With people forced to work from home, layoffs happening in every industry, and a power balance shifted by the increasing necessity of essential workers, the future of work promises not only to be uncertain, but possibly unrecognisable.
Tech companies such as Facebook and Twitter in the U.S. have announced permanent moves to more remote systems of work, a large shift from the previously campus-centric model that Silicon Valley companies swore by. For Facebook, this means having a workforce that is 50% remote in the next 5-10 years and building hubs in places such as Atlanta for remote workers to occasionally convene, away from the west-coast centre of tech innovation. For Twitter, the changes start much sooner; employees are now allowed to switch entirely to remote working if they prefer it to office life.
Shifts like these promise seismic changes in both how we work and who can work. People will be able to have greater flexibility in where they live, locating themselves based on the merits of an area rather than proximity to a job. This could help drive down rent in areas with high levels of housing inflation, such as London and San Francisco, making them more affordable. In addition, a greater number of remote working opportunities could make employment easier for people with children. Some research suggests that one of the main factors causing the gender pay gap is that women are more likely to take time away from careers to have children, but remote work could allow women to have more continuous and thus higher earning careers. A lower number of commuters could also help cut pollution from car emissions and congestion, meaning that there is an environmental incentive for remote working too.
Still, anyone that has tried to work or study from home during the pandemic can attest to the difficulties that it presents. Particularly in smaller spaces, maintaining any kind of work-life divide can be challenging, and it becomes a lot easier for time that would otherwise be more easily designated for rest to bleed into yet more work. Removal of the office social life could also lead to greater feelings of loneliness; without these communal spaces, people may begin to feel more isolated than ever. Remote working is only a reality for certain kinds of work, that which can be undertaken digitally, whereas people in jobs that require physical tasks, such as lab work, or people in minimum-wage jobs, would be exempt from reaping the benefits of these changes. Companies such as Facebook have already updated their policy to suggest that salary would become proportional to location, and so while rent prices may become more balanced, geographical wealth divides are likely to remain.
There is also the question of how work time should be arranged, now that guidance suggests limiting the number of people in office spaces. In New Zealand, Jacinda Arden has been one of the more recent proponents of the 4-day work week, a concept that has seen rising popularity. For her, it promises greater opportunities for domestic tourism, something that economies may sorely need given that international tourism won’t be an option any time soon. This switch has been tested by companies such as Microsoft Japan, who saw an increase of 40% in workspace productivity, while saving energy and money on the running costs of their offices. Moving to a 4-day work week certainly allows for more leisure time spent with family and friends, but it could also lead to more stress while we’re at work, as the same workloads become compressed into shorter periods of time. Parkinson’s law suggests that work expands to fill the time available for its completion, and so moving to a 4-day work week could lead to faster results and quicker innovations, but possibly at the cost at more stressful, intense working hours.
The changes that the pandemic promises may be beneficial to some, but they don’t promise to be helpful for all. People in minimum-wage and people-facing jobs are likely to be at greater risk as the outbreak continues, and so those that are able to take advantage of the innovations in remote-working will generally be safer, leading to divides in those impacted the most by the pandemic. On the bright side, however, the pandemic offers a future of increasing flexibility. While not everyone may want to move permanently to this way of working, one thing that has become clear is that doing so will become a feasible choice.