Predictions: What COVID-19 Means for the Future of Work & Society
This week, the entire Piva team had plans to travel to some of our favorite annual events to connect with entrepreneurs, investors and other industry leaders. Like most other large conferences and events around the world, they were all cancelled, and we found ourselves unexpectedly together in the office, struggling to discuss anything but COVID-19. Of course, it goes without saying that while conference cancellations or travel restrictions can certainly put a wrench in business plans, this pales in comparison to the health impacts, and we strongly believe that the health and safety of people should be the number one priority.
Once the infamous Princess cruise ship headed for the Port of Oakland came into view from our conference-room window, we gave up on our standard agenda and decided to consider what the longer-term implications of this historic crisis could be.
In the face of what has now been declared a global pandemic, the world is bracing itself, with more and more regions responding with various levels of quarantine, travel restrictions and unprecedented work from home policies. We share the concerns and alarm many are feeling, but as long-term investors, we decided to force ourselves to take a step back and consider what this historic crisis could mean for the future of work and society over the coming years.
COVID-19 is frequently compared to the 2003 SARS outbreak, but society today has transformed significantly in the last 17 years. While SARS may have been more deadly, the 2020 coronavirus is already more widespread in a world with far more connectivity and a labor force dominated by millennials — a generation that is driving the evolution of work and also deeply motivated to address climate change. Here are seven of our predictions, focused on the trends of decreased mobility and increased remote work:
1. Unnecessary travel for work will decline.
Office workers are being pushed to use video-conferencing systems instead of meeting face-to-face, while many events that require travel are being held virtually. Certain types of professional activities may always favor in-person interactions such as relationship building, networking and other interactive experiences. But many in the late majority are finding that modern videoconferencing systems are good enough to outweigh the costs of travel for in-person alternatives when it comes to routine or operational interactions.
2. The rise of remote work will even-the playing field for new parents and make work-life balance more accessible.
The ability to work from home can enable a better option for new parents to maintain momentum in their careers right when it’s the hardest — soon after childbirth and with small children. While many companies have recently moved towards more flexible maternity and paternity leave policies, employees (particularly women) have historically had to choose between leaving the workforce to start a family and their careers, contributing to the gender pay gap. In addition, all new parents may find working from home, and saving hours of commute time, helps them bond early with their children and naturally take on more shared family-oriented responsibilities without missing a step at work. Overall this can be a big boost for leveling the playing field at work and at home.
3. Houses will be reconfigured to enable remote work.
This week many people are struggling to transform their homes into a more work friendly atmosphere (i.e., reducing background noise from family, kids, pets, etc.) while they click into meetings. In the event where two people are telecommuting, it can be a battle of the conference calls. Sound-proofed or noise-cancelled areas specifically designed for video conferences will become more common as the need for quiet and traffic-free space for virtual meetings becomes more important. Still, our work and personal worlds will become less separate and social norms will evolve accordingly.
4. The need to commute becomes a marker of economic inequality.
Not everyone can work remotely — typically just those with higher-paying office or tech jobs. The benefits of not having to commute will increase the advantages of the already advantaged members of society.
5. The use of air travel will go down, and pressure to improve passenger experience and clean up the industry will increase.
The longer people feel uncomfortable with air travel, the more they will shift routine trips and annual traditions toward alternatives that don’t require the headaches of flying. While the CO2-intensity and discomfort of air travel is already causing many to think twice about their level of flying, being pushed to do without may permanently reduce the habit for many, both for business and pleasure, unless the experience and environmental impact improve significantly.
6. The shift toward e-commerce will accelerate.
While we’ve seen an initial increase in on-demand meal delivery, this is not an affordable lifestyle for most people as a default. However, we will see a shift toward delivered groceries to limit people from having to go to a physical store, which will become a sticky habit for many as they grow accustomed to it. In addition, early adoption of driverless deliveries through drones and droids will accelerate.
7. The emphasis on resiliency will increase across society.
While climate change and the increased risk of extreme events like wildfires and storms are already causing actors across all levels of society to think about backup plans and backup power, what could be a prolonged disruption to the routines and systems we rely on will increase the demand for solutions that increase our resilience to shocks of all kinds. These could include driverless cars, tele-operated equipment, drone fleets of all kinds, VR/AR for work and social interaction, distributed solar power, energy storage and urban agriculture.
It’s still too early to tell what the true impact of the virus will be, but in the face of crisis we often see the acceleration of trends — both positive and negative — that will reverberate for years to come. But for now, all we can do is take it one day at a time.