How will the Covid19 pandemic impact the future of work?
If you want to predict the future, it is often helpful to go back in time.
In 1853, a terrible cholera epidemic hit the Danish capital, Copenhagen, where we have our headquarters. Of a city that back then hosted around 220.000 people, 5000 died during the three months the disease ravaged. The old medieval city was surrounded by a military bulwark, so it had only grown in population and not in size. It meant that people and cattle were squeezed together in small apartments, dark backyards and narrow streets. The sanitary standards were awful; the lack of sewages meant that excrements flowed freely, the renovation was scarce, and the drinking water came from the surface of the surrounding lakes.
The cholera epidemic was a trigger that made it clear to the authorities that something had to be done. So in the following years, the city walls and the old fortifications of Copenhagen were decommissioned to make way for new, more sanitary city districts. Today, these districts make up most of modern Copenhagen (our office for example). You quickly forget what caused this environment when you bike around in the green city that makes modern Copenhagen. But even though the urbanisations probably would have forced similar expansions, it is fair to say that cholera shaped the physical landscape in the Danish capital.
History is full of such examples. Epidemics have, time and time again, been some of the most important catalysts for change in world history.
Most famously, The Bubonic Plague, also known as The Black Death, completely reshaped the surface of the planet. Some historians believe that the plague cooled the climate and led to the Little Ice Age because it freed up farmland and triggered reforestation. Moreover, the up to 200 million deaths caused a lack of labour resources which forced significant technological development. Mining got easier, a new ploughing technique was invented, and a new three-masted ship would later help Europeans explore the world, cross oceans and establish a vast colonial system.
The plague outbreak also raised religious questions. Because why would a wise, just and omniscient god allow people to suffer like that? Some places it led to witch hunts and recurring campaigns of antisemitism. Other places, the clergymen lost their authority, which led to distrust in the church and helped trigger the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. That again paved the way for the Enlightenment, Western democracy and capitalism. Of the more peculiar examples, the plague may be the explanation of why so many Europeans are susceptible to autoimmune disorders.
It is not only pestilence or cholera that has this kind of impact. The Spanish flu, AIDS, leprosy and all the other terrible diseases not only influenced how we manage public health. They destabilised world orders, forced innovation, made us reconsider how we live and taught us new ways to organise ourselves.
Will COVID-19 change the world forever?
It is beyond any doubt that COVID-19 will also reshape the way we live, socialise, work, collaborate and organise ourselves.
The pandemic has re-introduced a human vulnerability and showed us that we are subject to forces of nature that are beyond our control. That might lead to a new perception of nature and finally, force us to tackle climate change. Or the pandemic might, on the other hand, cause such a terrible economic situation that we lack money to invest in the green transition. We might come to cherish the freedom we have now lost. Or we may turn to strong men that will offer is protection and safety in a dangerous world.
All of these macro-structures are hard to predict, but some trends have already manifested. We have already seen new inventions such as new ventilators, pool noodle hats, drive-in concerts and a 3D-printable hand free door handle. More things become “contactless” so we are most likely going to see an increase of alcohol gel dispenses and face-masks in public transportation. Even when all of this is over.
When it comes to the future of work, there are also some very interesting trends.
The rise of remote work
The most obvious and interesting trend is the rise of remote work. According to Global Workplace Analytics, in two years up to 30 % of workers could be working from home multiple days per week. The Global pandemic has only accelerated that process as it has exposed that there is no reason to maintain a strict culture of presenteeism.
The rise of remote work is closely connected to the digital transformation and the end of the analogue age. Digitisation and automation have been underway for decades, but not since the development of the personal computer or the smartphone, as we experienced such a quantum leap in digital culture.
As Microsoft revealed, years of development was forced through in a matter of days in response to the restrictions. Elsewhere, Deloitte writes: “A recent survey of CEOs conducted by Fortune magazine and Deloitte showed that 77% of CEOs reported that the COVID-19 crisis accelerated their digital transformation plan”. That number was 97 % in other places. Last but not least, this digitisation trend has also been evident from the fact that downloads of Zoom, Slack, Teams and other collaboration tools has skyrocketed.
The current digital transformation was caused by companies’ willingness to invest in their ability to conduct business over the internet to be more resilient to potential lockdowns. However, that is unlikely to be reversed in case we find a cure or a vaccine. It is likely that the pandemic will reinforce pre-existing trends, but as we wrote in a piece earlier this year, the old routines are not likely to return when these products prove their worth and usefulness. It seems that the VC’s agree - at least if you ask Bessemer Venture Partners that expects to be doubling down on cloud investments.
The same goes for remote work, where the benefits are many. You get increased job satisfaction, a more productive workforce, enhance a diversified workforce and can cut costs.
So how big is this?
Remote work changing our perception of time and space
The rise of remote work is so significant that it has the potential to reshape our perception of time, space and work.
It has become clear that large office buildings are dispensable for a modern workplace. Companies will realise that they can reduce their real state footprint and cut costs significantly. It would not surprise us if fancy trophy real estate will soon be seen as something decadent and unsustainable, especially to younger generations. Earlier, we jokingly coined the term “urban manspreading” for these large concrete fortresses. They take up too much space and show up as “phallic symbols of power” on some of the most lucrative addresses.
That term is an exaggeration. Nevertheless, there is a chance to reshape our modern cities just as cholera did. Many large cities in the world are facing an affordable housing crisis where, especially, students and young professionals have a hard time finding a flat in the city and entering the housing market. Simultaneously, the central areas of cities are basically ghost towns after normal working hours because nobody lives there anymore. Turn some of all these redundant office buildings in the most central areas into student apartments, and you will have lively, vibrant cities where young people can afford to live again.
But remote work not only has the potential to change the space we inhabit. It might also change our perception of time. When the boundaries between work and free time become even more fluid, the classic hourly approach to work does as well. Take the classic Danish 8-8-8 model: 8 hours work, 8 hours free time, 8 hours sleep. It might sound very progressive, but it is already more than 100 years old. It also means that it was made for an analogue and industrial age, where there was a direct causality between your productivity and the hours you spent at the assembly line at the factory.
In modern workplaces that allow remote work, this strict model does not make any sense. The idea is that you are free to work when you want and when you are most productive. Take a nap in the middle of the day, go for a run, sleep in the morning and work in the night. Time is no longer divided in the separate boxes - it becomes this fluid mass of different overlapping modes. That changes the course of our days completely.
New modes of reward
In creative jobs, there is no longer a strict causal connection between the hours you spend and your productivity. Some people will be able to produce what others are able to in half the time.
With remote work, you do not have to be chained to a caster wheelchair counting hours to show everyone around you that you a good worker. You can be productive, efficient, and a highly rated performer - and then actually be rewarded for it. With the increased use of tech, you will have more transparency and better abilities to track the performance of every employee.
That will lead future-minded employers to award good employees for their performance and the value they bring instead of the amount of time they spent on a given task.
In the past years, there has been a lot of focus on the so-called pseudo work. Researchers exposed that Danes, on average, spend 22 hours of work doing nothing. They are performing meaningless tasks with no return of investment, having meetings that could have been an email, and spending hours that could have been spent on learning a new skill or taking care of a family.
We need more doers and deciders, fewer people feeding the beast of bureaucracy as we recently wrote in Forbes.
With all this time saved and or a more fair reward system for efficient people, we can improve the work-life balance of employees. Or it can be spent on enhancing skills, learning new things and foster more creative environments with less stress.
How to manage remote work in this new environment
So when a more digital and distributed way of working is set to survive the current situation, it is not because social distancing has become a norm. (Of course, we will be more focused on not turning up sick at work and it might be fatal to the idea of open offices. Not just because they make perfect conditions for the spread of corona virus. But because they lower our productivity, has a negative impact on our job satisfaction and because no one ever had an original, creative thought in a cubicle with 40 other people coughing and talking loud on long phone calls.) Remote work and the digital transformation is here to stay because it is smart. The current urgency has only accelerated the process that was already inevitable.
However, we must also remember that we are in the middle of the pandemic and that some things might be reversed. People want to be more social than they are now. They want to meet face-to-face and build up relations.
And we must also be aware that many people find remote work difficult. The motivation is lacking without the co-workers, and you can easily become distracted by all the things you need to do.
So how can we ensure that social needs are met, and motivation is kept high in this future of work?
Before we begin to answer this question, there is another one blocking us, which is how much responsibility organisations should take for their workers’ wellbeing when the line between work and spare time is blurred, and there are no more “working hours” as such. To answer that: We always believe that caring about creating a good atmosphere and environment is always beneficial - even though you are not obliged to as an organisation.
The most obvious way is something we have already covered: You need the right collaboration tools for a distributed and digital environment. The development here is insane. We have already seen functionality improve on video calls and we are likely to see in increased use of 3D technology, virtual reality and holograms. But it does not have to be that science fictional. There is a lot of things you can do to enhance collaboration and a more pleasurable working culture within existing software.
We know because we have been a distributed team since the beginning and have, therefore, somehow already been working in the future for some years.
In Contractbook, we use Slack a lot. Slack is currently the place where we cultivate a strong feeling of belonging to one coherent team. The things we do may seem small, but in total, they help a lot. We say hello every morning and goodbye every afternoon. We have a channel for work status updates, so there is transparency around people’s work. There is also a random channel, where you can share funny stuff, a channel to discuss books, one post music and so on.
One of the latest new innovations is that when we close a sale, a notification is posted in the sales channel. It works so that whenever we sign a sales agreement in Contractbook, a zap is activated and everyone is invited to cheer and celebrate that we are one deal closer to our targets. We really encourage you to sep up similar integrations- not just to keep track of everything but also to create a feeling of teamwork.
So was that all we wanted to sell you by writing this long article, a simple integration between Slack and Contractbook?
No, of course not. There is more.
A very important step to increase collaboration and teamwork is to use all the team features on Contractbook. It is a brilliant way to increase transparency between your employees and create a feeling of a common goal. You can share work with each other, collaborate on documents and make sure you all work in the same updated templates. You are also able to track your progress and review each other’s contracts. What is even more convincing is that you can boost your output significantly, just like Bonzer did.
Read more about our collaborate solutions, and get ready for a digital and distributed future of work that is destined to outlast this pandemic.