‘Business as unusual’: How COVID-19 brought forward the future of work

Susan Hayter, Senior Technical Adviser on the Future of Work at the ILO

Before the pandemic there was already a lot of discussion about the implications of technology for the future of work. The message of the ILO Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work, adopted in June 2019, is clear; the future of work is not pre-determined, it is up to us to shape it.

That future arrived sooner than anticipated, as many countries, companies and workers shifted to remote teleworking in order to contain the transmission of COVID-19, dramatically changing how we work. Remote virtual meetings are now commonplace and economic activity has increased on a range of digital platforms.

As the restrictions are lifted, a question on everybody’s mind is whether this ‘business as unusual’ will become the ‘new normal’.

A few large companies in developed economies have already said that what has been a large and unplanned pilot project – remote, home-based teleworking – will become the standard way of organizing work. Employees need not commute to work again, unless they choose to do so.

This may be cause to celebrate, for people and the planet. But the idea of an end to ‘The Office’ is certainly overblown. The ILO estimates that in high-income countries 27 per cent of workers could work remotely from home; they work in the type of job and have access to the technology and telecommunications infrastructure that makes this possible. This does not mean that they will continue to work remotely.

As countries ease restrictions, is there a way to reap the benefits of this experience – for employers and workers – while not losing the social and economic value of work as a place? How can our experience inform our adaption to the near future?

Remote work has benefits and drawbacks.

© ian munroe

The pandemic-led shift to remote work enabled many companies to ensure the immediate health and safety of their employees and continue to operate. It confirmed what studies have shown; that under the right set of circumstances – a functioning home-office, access to collaborative tools and a predictable work routine – remote telework could be just as productive.

Those able to make the transition to remote work during the health crisis had the opportunity to share meals with their families. Work instantly became human-centered, to accommodate homeschooling and child and elder care.

Yet, the lines between working time and private time have become blurred for these individuals, increasing stress and exposing them to mental health risks. For many the shift to remote telework during the health crisis compounded a sense of isolation and a loss of identity and purpose. Virtual rooms, no matter how casual our attire while we occupy them, cannot replace the social value of work and the dignity and sense of belonging we derive from it.

In the face of an economic downturn and surging unemployment figures, there are opportunities to engage in consultations on how best to leverage these adaptions to achieve cost savings, improve productivity and save jobs. This may mean shorter work-weeks, or work-sharing arrangements to avoid furloughs in lean times. New policies need to be negotiated with trade union representatives, where these exist, to get the balance right.

The digital transformation of work and the possibility to work remotely also presents new possibilities for inclusion. Older, more experienced workers can prolong their working life on their terms. Those in rural communities or outside metropolitan areas can access work opportunities, reducing geographically-determined income polarization.

At the same time the recent experience of remote teleworking revealed deep fault lines. Those in the upper income brackets may choose to continue work remotely in the future, whereas those in the lowest have no choice, they will have to commute and are more likely to be time-poor as a result.

We should be aware that, historically, economic shocks, pandemics and wars have exacerbated inequality.

The question is whether this time it will be a tectonic shift, leading to rising political and social instability, or a shock that inspires us to reinforce the foundations of just societies and the principles of solidarity and democratic decision-making that move societies, labour markets and workplaces in the direction of equality.

The ILO is organizing a high-level, virtual, Global Summit on COVID-19 and the World of Work, to look at the impact of COVID-19, the world of work response and how to build a better future of work. Regional events will take place on 1–2 July, followed by three days of global discussions, from 7–9 July.

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