THE ZOOM BOOM
For most companies, the pre-pandemic world of work was built around the physical office, with working from home reserved for a select few. Just five per cent of all workers worked from home full-time in 2019, with another eight per cent adopting a hybrid approach by working at home some days and travelling in on other days. We also know that these tended to be relatively older and were more likely to have highly skilled jobs in finance, tech or professional services.
Opportunities to work from home, either full-time or part of the week, also tended to vary by age, experience and industry. Cleary those industries requiring one-on-one customer services, such as transportation, retail and hospitality, could not be carried out remotely whilst other industrial sectors, such as information and communications, professional, scientific and technical activities, financial, insurance, and real estate, offered greater flexibility. So whilst working from home was on the slow increase in the years running up to the pandemic, it spiked whenever and wherever lockdowns were imposed, Almost overnight workers were suddenly carrying out their functions remotely.
In the past, it was typically blue-collar jobs in the manufacturing sector that were outsourced or off-shored and skilled routine service jobs that became automated. Professional white-collar jobs had been sheltered from the pressures of globalisation. However, the mass move to remote work during the pandemic changed all this and it is estimated that now almost one in five workers have a function enabled by remote work (UK).
This rapid change came about by necessity, the proverbial mother of invention. Globally, the pandemic spawned a large-scale experiment in the ability to work remotely with the introduction of such facilities as 5G network, communal communication platforms like Zoom and multiple mobile connectivity tools and the ties that previously bound an employee to a specific geography have loosened or been broken completely. Now, there is a new class consisting of relatively well-paid, professional white-collar jobs that can be done remotely anywhere in the world. They are referred to as “Anywhere Jobs”.
Having put in place the digital infrastructure to make remote working possible, businesses, especially larger ones, are likely to persist with it even after the pandemic in order to reduce overheads, boost productivity and recruit talent from a wider geography. As a result, they may opt to employ only the core staff required for face-to-face interaction and decision-making while outsourcing those who are not. Add to that, in the words of the old song
‘How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm
Now that they’ve seen Paree?’
Those lines referred to GIs returning to their homeland after the end of World War II and the likelihood of them still being happy to remain in their small towns and humdrum pre-war existences after having had a glimpse of the big, wide world out there. The same could have been said of womenfolk in both world wars who, formerly tied to the kitchen sink, had entered the job market to fill the shoes of men serving in battle, and after peace was declared, were determined to keep their careers and financial independence.
Wars by their very nature are major disrupters to the old normal and the same has been said of the Covid pandemic. Worker who have had a taste of flexible and remote working have realised they value that flexibility, want a better work-life balance and to cut down on commuting and freedom, once tasted, is hard to surrender.
But this cuts two ways. Having put in place the digital infrastructure to make remote and hybrid working possible and faced with the need to cut costs, firms are rethinking their business models, their expensive city-centre offices and their workforce structures. Businesses see a variety of potential benefits from partially continuing with remote working - cutting overheads including expensive office space and making labour a variable cost by using additional freelancers and contractors as well as the opportunity to recruit from a bigger talent pool by recruiting new staff from a wider geographic area.
This desire to cut costs, boost productivity and recruit from a wider geographic area offers both opportunity and risks for workers. The so-called Zoom Boom is bringing a renewed focus on how technology can improve productivity. For businesses, the question is no longer whether in-person meetings can shift to Zoom or if workers can save on commuting times, but what in-person processes can shift to digital “tools, structures and workflow”? Businesses are also using technology to automate and outsource and to manage and monitor output more closely and the rapid adoption of digital and remote-working technologies during the pandemic means even non-routine, knowledge-based worker jobs are now at risk of being shifted abroad to cheaper, but equally well-educated and lower-cost-of-living labour markets.
Anywhere Jobs tend to be non-routine roles that involve a degree of creativity and specialisation complemented by digital skills – but which are more likely to be relatively peripheral to the core operations of a business and its decision-making.
Thus, in another major disruption, in an apparent reversal of the trends seen over recent decades, the technological transformation is putting highly skilled individuals at risk of being moved abroad or facing greater competition from elsewhere, with 48 per cent of those in Anywhere Jobs having been educated to degree level.
So when you hear people talking about the ‘new normal’ they are clearly working on statistics from the Ministry of Guesswork. In a world of flux, there is no norm but when the whirlwind has passed over, one thing is for sure – that the landscape, in this case the corporate world, will never be the same again. Hurricanes destroy and decimate and rebuilding is a massive undertaking. Best guess – it will be new but there will be nothing normal about this Brave New World of work.