“Necessity is the mother of innovation”.
For good or for ill, with the arrival of coronavirus, the world has changed forever. I never thought that something biological could act as a catalyst to change the world so suddenly and so fundamentally. To my mind, a technology – an AI, or the invention of a quantum computing processor – would have created this seismic tremor that would reverberate out into our futures.
As it was, a humble virus did it for us.
At this stage, it’s difficult to know exactly what the long-term effects will be, but I predict that its impact on our economy, society and environment will be profound. This will be seen as the start line of the fourth industrial revolution – a time where everything will be unmade and remade.
The most immediate and troubling issue that the virus is causing is social isolation, and the short-term impact that this is going to have on the global economy. We were heading towards a recession after the longest bear market in history – the arrival of coronavirus will certainly tip us into one. The only question is: how bad will it be?
The most immediate issue is how we survive the next few weeks without businesses going to the wall and mass unemployment, especially in the service sector, becoming a reality. This would have huge impact on the wider economy if borne out, so the government’s strategy of containment in the form of a £300 billion economic package, would seem like the sensible bet, until the worst is over and people can return to a semblance of normality.
The impact of the virus on working practices, however, is much more profound. Businesses across the country have spent the last two weeks scrambling to work out how they enable remote working to take place and equipping their staff to do so. Remote working is a trend that has been increasing over the past few years, but few companies have actually pushed hard for it. As this crisis now mandates that their workforce has to work from home, the situation has rapidly changed. In some industries, such as banks, stringent security protocols meant that workers physically had to be in their place of work to access systems. These have now been torn up so that the business doesn’t collapse; an extreme situation is causing an extreme reaction. Can it, or will it, ever go back to being the same?
As the initial excitement of being forced to stay at home wears off for much of the UK’s workforce, they will notice an immediate change of pace from having to commute to work every day. Although they may not have to rise at a punishing hour every morning, in order to make the hour and a half commute into work, they now find themselves having to deal with children, and household chores, when they previously didn’t have these distractions. Dealing with this will take a change of approach. They may now revel in the fact that they start working later, take a longer lunch in order to take the kids to the park or to a doctor’s appointment, but they will probably work into the evening in order to complete all of the tasks that they need to. Ending the nine to five won’t necessarily mean they’re doing less work; they just get to choose when they do it. The work/life ‘balance’ ceases to exist, and they just find there’s ‘life’ to deal with instead.
There’s a theory called the 21/90 rule. To make a new habit, one must commit to a goal for 21 straight days.After three weeks, the pursuit of that goal should have become a habit. Once you’ve established that habit, you continue to do it for another ninety days. If you can keep up something for three weeks and then ninety days, then it should become a permanent lifestyle change.
It’s going to be really interesting to see how the UK working population that has taken up working from home will cope with returning to work once they’ve become used to it. Whilst some will be hankering to get back to a ‘normal’, adult-centric environment, others will be seeing the world through different eyes. The fallacy of the daily commute will become more apparent; the ease and efficiency of virtual conferencing across a myriad of different platforms will make many face-to-face interactions seem unnecessary. In short, a Pandora’s Box will have opened in their mind, that can’t readily be closed.
With freedom, however, comes responsibility.
In working in an irregular environment, the mindset needs to shift. There are only so many hours in the day, and tasks, both professional and personal, need to accomplished. The freedom to choose how and when to complete each task can be intoxicating but getting them done takes responsibility and discipline. If you’ve spent part of Monday taking the kids to the pool, it’s not a bad trade-off to work part of Saturday, if you need to.
This whole notion of having to be somewhere at a certain time is becoming increasingly grating to many. Companies and employees will come to realise, now quicker than ever, that by placing the onus of responsibility on the employee rather than the employer in how they manage their time, works to the benefit of both parties. To say to an employee that they have to be at their desk at 9am, and they can only leave it at 5pm (but, you know, no one really leaves before 6), is to essentially infantilise them – you can’t be trusted to manage your own time, so we will do it for you. The appeal of working later into the evening or at the weekend becomes a lot less appealing for the employee.
One barometer to test the theory of whether this works is that of unlimited holiday. More and more companies have been offering this as a ‘perk’ to employees, and not a single one of them that I’ve spoken to has had a negative experience. The reality is that the employee will probably take about the same, or marginally less holiday than they were entitled to anyway, but they are happier in the longer term. Their management team sets them objectives, and then leaves them to get on with how they structure their time. At the end of the day, commercial results and the happiness of their employees should be the main priorities of a company’s management. And happiness drives results. Why would anyone want to go back to the days of clock-watching as a measurement of a person pulling their weight?
‘Working hours’ for most people should have died a death some time ago.
Coronavirus shows us that we’ve had the technology and aptitude to do it all along. Some industries are going to need certain people in certain places at certain times, and that’s fine. Everyone else, however, needs to realise that being a master of your own time is going to be a vital skill in the economy of the fourth industrial revolution, just as much as the ability to constantly learn and adapt new skills.
The age that this virus has ushered in, although it may seem extreme now, is only just the start of things to come. Depending on your mindset, that can prove to be a scary or exciting prospect. To me, it’s definitely the latter. We’re launching a podcast and a YouTube channel to chart what is currently happening to people and businesses, and what is coming next. There is simply too much to write here about the scope of the project, but I hope you will join us in helping shape what is going to be a seismic decade for us all.