Everywhere I look, there are articles about the “future of work” once the Covid-19 pandemic is as fully controlled as it can be – the latest one (of many) being here. My post before this one, written a few days before the UK lockdown, now seems both overly optimistic and naïve.
I’m less convinced that work will look radically different post Covid. What the pandemic may do is accelerate certain changes that were happening anyway, but many of the issues that have been highlighted require longer term structural changes – and the political will to make these changes – before anything can be implemented.
Why do I say this? The last major pandemic to affect western economies in such a serious way was the now almost forgotten ‘Asian Flu’ pandemic of 1957-58. Despite finding many articles on the macro-economic, policy planning and health issues of that pandemic, I’ve yet to find any research on how work and working practices changed. Did the workplace look radically different in 1960 to 1957? I suspect not. There may be a reason why ‘pandemics’ didn’t feature in Tim Harford’s ‘50 Things that made the Modern Economy’ (now 100 things with the publication of its sequel!) – because they didn’t.
And if you want some contemporary anecdotal evidence, look at the pictures of people flooding to beaches, returning to work on public transport, or queueing for a drive through burger. Many are happy to return to the ‘old normal’, or – in the case of public transport – don’t have an option.
So with maybe a slightly less rose-tinted crystal ball, work in 5 years’ time will probably look not dissimilar to today. More people will be working from home but unless firms take a deliberate decision to invest in ‘home offices’ for their staff, we will be dealing with claims and issues from people who either don’t have or can’t access the right tech; are suffering back problems from balancing laptops on their knees because there’s nowhere else to sit; or will have increasing mental health challenges.
Similarly, while some of the more egregious abuses of the gig economy may be outlawed, we will still see plenty of people working in an insecure environment to deliver our packages and takeaways.
One thing’s for sure – HR people will need to adapt their skills to an evolving set of problems, but the fundamentals of the profession will stay the same.