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December 23, 2020updated 23 Jun 2022 8:57am

The future of work – and society – will be decided in 2021

Decisions about work and technology made in 2021 will shape society in the coming decades. Business leaders should consider them carefully.

By Pete Swabey

It is likely 2021 will be the year the pandemic’s lasting impact is determined: the principle of the eight-hour working day was enshrined at the first convention of The International Labour Organisation, founded in the wake of the Great War and the Spanish Flu.

We are all hoping 2021 will be less momentous, less historic, less “unprecedented” than its predecessor. But as the ILO’s example shows, norms established in the shadow of a crisis often have far-reaching legacies.     

The ‘future of work’ that employers create in 2021 through digital technology will determine how economic opportunity is distributed and shape the human geography of the 21st century. It is vital they don’t forget the community spirit they appeared to discover during the pandemic.    

The physical divide 

For those of us lucky enough to be able to do so, working from home was the defining experience of 2020. But the privilege was not open to all. Jobs that can be done remotely are typically occupied by more highly educated and better-paid people, according to an EU-backed study. 

The pandemic hit those who couldn’t work remotely much harder. Non-remote workers in the US were more than three times as likely to lose their jobs during the pandemic than remote-working peers, according to a paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in August. This discrepancy was even wider among women, African Americans, Hispanics and people without university degrees, the study found. Non-remote workers also had poorer respiratory health than their home-bound colleagues.   

It is vital that employers don’t forget the community spirit they appeared to discover during the pandemic.

Employers are now drafting the “new normal” for their workers. Companies including Google, Microsoft and American Express have announced plans to make remote working a permanent fixture; a study by the UK’s Institute of Directors in October found that 74% of employers plan to do the same.  

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This could lead to even greater divergence in the lives of white and blue-collar workers. The former can look forward to more autonomy in their work, more freedom to live where they want and, potentially, increased access to opportunity, as the geographic constraints to their careers are lifted. The latter would see greater isolation from white-collar colleagues and diminished opportunity to pursue better-paid roles.    

This would further divide an already riven society. A post-pandemic expansion of remote work, according to the authors of the EU study, “would unavoidably increase the social distance between those that need to work with their hands in particular places and those that can provide intellectual and social services from any place”.  

Automated offshoring 

One consolation for people who work with their hands is that their jobs are relatively immobile. A factory is harder to relocate than a laptop (although not impossible).   

This is not the case for remote workers. “Jobs that can be done remotely can also be done offshore,” as economist Carl Benedikt Frey told us earlier this year. By separating tasks from their geographical moorings, the current shift to remote work may allow a combination of automation and offshore outsourcing that introduces new dynamics in the global labour market.    

Invisible Technologies is a worksharing service that allows individuals and companies to delegate admin tasks through an automated personal assistant. Behind the scenes, the tasks are conducted by humans working from home around the world. The service combines the wage arbitrage of offshore outsourcing with a chatbot’s release from human interaction.    

These services may be especially appealing to companies which have shed workers during the pandemic. One Invisible Technologies customer told The New Yorker that, thanks to the service, they may not replace roles that were axed earlier this year. “Invisible is doing such a good job, and we’re seeing such cost efficiencies, that post-coronavirus we’re maybe not considering employing for these tasks again,” they said.   

In his 2019 book The Globotics Upheaval: Globalisation, Robotics and the Future of Work, author and economist Richard Baldwin predicted a combination of AI and ‘tele-migration’ would ‘hollow out’ white-collar jobs, disrupting middle-class employment. This would precipitate new social upheaval and resistance, he wrote.    

“Pushed by Covid-19, firms and workers have invested in, say, ten years’ worth of digital transformation in just a few months,” Baldwin has since written. “My guess is that this will accelerate the trend towards more service sector jobs coming into competition with ‘globotics’, i.e. telemigrants working in our offices while sitting abroad (the globalisation part), and software robots replacing particular office-tasks (the robotics part).”    

Prognostications like this are compelling but no-one can predict the long-term effects of management decisions made today. Nor can broad social trends be attributed to individual companies. Nevertheless, as they plan the ‘future of work’ within their organisations, business leaders should remember the efforts of their employees in 2020 and consider carefully how their decisions might affect them.  

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