it means to be there now for all of your citizens. First of all, to conquer the pandemic and secondly to support all in their livelihoods in the short and long-term. Without a healthy economy, there will be no healthy citizens. More people die in economic downturns than in any pandemic. 
  • For education, which is in between governments and organizations. Education will see a rapid change towards digital/online and from long studies to short boot camps. Technology will play a major role, and it will be a challenge to find a way to get the “premium” from physical institutions in the digital realm. Next to the relatively easy “content sharing” part, educational institutions will have to figure out how to put a premium on the “community” and “experience” of their curriculum and institutions. 
  • And for me? My first thoughts at this time go to our loved ones. I worry about those who are in their late 70s or older. I am also incredibly impressed by all of those people doubling down to provide care and safety. I am also concerned about the immediate loss of income for so many businesses, in particular for self-employed people and entrepreneurs. Economic downturns do accelerate change, but at a high cost to people…

On the other side; I am trying to reflect and reframe. I have experienced again and again that in times of crisis, there is a shake-out, and only the business models that are strongest survive. I also know that even an overwhelming social challenge such as the one we’re going through is an opportunity to invent something more enlightened.