The C-Series 3: How Covid-19 will change the way we work

Apr 17, 2020

The C-Series explores the impact Covid-19 is having on consumer behaviour; how we live, work, play and shop, both now and in the post-pandemic world. In this third instalment, we explore five ways we expect it to revolutionise the way we work.

This might be a chance for a great reset in terms of how we work,” argues Matt Mullenweg, chief executive of WordPress and Tumblr owner Automattic, in a recent blog post called “Coronavirus and the Remote Work Experiment No One Asked For”. Mullenweg was voicing what many others have been thinking during the last month. Covid-19 has introduced millions of new people globally to the joys of working from home, as well as the myriad digital tools available to facilitate it.

This live beta-test has exposed a generation of workers to a fundamentally different way of balancing their work, home lives and leisure time, breaking down barriers and changing preconceptions along the way. While there are many infrastructure, hardware and work culture issues to overcome, for many: work will never be the same again.

As The World Economic Forum puts it, “Covid-19 may yet do what years of advocacy have failed to” by accelerating the movement of remote working into the mainstream.

In this third instalment of the C-Series, we explore five key ways we expect the global pandemic to dramatically change the way we work.

 

1 – Virtual worlds will revolutionise remote working

There’s been a huge focus on the tech companies and tools that have enjoyed exponential growth in their usership during the crisis. Downloads of video conferencing apps surged by 90% and Zoom went from 10 million global daily users last year to 200 million almost overnight. Slack, Microsoft, Google and Alibaba (with its Dingtalk communication and collaboration app) are taking a long term view by giving away their digital tools to millions of potential future customers for free. While these technologies give us the ability to recreate most of the things we would be doing if we were in the office, or on the road, it is the virtual worlds created by augmented and mixed reality that we expect to be the real game changer for remote working in the future. These technologies have the potential not just to mimic what happens in physical offices, but to actually improve on the processes by making them more collaborative, immersive and seamless.

Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella says “The ultimate computer for me is the mixed reality world. Your field of view becomes an infinite display. You see the world and in the world you see virtual objects and holograms.” This vision comes to life in 3D collaborative workspace Spatial, which works through Microsoft’s mixed reality Hololens 2 headsets. Spatial users can create a 3D holographic photorealistic version of themselves from a 2D photo in seconds, before joining their colleagues in a virtual meeting room where they’ll see each other sitting around a table, or in whatever virtual location they want. It gets more interesting. Spatial reacts to users’ movements to allow them to introduce, move, rotate, edit and play different types of digital media including text, images, videos, 3D models and live websites. This gives them the ability to create a dynamic, almost Minority Report-style, collaboration space that is more efficient, engaging and flexible than what can be done in a physical space. As well as enhancing presentations and meetings with media, data visualisation and model interaction, mixed reality collaboration spaces like this are also viewed as an ideal platform for immersive staff training.

One of the drawbacks for many is the price tag. A single Hololens 2 headset costs $3,500, and that’s before layering on the Spatial subscription. Interestingly, though, in the last few months Spatial has signed an agreement with a challenger Chinese AR company called NReal, whose lightweight headset looks more like traditional sunglasses and are expected to cost $500 each.

Elsewhere, US real estate company eXp Realty’s virtual headquarters doesn’t require staff to wear any headset at all. The virtual eXp World created by California-based software company VirBELA mimics the Second Life video game and can be viewed onscreen. The company’s 14,000 agents across the US log in to “attend meetings, training sessions, receive technical support and collaborate on cloud-based documents”, with many of them said to spend between 20 and 30 hours a week in eXp World.

Whilst these technologies are not yet in the mainstream, the Covid-19 “Remote Work Experience” has accelerated virtual working faster than anyone could ever have predicted and suggests that there is likely to be a bigger appetite to further improve at home remote technology in a (not so distant) future dispersed workforce.

 

2 – Most companies won’t have full-time offices

When you consider how quickly and seamlessly many companies globally adapted to remote working, coupled with the great expense of running an office, it’s tempting to suggest that Covid-19 will be the catalyst for most companies taking the previously unthinkable step of closing their offices.

There are, however, elements of work life and culture that are almost impossible to replicate remotely, even with the most immersive technology.

In a recent Financial Times article, Ravi Mattu quotes evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar as saying: “In-person interaction is an essential part of how humans maintain communities, build meaningful relationships and learn how to compromise. In a digital environment, you can just pull the plug.”

As this suggests, regular physical interaction is a key part of creating a positive and effective workplace culture, including team building, on-boarding new colleagues and mentoring existing ones.

In addition, digitally-backed remote working also lacks some of the more subtle and/or informal elements of physical engagements.

GDR’s Assembly panel member and former editor-in-chief of Bloomberg TV France, Florence Labedays tells GDR: “Working from home has proven successful but let’s not forget the importance of human interaction in decision-making, the importance of the “off-the-record” chat outside of meetings, body language… we have a less nuanced output when we’re all remote.”

Our belief is that these reasons will stop many companies taking the plunge and simply getting rid of their offices altogether. However, we expect to see a distinct rise in companies looking for much more flexible options that allow their employees to efficiently work from home 60-80% of the time, while giving them a physical space to meet up in for essential team meetings and catchups once or twice a week. Our vision isn’t an extension of hot-desking, but rather a refinement of co-working that allows companies to have their own physical office space, but only on the weekdays they want it.

 

3 – Physical office design will refocus on collaborative space

Deloitte’s Getting the workplace of tomorrow right think piece from last year argued that the number one guideline for creating an effective office is to: “Prioritise design choices based on the reasons people come into the office”.

Thus, as the reasons for and regularity with which employees visit the office changes, it follows that the utility and the physical design of offices will change immeasurably too.

Having a unique physical workstation for every employee will no longer be high on the priority list as employers realise that everything they would traditionally have done in that workspace can now be done be remotely.

Offices in the future will be built around collaborative spaces that allow for the types of physical interactions mentioned in the previous section. CoLab office space Labs in Holborn has created a working space that is part chic private members club, part gym and part office. It features a communal gym, community events for its permanent members, a games room, quiet space for contemplation, cafes, bars and multiple spaces to work from, including long open plan board room-style tables and lounges, to private meeting or workshop spaces.  A row of small phone booths allow for private calls and meeting rooms are booked by the hour. All bills, Wi-fi ,drinks and snacks are taken care of in membership fees. The focus is on creating a flexible working space for multiple working styles.

Another factor is the effect that Covid-19 will have on international and long-haul business travel, as many companies have replaced this with “good enough” video conferencing alternatives. Many companies will doubtlessly revert to the norm post-pandemic, but for those who don’t a second role of the office will be to enable digital connection with those not there. So, where once there were cubicles and offline meeting rooms, we can expect to see video conference call suites, phone booths and maybe even podcasting and webinar production studios.

 

4 – Even public-facing workspaces will embrace remote-working

While so far we’ve focused mainly on office-based work, arguably a greater disruption post-pandemic will be felt by those in traditionally more public-facing sectors such as retail, education, trade shows and law.

In retail, the greater focus on ecommerce has led to a significant shift in the role of many workers. Shanghai-based cosmetics brand Forest Cabin, for example, retrained 1,600 of its sales assistants as livestream hosts selling its products on Alibaba’s Taobao Live platform from their homes while its shops were closed. After two weeks, its daily sales surpassed the same day in 2019 by 45%, as its percentage of sales made online moved from 25% to a massive 90%. This retraining of in-store staff into livestreaming ecommerce ambassadors is not atypical in China, and indeed, even as normality tentatively returns and shops start to reopen, many retailers there are retaining this focus on e-commerce.

In education, teachers around the world are using digital tools and resources to interact with their students and host virtual video lessons online. Most impressively, professors at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio have been teaching immersive anatomy classes using Microsoft Hololens. We suspect the shift towards digital learning will have a profound effect on the future of education. Yet, while on the one hand digital innovations could multiply the exposure of the best teachers to more students, there are also concerns about those without access to digital devices and reliable Wi-Fi being unfairly excluded.

Elsewhere during the pandemic, design festivals, trade shows, doctors appointments, music lessons and even courts of law in the UK have been held remotely. While we can expect the post-pandemic reaction to vary from sector to sector, it’s safe to assume that many interactions between employees and customers that traditionally took place exclusively in physical spaces, will now be divided between the digital and physical worlds.

 

5 – We will all become freelancers

One interesting aspect of the Covid-19 response that has gone a bit under the radar is the way companies experiencing high demand are temporarily “borrowing” staff from organisations locked down by the virus. In Germany, discount supermarket giant Aldi has agreed to give work to McDonald’s staff while its restaurants are closed. Similarly, in China, Freshippo responded to the surge in online orders by forming employee sharing partnerships with more than 40 businesses across the country. Employers entering into agreement with the Alibaba-owned supermarket included restaurant chains, shopping malls and movie theatres whose employees were temporarily out of work.

While these are reactive measures specific to the unfolding coronavirus situation they do present a vision of how resourcing and employment could work in the future whereby employees no longer work for a specific company, but rather are deployed from a central cooperative to where they are needed or want to work. As well as offering greater freedom to workers, it may also give them more protection during unique global events like this pandemic.

“The pandemic will be a catalyst for an extension of what is currently the gig economy into what I call the ultra-gig economy,” says Daniel Hulme, CEO of optimisation specialist Satalia and GDR Assembly panel member. “We’ll have more of a portfolio career where we don’t just work for one company, but lots of different companies. This will be partly driven by the individual, giving them freedom to work on what they want to work on, but also by companies not wanting to commit to long-term costs.”

If you’re interested in talking to us in more detail about any of the themes discussed in this article, or the challenges you’re facing as a business, we’re here to help. Get in touch with rachel@gdruk.com

The GDR Assembly Panel is a premium GDR Service that brings together diverse thought leaders and change makers to discuss and debate the impact of Covid-19, answering your key questions. To find out more, get in touch with rachel@gdruk.com

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