COVID-19 and the Future of Work

By Devesh Narayanan, Basil Lee and Julienne Chen

We are currently in the midst of an accelerated race towards the “Future of Work,” fueled by the growth of digitalization and automation. The imperatives are clear. Demographic shifts, such as declining birth rates and a shrinking working age population, have created an urgent need to explore more flexible and attractive work options. New technologies are creating the potential to disrupt not only where, but how, we do our work – to improve efficiency, enhance productivity and improve well-being.

Never has the urgency of this long-standing conversation been as clear or as important as it is today, in the midst of a global pandemic that is massively shifting the way we think about and practice work. Changes to work that were once thought to be impossible, became possible almost overnight.

The Singapore case

Like many cities around the world, office work in Singapore has been indelibly changed in the face of the pandemic. In February and much of March, offices were split into two teams that would alternate working from the office and working from home. In theory, this was meant to mitigate the spread of the disease across the entire office and ensure business continuity. If someone was infected with COVID-19, they in turn would only have been exposed to half of their colleagues while the other half would be safeguarded.

During this period, we conducted a short informal study of 10 individuals working in universities across Singapore. Each of the individuals was an office-based worker with no prior work-from-home arrangements. Hence, we wanted to capture and understand this initial period of transition – when people who are used to office-based work begin to work from home.

This line of inquiry fits in closely with the LKYCIC’s research on the Future of Work, which explores how workers transition into an increasingly digital environment, their relationship with technology, and in particular, how technology can both positively and negatively disrupt existing practices.

In our study, we explored similar themes. The 10 individuals were asked to conduct a short log every 2-3 days and reflect on their experience of working either from home or from a half-empty (or half-full, for the optimists) office. They also responded to specific prompts around their use of technology, productivity, communication and relationships.

Through their responses, a number of key themes emerged that have relevance not only for our current times, but also for how we can better prepare for the future of work:

  • With new tools come new challenges. Technology amplifies existing relationships and dynamics, but does not significantly reconfigure them.

Since the conversation about telecommuting started in the 1970s, technology has gotten a lot more advanced. However, if, as they say, literature is the mirror of society, then technology is the mirror of the workplace. The number of apps, softwares and different types of hardware to go along with them are too numerous to count. This makes standardizing communication tools difficult. Almost all digital interactions are preceded by negotiations about the right tool for the right conversation.

In the logs we collected, these new modes of digital interaction in the absence of face-to-face interaction evoked opinionated responses. However, there were rarely any instances documented in our logs where technology significantly changed a working relationship. Rather, they highlighted or shined a new light on existing patterns and challenges in how teams communicate. New softwares helped people to communicate in different – but not substantially new – ways. If there were structural issues in a team’s communication style, it was unlikely to be solved through technology. Some responses also showed the potential to drive new cleavages in relationships based on people’s technological fluency and adaptability. Those unable to adopt new apps and technology-driven tools could find themselves being left out, or left behind, by their colleagues.

The use of technology does not transcend embedded ways and expectations of communication, and its effective use must be built on existing relationships and agreed upon norms. Thus, the human does, and ought to remain firmly at the center of the technological experience.

  • There is no one-size-fits-all for creating more productive work environments

Each time our research participants moved from their homes, to cafés, to their offices or the numerous other locations that they sought out to work the context and environment of their work would change. But, more often than not, their work tasks, the technologies they used, and the people they interacted with would remain the same. The disconcerting feeling of doing familiar things in unfamiliar contexts was a theme that cut across several reflections about the changes to work and productivity.

People were performing mostly the same work tasks as they were before – but in different places, surrounded by different people, and by using technologies differently. In due course, they learnt that different tasks were better suited to different work contexts. Some felt like they could be more creative at home and preferred to perform routine tasks at the office. Others felt precisely the opposite. For some people, it was all but impossible to perform certain tasks anywhere except their office. These individual preferences varied widely.

This variation seemed to be based on a number of factors. Some appreciated the ability to walk around and think at home; some felt it necessary to frequently discuss their work with their colleagues; some needed certain equipment that was only available at their office; and some felt empowered when their bosses weren’t around – just to name a few. Considerations of both individual working habits and the nature of work tasks themselves seem to be relevant to a worker’s assessment of their productivity under different work contexts.

These findings point to the highly individualized nature of work today. There are no silver bullets for working productively. Rather, employers should make deliberate efforts towards helping workers assess what tasks they perform better in which environments, and create the conditions to support these individual preferences in a more structured manner.

  • The way our homes and cities are planned and designed will need to change

The need for flexibility and adaptability applies not only to mindsets and ways of working, but also to how spaces are designed and planned. In Singapore, square footage comes at a premium and multiple generations often live within the same family home. As such, it’s become clear that “working from home” is a difficult concept to execute. Home offices are rare and family intrusions are common. Noise, heat and poor internet speeds are often raised as a challenge.

In half-filled offices, the opposite is noted. While open offices have become vogue to encourage collaboration, they don’t accommodate the vast increase in video chats and virtual meetings, which require enclosed spaces for privacy and sound isolation. People are asked to sit further away from one another, creating the need for more personal space and calling into question how to facilitate safe in-person collaboration and team building in an open office environment.

As we dive headfirst into an unpredictable future, we need to think smartly about how we build flexibility and modularity into home and work spaces so they can change with the circumstances. We can take inspiration from cities such as Tokyo and Hong Kong, whose long-standing scarcity of space have served as an impetus for creative solutions such as multi-use furniture and fluid layouts using sliding walls and other moving elements to partition and expand spaces.

This fluidity does not only apply for internal home and office spaces, but also how we plan for where work happens within a city. Many traditional urban planning practices dictate that residential areas be separated from office areas, resulting in the common suburb-central business district dichotomy.

However, recent weeks have bolstered the argument for more mixed-use neighbourhoods. Although people did not need to go into the office, almost all of the research participants still sought external locations such as cafes and libraries to work. Thus, working from “home” hasn’t eliminated the need to travel to work, but rather changed the patterns and destinations of where people go. This highlights the need to reconsider what a “workplace” is, and how and where they are distributed. One potential is to create neighbourhood hubs where local residents can work, which decreases the need for commuting and could even become an economic generator by activating different spaces across the city.

It’s clear that the Covid-19 pandemic has thrown open a number of questions about how we work – questions that we’ve perhaps long taken for granted. But this time, these questions are not being raised in abstract ruminations about the future of work. Rather, they’re being raised forcefully: in the lived experiences of workers who have no choice but to work from home.

Understandably, these disruptions to work are disorienting for many. As we found, it is not straightforward for most people to transition smoothly to working from home – there is a necessary period of adjustment, of reconfiguring expectations, of balancing home relationships and needs, of understanding how this new reality can work best for everyone. The virus itself is a cause of further anxiety, as people worry for their health, and the health of their loved ones. Employers must be patient with their workers, and empathetic to the mental toll that these changes are undoubtedly exacting. The need for transformational leadership is more important than ever to guide workers during these trying times.

At the same time, it is worth thinking about what these experiences are teaching us about possible futures of work. As social distancing measures ease up in the months to come, offices and other external working spaces are likely to become viable again, in some form. We ought to be using this time to be reflexive about our work: actively documenting how we’re adapting the changed work arrangements, how we’re using technology, how we’re interacting with people, and what all this means for our productivity.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the Covid-19 crisis is dramatically altering expectations of what possible futures of work might look like. It seems unlikely that we will return to the way things were before the crisis. But this only means that we – employers and workers – need to be even more deliberate about where we go from here. A possible emancipatory future of work lies ahead – where workers know what kind of work they perform best in which contexts, and employers give workers the freedom to unlock these new productivities. We could, and ought to, move towards a future of work that works for us.

Postscript: We recognize that the reflective logs that underpin our findings were collected close to the start of Singapore’s business-continuity arrangements. Since then, workers have transitioned from split team arrangements to full-time remote working. New considerations – about work-home separation, the ability to maintain relationships over time, and productivity at work, to name a few – may have emerged in this time, and might be worth considering. It is not obvious how these new considerations would impact the early observations presented in this article, but it would be very interesting to rerun a similar exercise for other configurations as work arrangements continue to evolve. 

Tags: future of work