What happens to our work lives once the virus has passed?

Working notes for ABC Radio interview.
March 18th 2020

I believe some aspects of history can help guide us.

We don’t have a lot of time to talk about the history of work, however the industrial revolution created some horrific working conditions for many people. Some historians believe the discontent in society contributed to the catastrophe of the world wars.

However, the good news was…. that once the the crisis was over people, including citizens, businesspeople and policy makers agreed things had to be done differently. Over the next 50 years post World War 11 some significant social changes were implemented.

If you want more information on this look up:

William Beverage a social policy thinker of the time that famously said we need to organize our society that the market is the servant not the master.

Examples of policies include:

Implementation of labour laws like overtime, minimum wage, health and retirement coverage, workers compensation etc.

  • Free university education 1974
  • Medicare in 1984
  • Superannuation 1991

I acknowledge that in many ways a lot of those social changes have been slowly eroding as the financial risks have been transferred back to the employee. For example the gig economy ..or insecure workers in general…. is currently one third of our 12.5 million workforce.

I have written an article last year on my website called Lets Waterfall that if you are interested in this topic.

However, understanding everything changes this also gives us an opportunity.

What is Opportunity?

What is important for me about this story is that we are going through a crisis, even though the cause of this crisis is different, we have an opportunity to take stock. Just like they did after World War 11.

For example, do we want one third of our workforce in insecure work?….

On the topic of working from home.

I have heard many people say that it is fabulous that people can work from home and this will be the way of the future.

I agree this is fabulous… that we have that opportunity… but it is only for some.
Don’t get me wrong aspects of technology are fantastic… and it is great we have such tools to call upon.

However, to suggest this is the way of the future as a reaction to this current crisis is of great concern to me.

Let me explain why, by way of example

1. New York City

I have two relatives that live in New York city. Both in white collar professional jobs that can work from home due to the virus crisis.

They are both working from home, one is in banking and the other in online media. Some people are very busy, like those in banking who are refinancing loans. Other‘s have little to do due to everything being shut down; still they retain their wages and benefits, and many have free time to catch up on things like family time and Netflix…

In stark contrast the people who work in retail, entertainment, restaurant’s and manage Central Park in NY can’t work from home. Most have no entitlements, health care or back up.

Australia has similar trend lines though not as stark.

So… when we have people saying …..working from home is the way of the future ….what does that mean? It is easy to roll off the tongue …..gain momentum and become a reality…a little like the gig economy….perhaps propelled by our fear of catching the virus and that technology is our saviour…

It does not address what happens to the many millions who are unable to… or will be unable to…. work from home.

This is my concern because it could create a greater divide between the haves and have nots. Those who can work from home and those who cannot.

The good news is, we have an opportunity like after World War 11 to restock and ask ourselves what is good for ourselves and our society.

2. Everything will become online.

Another topic people are getting excited about is we can do everything online. We can do exercise classes through Zoom online; we can teach everything online…have our health checked online…a great opportunity to be innovative and entrepreneurial….

I agree there is opportunity, however unless thought through… there are some serious unintended consequences of taking such an approach.

  • Already we have 1:4 Australians who live alone,
  • We have an epidemic of loneliness.
  • Our empathy levels are in decline. The average person today is less empathetic than 75% of the population in 1979.

So, before we go too far down this path, partially due to the fear stirred by this current crisis… which too will pass… it could be a perfect time to take stock and ask ourselves; what do we want?

Often when a discussion on unintended consequences is raised. The rebuttal is humans are social creatures…it is in their DNA …they will find a way….

I agree. I also believe that there are many ways to connect rather than connecting.
For example, people communicate today face to face on average 30 minutes a day with friends and loved ones. They spend on average 3 hours a day connecting with a device, be it phone, iPad, computer or TV for reasons other than work.

Is this finding a way?

In conclusion.

What I am saying is it is a perfect time to rethink what as a society we want in our world of work… not what we are told we want.

We must not overact because of this current crisis…. that will pass…. This was a message I reinforced at a Leadership Summit last week.

I believe collectively we know what we want though that may be different for individuals.

This was illustrated a couple of weeks ago when we discussed the four-day week on this radio program.

To refresh. It is not working forty hours in four days and having a day off… but working four days and getting paid for five…. if productivity levels were maintained. How long it takes was irrelevant. The employees were asked to decide how they would work to achieve this outcome.

People chose not to combine home and social activities while at work; instead they worked while at work and then went home. They put up the boundaries up between work and home they did not take them down. I also have an article on my website about this if you are interested in the detail.

There are many people driven through fear or opportunism, that will want us to rush to believe that the future of work will change forever due to this crisis. It may do.

I would say let’s not be driven by fear and technology hype… but to take the opportunity to take stock…. make informed decisions about how we want to work …and consider how that impacts on the society…. in which we live.

Just like the wise people in Australia after World War 11.