Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 28 October 2020

What is the future of work from a kitchen table?

Doug Hassebroek eats breakfast while on a video conference call working from home in Brooklyn, New York City, on April 24. Caitlin Ochs / Reuters
Doug Hassebroek eats breakfast while on a video conference call working from home in Brooklyn, New York City, on April 24. Caitlin Ochs / Reuters

I have worked remotely for most of my career, which has spanned nearly three decades. Most of my work has been in conflict zones. I have filed reports from airports, bus stations, bombed-out hotel rooms, army bases, the back seat of speeding taxis, and once, from a tomato patch in the middle of central Bosnia. Before mobile phones, I used satellite phones or I dictated from telephone booths if telephones worked. I managed.

I loved my freedom but I missed camaraderie and colleagues. I used to joke that I yearned for an office – for a water cooler, a briefcase and a shared coffee machine. But today, in Covid-19 times, it appears I am part of the lucky 37 per cent of people in the US who can actually work from home, according to two University of Chicago economists, Jonathan Dingel and Brent Neiman. The two just published an important policy paper, “How Many Jobs Can Be Done at Home?”

According to their analysis, I fit into a slot called “Knowledge Workers”. Knowledge Workers transitioned more comfortably into the Zoom work world. We are largely lawyers, academics, writers, office managers, journalists, accountants and financiers. We are not particularly happy about the pandemic. But we can manage it.

The larger percentage of the US population and of the world are not so fortunate. Many don’t have a computer, access to the internet, a spare corner where they can set up their home office – or a tomato patch.

Mr Dingel and Mr Neiman say that 45 per cent of people in San Francisco and Washington DC – home of big tech, government and NGOs – can work at home. But Las Vegas and Fort Myers, Florida – which rely on the hospitality industry – came in at 30 per cent. In Mexico, only 25 per cent of workers can do their job remotely; in the UK, only 30 per cent.

The Dingel-Neiman study is effectively about the future of work, but essentially it boils down to entitlement and inequality.

What happens to those in the agricultural industry? What about baristas, waiters, shop assistants and hotel staff who are laid off indefinitely because of the pandemic?

Teresa Mosqueda, a Seattle City Council member, attends a meeting from home in Seattle, Washington, US, on March 23. Reuters
Teresa Mosqueda, a Seattle City Council member attends a meeting from home during the coronavirus in Seattle, Washington, US March 23. Reuters

The economists’ takeaway is that the burden of the pandemic will fall on the poor. And the gap between the developed world and the undeveloped world –where 60 per cent do not have the internet – will be “starker”. Inequality will be exacerbated by the crisis.

Three years ago, while I was a Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, my colleagues produced a policy paper called The Future of Work. Their emphasis, pre-pandemic, was on artificial intelligence and how it would eventually outstrip humans in the workplace. Robots seemed scary but we had no idea that a virus would be our undoing.

New fields have been created in the wake of the coronavirus – contact tracers, for instance, can earn up to $40,000

Last month, CRF revisited the topic via a webinar.

“The future of work before Covid-19 had two dual challenges,” said Chike Aguh, the head of Economic Mobility Pathways at Education Design Lab, who was part of the Future of Work Task Force at CFR. He said a huge number of American jobs may be obviated entirely by technology because they won’t be needed. And a huge number of other jobs will be irrevocably changed so quickly that workers may not be able to keep up.

Life after Covid-19, Mr Aguh points out, is littered with more challenges. “We still need teachers, but it’s an entirely different skill set. How do you teach, facilitate, virtually?” He pointed out that new fields have been created in the wake of the coronavirus – contact tracers, for instance, can earn up to $40,000 in Baltimore. But these jobs won’t go to everyone.

How do we go forward with this new way of working while ensuring people are not left behind? What about women who previously balanced childcare with jobs? Remote work is largely more flexible. If you must adhere to a nine-to-five schedule and your two children are in the same room schooling on an iPad, you will be hindered (not to mention frustrated and tired).

There will also be fewer jobs for us to return to post-pandemic. Mr Aguh suggests people should “retrain and pray” – that is, retrain with a skill for the current job market – nursing, for instance, or education – and pray there will be sufficient jobs.

This is not exactly comforting to the legions of students graduating via Zoom who are desperate to pay off towering student loans. Globally, it is even bleaker. Economists from The International Monetary Fund extended the Dingel and Neiman analysis by using an OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) survey in 35 countries. They found that in less developed economies far fewer jobs could go remote.

Era Dabla-Norris, an economist from the IMF, told the BBC: “An accountant in the US is going to use technology very easily, and she has no problem whatsoever working from home. An accountant in a smaller city in India may be using a pen and paper, and have a ledger instead of a computer.” The pandemic will eventually end, but the transition period to the real world will have many difficulties.

Many people don’t actually want to go back to an office. Chief executives are planning on downshifting their offices; department stores are closing down; small businesses are going broke.

A PricewaterhouseCoopers survey from June showed that 83 per cent of US office workers want to continue to work from home at least one day a week after the pandemic, and 55 per cent of employers expect to offer that option.

But do we work as well in the absence of our co-workers? Without the creative tension that comes from a busy office?

The upside is workers can be more efficient if we don’t have to spend hours on a commute. People might be able to downsize and move out of cities to less pricey accommodation (which is a direct contrast to the 2008 financial meltdown when more people, especially in Asia, left rural areas and flocked to cities to find work).

But all this is going to be easier for the privileged. For the poor, it will be extremely tough. For the busboy whose local restaurant shut down, or the sales assistant in Bloomingdales. And what effect will this have on the class divide?

I spent the lockdown in France. Early on in the quarantine, the Moroccan novelist Leila Slimani – who comes from a wealthy Rabat family – came under attack when she wrote columns boasting about how much she was enjoying “confinement” in her beautiful country home.

Slimani struck a painful nerve, exposing France’s class divide, where people were confined to tiny spaces. If anything, quarantine made the gap between the haves and the have-nots even wider.

Slimani, and those like her, will continue to work from Marie Antoinette-splendour, while the rest of us might have to adapt and accept working from our kitchen tables. But one thing is certain: we do need to interact.

The future of work might mean flexible work weeks; it might mean some form of blended living – setting work and home boundaries. But it might mean we have to look at entirely new ways of connecting and collaborating; and a world that incorporates and hires different people with a different vision.

Mr Aguh ended his August talk on a positive note. “The thing about Americans during times of adversity,” he said, is that “Americans innovate. So the question is, as jurisdiction probably sits on top of those innovations, figure out how to scale them, accelerate them, and also help support them.”

Janine di Giovanni is a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs

Updated: October 20, 2020 11:23 AM

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