Love In The Time Of Cholera, Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s epic, tells of a secret relationship between the two main characters, Florentino and Fermina, in spite of the strenuous objections of Fermina’s father. The father takes his daughter to another city to force her to stop seeing Florentino. Even with this enforced social distancing, Fermina and Florentino continue to communicate through telegraph, the technology in vogue at the time, and the affair blossoms.
The cholera epidemic has given way to the corona pandemic. The virus has hit our planet like a meteor, threatening to disrupt life, and one of the major human activities that it is reshaping is work. For years now, there’s been talk about the “future of work” (FoW), or how technology, demographic changes and lifestyle choices will transform the way we work. We have been slowly but inexorably heading towards a new construct of work. However, sometimes life-changing events greatly accelerate the future to suddenly make it the present: work in the time of Covid-19. The current pandemic will turn the future into the present. To understand that, let us look at the nine key tenets of FoW, and how Covid-19 is fast-forwarding them to the present.
Work is distributed, while the workforce is decentralized: Many organizations have mandated people to work from home to protect people from the virus. Suddenly, no centralized offices.
Newer technologies enable collaboration: Video conferencing instead of travel (the Zoom app’s market value shot up 38%), conferencing and collaboration apps on mobile phones, chatbot interfaces replacing humans—all these have been turbocharged. There are still no robots to fully replace human beings, but every company has automation as its No. 1 priority. Biological viruses do not lay machines low, at least not yet.
Always at work: When working from office, we could at least pretend to shut shop. Now, we’ll be always on work mode. We’ll need to learn to manage the new reality of our workplace and home becoming one. Even when the virus goes away, I suspect 24×7 work will not.
No job-for-life: However cynical this may sound, it might be forced upon us as the economy slows and companies shut. We will have to find alternatives.
Lifelong learning: It’s a corollary of the above, where we will need to continually learn to survive in this new world. Not just skills related to our functional expertise, but also for working effectively—remotely and from home.
Work becomes fluid: The pandemic will accelerate the rise of the gig economy, as people look for non-traditional work. Avoiding crowded restaurants will encourage food delivery (Zomato has already announced contactless delivery), taxis will be deemed safer than crowded public transport, hence more Ubers and Olas, home grocery delivery will be seen as less risky than crowded supermarkets. The world will need more gig economy workers.
No differentiation between temporary and permanent workers: Firms will realize that as work becomes more decentralized and gig-oriented, they will need to treat temps and outsourced employees the same way as permanent. A good example is Microsoft, which has decided to continue paying its hourly workers in coronavirus times.
Events, education go virtual: Large gatherings will not be safe, and the event and conferencing industry will need to adapt. Collision, the big tech show in Toronto, has decided to turn 100% virtual. Education is nothing but an orchestrated series of teaching events, and Harvard and Stanford have led the way by announcing virtual classes. Virtual reality may go mainstream much faster.
Organizations work for a purpose, not only for profit: This might be a fond hope, but the pandemic shock will make corporations realize that there is more to life than just managing quarterly growth and that the threats to our planet are existential. Thus, they might develop a purpose and work for it, rather than only for Wall Street.
While the FoW will get accelerated, technology will never completely replace human contact, and as the Covid-19 threat recedes, we will develop a healthy balance between working physically together and remotely, and between the present and the future. Even in Marquez’s book, the two lovers could not sustain their affair remotely forever. Fermina realized that her relationship with Florentino was nothing but a dream, and she broke off her engagement only to be reunited with him much later in life after they actually met and spent time together.
This article was first published in Mint.