Future of Work: The 5 opportunities & threats of today's crisis

Laetitia@Work #13

Hi everyone,

I hope you are as well as you can be.

A week feels like a month during this crisis. That may be because so much is happening and each day (hour) comes with a piece of news that’s more bewildering than the previous one—healthcare crisis, borders closing, gigantic stimulus plans, a new country in lockdown (India’s 1.3 billion inhabitants are now in lockdown too!). Our perception of time may also be distorted by an over-consumption of news in real-time. I’ve become one of those news junkies who can’t function without news and coffee, dependent as I am on my daily dose of awe-inspiring news. Anything published a couple days ago feels “old”. Anything “ordinary” feels irrelevant.

Yet now should be the time to try and get perspective. In theory those of us who aren’t on the frontlines of healthcare, supply chain, and rescuing the economy should have more time to read and think. In reality we mostly feel helpless because the first “perspective” we get is that what we do feels quite useless. And not only do we suffer from that feeling of uselessness but we also think, “what if my uselessness became obvious to everyone?”, “what if I lost my job as a result?”.

Furthermore, it turns out that anxiety, acute stress, and the collapse of the economy do not help to foster a sense of perspective. But this feeling of uselessness is in fact a good start. As is our anxiety about the future. As are our family troubles while stuck at home. And our loneliness if we’re stuck at home alone.

In fact the current crisis merely amplifies and reveals trends, opportunities or threats that were already there before. It distorts time and accelerates events, but most of the issues aren’t new. Our questions about what “value” is and why we need better universal healthcare and social protection were already burning questions before. The trends towards more Netflix, Zoom, telemedecine, teleworking, e-commerce, last-mile logistics, restaurant deliveries were already clear before. The problems of balancing work and family life have always been relevant questions. Etc.

When it comes to the future of work, the current crisis is an amplifier and accelerator of opportunities and threats already in the making. It is accelerating the transition between the old and the new economic paradigms. Here is a focus on 5 future-of-work-related issues that are currently being amplified. Read on. ⏩

1. Our current questions about value, the meaning of work and bullshit jobs are unique opportunities to tackle necessary issues. 

Almost overnight the Covid-19 crisis came with a sudden reversal of value(s): it turns out the workers we really can’t do without, i.e. the most “valuable” workers, are more or less all the workers who are the least paid in our economy. They are hospital workers, nurses, domestic workers who look after the (increasingly isolated) elderly people, last-mile logistics workers and everyone involved in our supply chains. Childcare professionals and teachers see their work completely disrupted by the forced lockdown, but parents stuck at home with their children seem to be having a moment of reckoning when it comes to the importance of these workers: without them, they can’t have a normal life anymore. 

Meanwhile a lot of office workers usually employed in better-paid positions are either suddenly unemployed or stuck at home feeling somewhat useless and wondering what they can do to help. Of course it doesn’t mean you can’t do valuable, useful work remotely, behind a computer (it would be absurd to say that), but there are way more “office” workers questioning the usefulness of what they do than people who can’t work remotely (who are currently more worried about their safety than their usefulness). 

All this makes anthropologist David Graeber’s provocative rant about “bullshit jobs” all the more topical. “The lack of purpose and meaning is today’s salaried workers’ foremost concern and source of suffering,” he wrote in his Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. And “In our society there seems to be a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it,which strikes a chord in the context of today’s coronavirus lockdown.

With a few exceptions, today’s “valuable” workers all have three things in common. 1. Their work is usually invisible and taken for granted (you notice it when it’s not done rather than when it’s done, like supply chain logistics and cleaning services, for example; or you only notice it when you need it, like medical services). 2. A lot of the tasks performed by these “essential” workers can’t be performed remotely and require human contact. 3. An overwhelming majority of these workers are poorly paid, and many are women (roughly 80% of hospital staff is composed of women). 

By making the invisible suddenly visible, the current crisis makes it clear that not all jobs concern the “creative classes” and can be performed remotely. In fact, as I once wrote, “the future of work is in proximity services.” But because they’re invisible these workers are less valued, less protected, less unionised. The sudden visibility of these workers is a unique opportunity to:

  • Think about new collective bargaining institutions. With the crisis, some supermarket chains are now on a hiring spree. Others announced they’d increase the wages of their frontline workers (like Auchan and Carrefour in France). “Cleaners and supermarket workers are on the frontline. When this is over, let’s fight for the wages and conditions they deserve,” wrote The Guardian.

  • Understand the critical role of the state in a number of public services whose value is now more visible. Healthcare and education are profoundly “valuable”, and the state is uniquely positioned to deliver that value. Isn’t it obvious today? As economist Mariana Mazzucato wrote in The Value of Everything, “we need to rethink capitalism, rethink the role of public policy and the importance of the public sector, and redefine how we measure value in our society.”

  • Understand that feeling useful at work is a basic human need. Many office jobs were designed in a way that leaves too much room for bureaucracy. Many jobs could be re-designed around the values of craftsmanship.

2. Our current questions about how to best rescue the economy in the context of a dramatic crash are opportunities to reinvent the safety net.

Many countries have announced gigantic stimulus plans to rescue the economy from what could be the biggest crash since the Great Depression. Even Boris Johnson and Donald Trump now seem bent on helping people and businesses survive the crisis. In the hope of not losing the presidential election later this year, Trump announced a record-breaking trillion-dollar rescue plan, which he wanted to focus on businesses, but eventually tweaked to include individuals as well. 

Very soon, the current crisis will make something else suddenly visible: more and more people aren’t covered by the safety net institutions created in the 20th century. Most traditional salaried workers have unemployment benefits and access to healthcare whereas the self-employed and part-time workers are excluded from them. In countries that value these protections the most, like France, the question of the protection of the self-employed will be more topical than ever before. It seems likely now that most of the self-employed will bear the brunt of the crisis and see their revenues dwindle, while most salaried workers will be cushioned from the worst effects of this crisis.

Gig workers, small businesses, part-time workers are particularly vulnerable. Now’s the time to imagine a new safety net for them that can endure after this crisis. As Nicolas Colin wrote in this European Straits newsletter, “Support Individuals, Period.”:

“How can we use the government’s response to the crisis to deploy the new institutions that will maximize economic security and prosperity in the future? To make it short, my view is that the networked individual, not the big corporation, is now the center of our economy. And that’s just another argument for supporting individuals. Governments should support them with more cash throughout the crisis. But they should also focus on them when the time comes to design a new set of institutions—a new social contract so that inclusive economic growth becomes self-sustaining again once the crisis is over.”

3. Homes are places of work on which it is critical to shine the spotlight (as does the current crisis).

When we think about work, we think of workplaces like factories, offices, shops, construction sites and fields, not homes. We believe homes to be “non-work” places, places for privacy, family and rest. Nothing could be further from the truth. The industrial revolution may have arbitrarily placed textile production in factories instead of homes (and separated “productive” “male” work from “reproductive” “female” work), but homes have always remained places of production. The relative invisibility of the home as a place of production comes with numerous problems: work that’s not seen as work and that doesn’t count, or work that’s not protected and valued.

By forcing all knowledge workers to work from home, the current crisis is shedding precious light on something that should always have been visible. Yes, homes are workplaces too and it should be taken into account! With the ubiquity of knowledge work tools, homes have been places of knowledge work for many years now, as they have always been for many artisans and artists. Yet employers pay too little attention to these workplaces whose ergonomic conditions leave greatly to be desired. Providing knowledge workers with the proper home equipment (chairs, tables, wifi, electronics, and, why not, an extra room) is increasingly relevant. 

Homes are also the main places of work for millions of domestic workers who have long been among the most exploited, ill-treated people on the labour market. Care workers whose excessively long hours, physical and psychological risks, and low pay are rarely discussed, are now on the frontlines too. They’re the ones who still provide care to the elderly and the vulnerable who nobody visits anymore (for fear of contaminating them...but that may also be a convenient excuse). Nannies who look after children are either unemployed (and their absence is felt acutely by mothers who now work from home) or exposed to more risks than workers who can just stay at home. Likewise cleaning women who clean homes have either suddenly been made redundant (and their absence is felt dramatically by… guess who) or exposed to more risk. Etc. Domestic workers need more protections, more regulation, new collective bargaining institutions.

But homes are also places of millions and millions of hours of unpaid work. If that work was counted it would represent a large chunk of our GDP. Some feminists have long argued that this work should be taken into account. But even if it isn’t (counted as part of the GDP), one should take into account the fact that women bear the brunt of this unpaid work, and that this affects their opportunities of paid work. It is quite clear in a period of lockdown that the gender distribution of unpaid work at home remains dramatically unequal. In households with two breadwinners forced to work from home, more professional sacrifices are made by women. After the crisis, it may hinder women’s professional careers quite durably.

Last but not least, it is essential to understand that homes are a political as well as an economic subject. Housing is one of the most acute problems that will affect the future of work: more workers (in proximity services) need to find housing in large cities but their wages have not increased as much as the cost of housing. Employers now need to make housing a part of their HR policies. Governments need to design more ambitious housing policies.

Housing inequalities are felt dramatically today. In a kind of ironic reversal of situation: those people most isolated from city centres are now advantaged as they are least likely to be contaminated and to contaminate their loved ones. Those with more space are very happy they gave up proximity for extra space. It is very possible real estate prices will go down, which will provide new opportunities for workers. Remote workers will value their “room of their own” like never before.

4. When it comes to remote work, there is no going back after this crisis.

Of course, forced, full-time, lockdown-related remote work has nothing to do with “normal”, part-time, voluntary remote work. I won’t argue it’s the same. It’s hard to rejoice over the complete lack of physical contact. Nobody is fully prepared. Today’s remote work is full of stress and anxiety. And on top of that, it’s a situation of economic crisis: some people have no work, others are at risk of losing their jobs. In short, it’s anything but “normal” and optimal. Many experts agree that for most office workers, the ideal amount of remote work is about two days a week. No more.

When the lockdown situation finally comes to an end, many workers will be more than happy to go back to the office, see their colleagues, enjoy the many benefits of the “water-cooler effect”, give and receive hugs, give high-fives, be able to communicate by expressing all the subtleties of body language, and brainstorm with their colleagues in the same room. There’s no doubt about that.

However, when it comes to remote work, the crisis is accelerating the current trend towards more remote work like nothing has before. A lot of old barriers have been lifted: technical barriers (choice of tools, questions related to cybersecurity, the move to cloud-based solutions), cultural barriers (the reluctance of middle-management in traditional organisations)...

Forced remote work may not be entirely fun, it will nevertheless prove that a lot more work can be done remotely. I don’t see how companies can ever go back to their old culture of presenteeism with no flexibility and no possibility of remote work. Most people will be happy to go back to the office, but will expect their companies to give them more leeway in terms of remote work options.

The few companies like Automattic, Gitlab, Buffer or Basecamp that prided themselves on not having offices and being good at managing scattered teams used to be extremely rare. They will become much more common during and after the crisis. Lacking cash and resources, the new companies of the coronavirus generation will have learnt to make do without offices. Once they do have access to cash, they may prefer to resort to offices “as a service”, i.e. turn the cost of keeping a physical office into a variable cost. After all, if you need your people to meet once in a while, why not rent the spaces you need for short periods of time rather than full time? The demise of WeWork should not lead us to believe that coworking solutions and “offices as a service” aren’t there to stay. They have a bright future before them.

5. The issue of balancing work and parenthood is made more visible during this crisis. But it should always be taken into account!

As schools have closed in many countries currently in lockdown, the issue of balancing work with parenthood suddenly receives the attention it deserves. Many parents find it difficult to juggle work with children at home. Do you remember how exactly three years ago we couldn’t stop laughing at the sight of Professor Robert Kelly interviewed by the BBC and interrupted by his children? We laughed so hard not because he was ridiculous, but because we couldn’t help but identify, and because it’s funny how we have to pretend our children don’t exist if we want to be taken seriously. We found Kelly so endearing.

Today most video calls and conferences are interrupted by children, or done with children on people’s laps. And we find it increasingly “normal”. Being a parent doesn’t mean you’re not a dedicated worker. Why should you have to hide your children to be seen as an engaged worker? 

In fact the issue of childcare and children’s education is one that always affects the organisation of work. Being a parent often makes you a better worker (and vice versa). But juggling the two at the same time is impossible. If you have children at home, the only way you can continue to work is with more flexibility. With young children at home there’s no way you can take part in every meeting and be responsive in real-time. Asynchronous communication should be the default. It should always be the default.

When it comes to looking after children, women still bear the brunt of the work. It affects the organisation of their work much more than it does men’s. So the best way to increase gender diversity and empower women at work is to take parenthood into account: by offering every worker (man and woman) flexibility by default, switching to asynchronous communication by default, offering everybody remote work options, and helping every worker when it comes to childcare and children’s education.

Right now, there’s a risk this crisis will cost women more than men in terms of career advancement and opportunities. As everyone is stuck at home with children, many women find themselves stuck in a reenactment of the 1950s. Let’s make sure the coronavirus isn’t also “a disaster for feminism”.

🌳 I’m in Normandy all week this week 😏 As far as homeschooling is concerned, I haven’t done much as a parent / teacher. But my mother calls my daughter every day and they speak German for 15 minutes. Also we had a brilliant idea: we now let our children do all the cooking. They learn to cook and have fun experimenting in the kitchen, and we have more time for work! Sometimes we play that our house is a restaurant. Our daughter is the chef, our son the sous-chef (and the garbage boy).

I have two new publications this week. For Welcome to the Jungle, I interviewed the only person I can interview IRL, i.e. my husband. It’s good he generally has lots of interesting things to say: “Les crises ne sont pas que des problèmes à régler, elles sont aussi des opportunités de redistribuer les cartes(there will be an English version of this interview in the coming days). Also I was interviewed together with Vincent Berthelot for Courrier Cadres: “Travail, management : “Il y aura un avant et un après confinement” (in French only).

Content related to this week’s newsletter:

Miscellaneous

  • 🥣 “A Boom Time for the Bean Industry”, David Yaffe-Bellany, The New York Times, March 2020: our consumption of lentils and legumes is up 400% with this crisis. (It was already going up before as legumes are a good meat substitute). In Biblical times, you would kill for a bowl of lentil soup!

  • 💻 “Why Slack Isn’t Winning the Remote-Work Revolution — Yet”, Will Oremus, Medium, March 2020: interesting piece about Slack. “For Slack, seizing this moment won’t be as easy as you might expect. In fact, while the videoconferencing company Zoom is booming despite the bear market, Slack’s stock is slumping”.

  • ⌚ “Against Productivity in a Pandemic”, Nick Martin, The New Republic, March 2020: “as millions of us are trying to practice home isolation while also attending to the needs of our families and communities, the obscenity of pretending that work and “the self” are the only things that matter—or even exist—becomes harder to ignore.”

That’s all for this week. Stay safe. Please let me know if you’d like me to elaborate on one of the 5 issues tackled in this newsletter 🙏 ❤️

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