“Without labour nothing prospers”… Sophocles
By Graham Bruce, senior global executive/freelance consultant
Over the past few weeks much has been said about the nature of work in this pandemic situation.
Slogans such as “work is dead”, “work from home”, “work from anywhere” abound… and there are tips, tricks and theories to suit all tastes. In a curious reversal of events, formal Friday replaces dress down Friday, as if employees might be hankering for the uniform or business attire only weeks after complaining about having to wear it.
Many employees find working at home easy, many do not. What is increasingly obvious to all by now is that how we view work, and the very nature of our relationship with work has changed, perhaps forever. So, what will our relationship with work look like post Covid-19? Will some of us never return to the workplace again?
Record numbers of employees are swelling the unemployment figures all over the world. There is hardly a sector that has not been affected. Jobs previously considered by some as unimportant or menial, often notoriously underpaid, have had their profile raised overnight and their importance in society shown in sharp relief.
Lockdown, and the response to the pandemic, has functioned largely due to this previously unrecognized group of workers… the health workers, supermarket workers, truck drivers, garbage collectors, delivery drivers… the list goes on.
Since the beginning of the pandemic we have all seen the critical importance of their work in our daily lives and are eternally grateful for it. Supply chains have been damaged, but in very few cases broken. Life has continued, and apart from anecdotal stories about toilet roll, flour and yeast, life has pretty much continued as before for many people.
This is perhaps the dawn of a brand-new revolution. Certain revolutionary leaders consider the revolution as a struggle to the death between the future and the past. Historically, the world has lived through the industrial revolution, the technological revolution, the telecommunication and social media revolution, perhaps we are on the cusp of the labour revolution.
There is no doubt that, out of necessity, the pre-pandemic work model will end in many sectors, only to be reborn as a different model focused on tackling the major issue at hand: how to maintain social distancing. How will that function for workers who by necessity have to be in close proximity to each other?
“Necessity is the mother of invention”, it is said, and just as photographic film manufacturers were faced with digital cameras, fax manufacturers by email, CDs by streaming, human ingenuity and invention will find models and systems to rethink the work model. It may mean farewell to work in the large office block, the meat packing plant, the production line. It will inevitably usher in increased use of automation and AI which will only exacerbate the unemployment issue.
Last week New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinta Ardern, floated the idea of a four-day work week and received enthusiastic comments from New Zealanders. During these difficult times, this “gestation” period of the new labour revolution, similar ideas have been voiced globally. Is the answer a universal wage? Job sharing? Automation and bots? Be careful what you wish for I’m often told. These schemes maybe a good start, but before we reach the end of this journey, inequality will increase as will disenchantment. Does anyone really want to sign up for a zero-day work week?
In recent days I have been reading Defoe’s “Journal of a Plague Year”. The novel, first published in March 1722, vividly chronicles the progress of an epidemic—the Great Plague of London in 1665. A fictional narrator guides us through a city transformed, the streets and alleyways deserted, where we encounter the horrified citizens of the city, as fear, isolation, and hysteria take hold. One of Defoe’s reflections which most haunts me—more than the description of the houses of death with crosses daubed on their doors, or the dead-carts on their way to the communal burial pits—is the following:
“Let anyone who is acquainted with what multitudes of people, [who]get their daily bread in this city by their labour, whether artificers or mere workmen—I say, let any man consider what must be the miserable condition of this town if, on a sudden, they should all be turned out of employment, that labour should cease, and wages for work be no more.”
The consequences are left to the imagination, but in the brave, new world of our present, in extreme circumstances, the consequences of mass unemployment could indeed be very disturbing.
How will the future look for employment prospects in your industry?
Graham Bruce is a senior global executive/freelance consultant with extensive international manufacturing/consulting experience orchestrating establishment, turnaround, expansion, consolidation, and restructuring of diverse manufacturing operations while improving Key Performance Indicator (KPI) delivery. Graham has worked in Europe, the US and the Middle East in the aluminium, steel, paper and plastics sectors.