A new world of work

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By Dr Roze Phillips, futurist, medical doctor and Absa’s Group Executive for People and Culture

COVID-19 is casting a long shadow. We are medically, economically and morally vulnerable.

This shadow will not be shortening or lifting in the near future.

Already scenarios of U and V-shaped economic recoveries are being replaced by talk of a W-shaped one – an initial recovery followed rapidly by another economic downturn and then later, a second recovery.  

The reality is that we will need to find ways to co-exist with the coronavirus for much longer than we expected. And we must accept that social distancing will be with us for a while. It has become the new normal. Life will never be the same again.

There’s another certainty too - the future of work is being rewritten. Work, for most of us, is central to our existence. It is the scaffolding that allows us to be economically active, support the needs of ourselves and our families and feel recognised and valued.

But economic growth, as French economist Thomas Piketty points out, “is not a tide that lifts all boats”. There are winners and losers. The International Labour Organization (ILO) expects the crisis to wipe out 6.7 per cent of working hours globally in the second quarter of 2020 – equivalent to 195 million full-time workers. This far exceeds the effects of the 2008-9 financial crisis.  

As this happens, workplaces are being reconfigured. Various industries have overhauled their spacing policies to observe social distancing protocols. The trend of less space per person has reversed into more space per person, allowing fewer people per building.

So, business models must adapt. Companies that over the years replaced their command-and- control operating models with flatter structures and lesser bureaucracy will benefit from their adaptability.

But, it’s not just organisational constructs: leadership too, needs an overhaul.

Performance scorecards, with a long-term focus mainly on financial metrics, are no longer worth the paper they are written on. Instead, a new leadership compact is needed, based on the acknowledgement that solutions aren’t immediately obvious, but that we are all in it together. Handled well, the long-accepted corporate trust deficit might convert into a surplus.

The way executives have sacrificed part of their salaries during this crisis, bodes well for this. It’s equally encouraging that some companies are still paying staff and not retrenching or cutting salaries.

Companies are responding with a combination of conservatism and boldness, supporting governments and communities in protecting jobs on the one hand, while on the other introducing flexible labour models that include permanent and temporary workers, freelancers and robots.

The responses vary. Many companies may opt for a reduction in workdays. Others will rethink their ratio of permanent employees to gig workers. Expect to see leaders pivoting towards business models that create new digital and online forms of value. Until now, the concept of unlocking the digital dividend has largely been elusive: COVID-19 may change that.

From now on, remote working will be the default position. The lack of office space will necessitate it, social distancing will demand it and investments in advanced digital technologies, infrastructure and collaboration tools will facilitate it.

COVID-19, of course, is not the first attack on our jobs. The fourth industrial has already changed the job landscape. As it is, humans and machines are increasingly working together, bolstering efficiency and productivity. The workforce is increasingly structured by project rather than job function, allowing tasks to be created and dismantled flexibly.  

Technology has decoupled work from finite hours and locations. This means people can work part time, and even rejoin the workforce after retirement. And it means an oversupply of talent in South Africa can easily be harnessed elsewhere.

But we must be wary too, and guard against depending on the government’s support measures over empowering workers and stimulating entrepreneurial drive. And not everyone is a knowledge worker.

The late acclaimed academic CK Prahalad said we must “stop thinking of the poor as victims or as a burden and start recognising them as resilient and creative entrepreneurs and value conscious consumers”.

Once this truly happens, a whole new world of opportunity will open up.

But the new model of national co-operation requires a shift in paradigm from either doing well or doing good, to doing well by doing good.

This simple idea has created new opportunities. Many people have the misconception that “doing good” means a trade-off between financial return and impact. Not so. It is, in fact, the only business model that will survive the pandemic.

Rebuilding economies requires one key ingredient - talent. As the war for talent invariably takes centre stage again, the best talent will choose to rebuild where bridges were built, not where bridges were burnt. And leaders who built trust during the crisis, will reap the benefits.

Amid a new caring culture, the spirit of Ubuntu has infiltrated our consciousness. Calls to “protect the frontline, not the bottom line” abound. Maybe now, with the moral imperative and prevailing psyche of protecting vulnerable people, irrespective of economic utility, we have a fighting chance.