After the Virus: How COVID-19 is Changing the Future of Your Work

In his speech and interaction with Des Dearlove, Benjamin Pring talks about how technology and digitization will help professionals cross over the barrier created by the COVID-19 crisis.

The incredible way in which everything is changing can be summed up by this quote by Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, “There are decades when nothing happens, and then weeks when decades happen.” We have been going through an incredible digital transformation for many years, but it is accelerating at a pace most of us have never seen in our lifetime. The future is here now, and it is much more broadly distributed. Practices that were an exception will become the norm now, and an example of that is working from home. The underlying technologies driving that change are going to become even more central to our lives going forward.

The report titled “From/To: The future of your work” teases out a lot of ideas that were considered fringe but are now completely central to how we rebuild societies when we come out of this lockdown phase. It’s a thrilling time in development in the life sciences and biology, and this is moving faster than ever before. But again, it is going to move even faster because of the pressing need to find a vaccine for COVID-19 and other viruses that are going to come after Coronavirus. Virtual reality is also being accelerated into the mainstream now because it is going to become a necessary tool for many of us going forward. At this moment, it cannot be predicted where this technology is going to go and the jobs and opportunities it is going to create.

In terms of how organizations are structured, the command and control model of the traditional large organization is being transformed from a hierarchy into a wire-archy because of the way we work now.

In terms of how organizations are structured, the command and control model of the traditional large organization is being transformed from a hierarchy into a wire-archy because of the way we work now. Expertise is no longer within a physical building but is spread everywhere in the network. It may be in an open platform, or some form of the gig economy, so the new challenge for a lot of business thinkers is how to operate in that kind of new reality, how to manage, understand, leverage, and optimize expertise. The technological underpinning of this is the transition of intelligence out to the edge of the network, as we put sensors into buildings for health reasons and other reasons, as we try to do hoteling in big office buildings, etc. We are then going to need to inject much more intelligence into things, and managing and optimizing that is going to change the structure, the taxonomy of how we do the underlying technological management. This is another big change accelerated by COVID.

The tools of work are changing as well. We want to avoid touching things but we were already on this journey of voice interface around technology with voice platforms like Alexa and Siri.

The aesthetics of work have been changing for some time, and we are right on top of this change now. The hoodie culture popularised by coders has become more integral to big businesses. There is a visible transition from the suit to the hoodie. There are far more hoodies in Goldman Sachs than traditional Brooks Brothers suits. It may seem odd and strange, but the cultural, tribal change in the nature of the workforce is a big deal for managers, executives, and boards to understand the motivations of this new tribe and manage them. A challenge many are dealing with right now is the transition out of the cubicle in the office into working at the kitchen table. One can imagine that houses are going to be retrofitted with dedicated office spaces complete with soundproofing, proper lighting for Zoom calls, and 3D printers. It is a big structural change for many of us. Only about 5% of the white-collar workforce used to work like this, but now that number is 30-40%. After this, some people will go back to the office, but it will not go back to just 5%. There will probably be a quarter of people that regularly work and will have to figure out these new norms. 

There are a lot of issues with work right now that is central to the debate around the future of work. We have been having a renaissance of thinking around privacy concerns. At the centre of it is contact tracing, which has put us at crossroads between health and freedom. What are we willing to trade off between health and freedom is a big existential question, but one that we are going to have to grapple with going forward.

For the last few years, many of us have felt overwhelmed with technology. The future looked like cafes going from advertising they have free Wi-Fi to advertising they are Wi-Fi free. However, at the moment, technology has become even more important and valuable than ever before because of the pandemic. Connecting with colleagues, family, and friends is our lifeline at the moment. It is a very delicate balance and calibration we need to figure out in real-time.

In terms of the meaning of work, there has been a lot of talk in management circles and think tank circles around purpose and recalibrating capitalism, so it is not just for the shareholder but for the broader stakeholder community. COVID is thus bringing back into focus discussions about how we have to think about the world going forward. Concern over environmental sustainability has also taken centre stage. People in northern India can see the Himalayas and people in LA can see the Hollywood sign for the first time in many years. It seems the world is sending a signal that it can heal itself if we just lay off and try and help it. This is one of the more positive messages that is going to come out of this incredible moment of crisis. 

Looking forward, we have to digitize, humanize, certainly sanitize and prioritize these green shoots of recovery to give them a chance to get us out of this hole.

Lastly, there has been a lot of discussion around diversity inclusion and getting more women into senior roles in the workforce. This is a huge transition- from the CEO to the She-EO, and 20-30 years down the lane, it will become so normal that it will not be on the front page of The Wall Street Journal every time a woman became a CEO.

Looking forward, we have to digitize, humanize, certainly sanitize and prioritize these green shoots of recovery to give them a chance to get us out of this hole. Unfortunately, many big businesses are going to crumble and will not get out of this crisis, but the good news is that it will clear out the old and allow the green shoots of recovery to get a little bit more sunlight and air. These green shoots that we need to encourage are the new technologies, new opportunities, and new platforms that have been emerging but have been stunted by this crisis. This is the future of all of our work that we need to nourish and support.

The futile idea of measuring work by the hours is incredibly irrelevant nowadays.

We are on the cusp of a great digital build-out; injecting digital and injecting the technology which has been fringe, marginal, and supporting but not central, into every important aspect, every pillar of society, healthcare, education, financial security, etc. This is going to create a lot of important work for all of us. Hence, there is a future of work if we can move into this brave new world of work that is coming in even quicker than ever.

Des Dearlove in Conversation with Benjamin Pring

Des Dearlove: What will university education look like in five years?

Ben Pring: The big brand name universities, the big brand name institutions are going to do great. In the U.S. predominantly, that model has become so heavily monetized and financialized in the last generation or two, that the second tier and the third tier of education are not going to come out of this in good shape. One of the facets of this digitalized platform-based world we have been moving into is that it creates a kind of winner-takes-all economy; the big gets bigger, the strong gets stronger, and this is what we will see happen in education. Universities like Harvard, Oxford, and INSEAD are going to have more brand power, so their online courses are going to take more of the demand for a high-class education through online platforms. Meanwhile, the people in the middle are going to struggle a little bit more.

The whole virtualized online education space with Udacity, Khan Academy, and MOOC is going to come back in force. Credentialing in the tech world is also going to become more and more acceptable. You are going to be able to go on to a Microsoft course or onto a YouTube AI course, and that accreditation is going to be valuable and almost comparable to a liberal arts graduate degree. So, in five years time, the education institutional landscape is going to look very different, and a lot of people are going to come out pretty badly from that.

Des Dearlove: Do you see the gig economy coming back? Also, is it a good place or a really bad place to be?

Ben Pring: The gig economy has bucketed together two very distinct things. One is the market for high skills, high value, subject matter experts who can call the shots. They don’t want to be tied to a single employer, they want to have the freedom of working as a freelancer, and they can now trade those skills in these platforms. The winner-takes-all platform economic forces play, and that has been great for them. The other end of the gig economy is the low end of the market where there is not really a high skill base on offer. It involves driving a cab or delivering a meal. This is where the question arises, do you want to go into the gig economy or are you being forced into the gig economy because there is no other option?

In the lockdown, it is bad for Airbnb but pretty good for the delivery people who are delivering meals from fast-food restaurants and high-end restaurants. But again, for the higher end of the gig economy, this wire-archy, these platforms for lawyers, for educators, for futurists, for designers is going to become more and more important. The business mantra that used to be location, location, location is being replaced by availability, availability, availability. Depending on where you are on that spectrum, on that ladder in your career, there is good news and also bad news, and we can see that happening again, in real-time right now.

Des Dearlove: What do the next few years hold for Africa? Is this technological build-out a chance for Africa to play the technology game and perhaps leapfrog?

Ben Pring: There is a very strong argument that could play out and people like Jack Dorsey have been talking about moving to Africa. A lot of investments are going into Africa, into the tech centres in Nairobi and other places for quite a while now. So, there is a lot of upside, both for people in African countries and for those investing there. Of course, there are still scores of challenges, both in basic infrastructure and in next-generation IT infrastructure. There are also challenges around public health. To sum up, there is a huge amount of upside and there are a lot of smart people in Africa who realize that these big waves of Virtual Reality, biotech, etc. are the waves of the future and we should jump on board them now, bring them to Africa and serve them here. At the same time, dealing with structural civic challenges, political challenges, economic challenges are going to have to be worked out and will probably take a decent amount of time to be worked through.

Des Dearlove: Will there be a new way of measuring work and measuring productivity? 

Ben Pring: There is a lot of fertile ground to be ploughed here for academics, for thinkers on how we should be managing work and what are the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) in this virtualized work environment. It is in the very early stages. The futile idea of measuring work by the hours is incredibly irrelevant nowadays. There is little correlation between hours and value. Work should be measured in terms of productivity, what you produce. The deadlines, targets, goals, objectives, or how long you take to get there is completely irrelevant. You are measuring inputs rather than output in that model. But big businesses are still pretty nervous about moving into these more sophisticated measurement techniques. There is a lot of work to be done by the big brand institutions like MIT, Harvard, and Stanford, to create a new framework, new infrastructure, and new metrics that are relevant and suitable for the brave new work that we are doing at the moment. 

Des Dearlove: What do you think internships will look like in the future? Will internships still exist even when they’re not necessarily internal?

Ben Pring: In the kind of wire-archy that we’re in, it is going to be harder for younger people coming into the workforce to figure out where the power centres are, who are the players, who should they attach their wagon to, what is the culture of the business. At the same time, if the culture is becoming more technologically mediated, if it is more of an online tribe that we’re measuring, then perhaps young people who come out of that culture are doing reverse mentoring to older people. The older people need to learn from the interns as much as the interns need to learn from me. Having said that, we are probably still too early into this radical experiment to figure out what that looks like. 

Des Dearlove: Do you see the return of mass tourism that we had in the past? Do you think people will return to the big sports arenas and the theme parks?

Ben Pring: They will, but it will take a while. The Health Security Agency-like infrastructure is going to be put in place everywhere. The queues at football, soccer, or rugby games are going to become enormous because we want to go back to that. We love going to gigs and concerts and experience that atmosphere, but this fear, this anxiety is going to be very prevalent. Social distancing is not going to be a fad. 

This is also going to change attitudes towards travel significantly. It has popped the bubble of a lot of business travel. Doing a single-visit trip, a single-meeting trip to the other side of the world is going to go away. This will then impact the economics of travel for regular passengers because business travel subsidizes much of the lower-cost seats. So, travel is going to become much more expensive, and a lot of people are going to then look at their travel plans.

Des Dearlove: Can robots replace humans in the creative industries and specifically in the so-called experience economy?

Ben Pring: This is the great debate we have been having. Contrary to the argument that half of the jobs are going to be taken away by robots, there is arguably going to be some job substitution through software and technology, but it is more on the order of 10%, not 50%.

The debate now is whether it is better to bring bots people back into the workforce or it is better to double down on our bot strategy, the Robotic Process Automation strategy. That is the debate that society in big business is going to play through because there’s an upside and downside for doing both. 

Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce says that there is going to be a premium for large businesses to reemploy people in the next few years. It is going to be a competitive advantage to do that. The need to favour people over bots is going to be big, but the underlying trend is that this is a manifest destiny that we replace a lot of human labour with technology. This has happened before. We know that 100 years ago, 80% of people worked on the farm to produce food that 2% do today. In the next 100 years, we are going to have fewer people in the cubicle farms, managing mortgage applications and insurance claims. That is going to be done by the bots. Again, that is being supercharged at the moment because people do not want to go back into those cubicles. So, it is a really interesting debating point. In the short term, we may favour bots, but in the longer term, the capitalist imperative will be weighted towards a bot strategy that a lot of big businesses have been moving towards, and will move more aggressively towards. 

Des Dearlove: Once the vaccine is out, do you see somewhat of a tug of war effectively between those who want to go back to the old ways and those who say that that’s done and we have got to move on and go to a new future?

Ben Pring: It tees up the discussion that we are all going to have. Some people are loving the work-at-home scenario and are dreading the thought that they will have to go back into the office, not just because of the health security reasons, but because this more integrated way of working at home is preferable. Then, there are also a lot of people who are stuck at their kitchen table, who are hating it and can’t wait to get away from the kids and get back to the sanctuary and normality of the office. 

It is hard to put precise numbers around that but the percentage of people that routinely work at home is going to stabilize out in a quarter, from 5% to 25-30% of people. That is going to have huge implications for all the big real estate operators, owners, etc. 

Des Dearlove: What do you think about the future of virtual summits? 

Ben Pring: We will want to go back to events, we will still want to have human interaction, networking, the face time with people, but the virtual platform is going to be big. Virtual events are the wave of the future, and when you overlay the VR environment into this, it is going to take it to the next level of richness and experience. Again, we will not move away from the traditional ways. I’m not suggesting that all the physical offices go away, that everybody works from home, that all of the events of the past go away, but this new platform, new opportunities, new choices that we have got are here to stay. There is space for a lot of interesting and fun experimentation with these as they develop in the next few years.

Des Dearlove: Can you say a bit more about the difference between the wire-archy and the hierarchy and how the two things fit together?

Ben Pring: It is a really interesting idea that has been floating around for a while as a concept. It is more important now. All the dimensions of work and organizational structure are now being modeled. We used to know how power works up and down and horizontally, and we knew who had decision rights, but now, the most powerful person in the network may be a relatively junior person who knows how to code in Python. That is a challenge to more traditional, slower-moving models that we are all familiar with. As you now put steroids into this by us all working online, all working in platforms synchronously from a time perspective, working with teams on the other side of the world on those gig platforms, it is a very different world. It is a rich new topic to explore and to figure out how to maximize and optimize the new rules of that game.

Des Dearlove: What new things have you seen since the lockdown in the pandemic? 

Ben Pring: One of the big things to come out of this period is the desperate need to refresh and strengthen our ability as a society, as corporates and personally, to do proper risk assessment analysis. This is the great failing of what has been exposed at the moment, that governments have done poor risk assessment analysis, businesses have got very brittle supply chains and very poor ill-thought-out business continuity plans. This is going to be in the autopsy we do like we did after 2008. This is going to be the heart of the issue. There is a lot of scrutiny that needs to happen on the risk models and the decisions that people have made.

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