What you need to know
Hybrid working. Robot colleagues. Four-day weeks. Covid-19 hasn't just changed the way we perform our jobs today — it's also kickstarted a broader push to rethink the world of work.
Lockdowns over the past 14 months have forced many employees into a giant work-from-home experiment, bringing in-person meetings and business travel more or less to a standstill. Now, as workplaces re-open around the world, businesses and their employees are asking to what degree they want to return to their pre-pandemic ways.
Some firms are embracing — or at least accepting — a hybrid home-office configuration, allowing workers greater flexibility and reduced commuting time. Others have adopted a four-day working week, often successfully it would appear, with two-thirds of employers doing so reporting increased productivity.
The shift to automation has also been accelerated by the coronavirus: Where robots were once seen as the enemy of workers, they are now also seen as a way of cutting down on the human interaction that can spread infection.
In the near term, one of the most important factors in determining the future of work will be the global vaccine rollout. For many workers a return to the office (and the crowded commuter trains and lunch spots that support it) won't be a viable option until more people have been inoculated. But the rollout won't fully answer the questions, where, when, and how should we work when this is all over?
By the numbers
The number of job ads that mention a four-day workweek has tripled in the past three years, ZipRecruiters says.
The surge in US orders for robots during Q4 of 2020, compared to a year earlier.
The proportion of Facebook employees Mark Zuckerberg says may work from home over the next decade.
Why it matters
Changing the way we work will have consequences for labor markets, property prices, tech stocks, transport systems, personal wellbeing — and myriad other things.
Permanent remote working, for instance, has the potential to improve corporate balance sheets (less office space required), while reshaping the cities we live in (want more space for your family — move to the suburbs, or the countryside). Blurring the barriers between home and the workplace could also have implications for our individual working hours. While we might think that ditching the commute would give us more leisure time, staying at home may actually be lengthening our working days, research shows. Despite this, there are also signs that working from home can be good for productivity.
Some have warned that a hybrid working model, while desired by many, actually looks like the "worst of both worlds." The issue of home-working has divided opinion. Goldman Sachs' CEO David Solomon, for instance, has called it an "aberration" and "not a new normal," while Mark Zuckerberg sees it as a long-term option for many Facebook employees.
Right now, if offices reopen quickly it seems likely that many aspects of our working lives will "snap back" to pre-pandemic norms, although certain features, such as greater automation, are highly unlikely to be reversed. But the longer the Covid crisis rumbles on, the more comfortable employees will become with performing their duties in new and different ways that they may be unwilling to abandon in the future. For now, the great global work-from-home experiment goes on.