Since the coronavirus reached us, it has become clear which work must be carried out in the workplace and which activities can be carried out anywhere thanks to new technologies. It will be interesting to see how these developments influence the future of work and wages.
The global outbreak of the coronavirus is first and foremost a major threat to many human lives and is pushing the health care system and health and care personnel in many countries to the limits of their capacity. Measures to contain the pandemic have led to major changes in many areas of our daily lives. Personal contact with other people – especially if they belong to a risk group – no longer takes place. Work should now be done from home if possible.
However, many employees in the health care system, in the production and distribution of everyday goods, in public transport and many other areas still have to appear physically at work. It is quite possible that these people can expect higher wages compared to other employees who now work from home. However, we will probably see rapid technological change in the coming years, at least in some of these areas: in the medical sector, for example, the current trend could continue and robots or software applications could take over some of the work or make work easier. But, for instance, the trend towards automation could also continue in supermarkets. Particularly against the background of a frequently lamented shortage of skilled workers in the health sector, automation need not necessarily lead to higher unemployment, but it is not excluded that it will have a dampening effect on wages. But even with increasing automation, the people who work as doctors or nurses will undoubtedly still be very important. Especially the current coronavirus outbreak shows us that a well organized health care system with motivated and attractively paid workers is crucial.
The future of work also concerns the many people who are currently working from home. In the long term, these activities, which are often services, are also central to the functioning of our society and economy. Especially in an exceptional situation, it is important, for example, that banks and insurance companies, educational institutions or public administration function as well as possible. Technological change is currently making it easier for many of the activities in these areas to continue to function and to be carried out by working from home. Modern technology is thus a great help in cushioning the negative social and economic effects of a pandemic. In this context, however, a number of companies or administrations that have so far maintained a strong culture of presence are now realising that this is at least partly superfluous. Of course, personal contact will remain important in the future, but a declining, but still frequently encountered culture, which links physical presence too strongly with performance, is being held up in the mirror by current events.
It is difficult to assess whether in the longer term the already existing – but sometimes still too slow – trend towards more flexible forms of work will actually be noticeably strengthened by this pandemic. Certainly, the current message is important: employees are not heroes if they come to work in poor health but those who – if possible – reliably do their work at home. However, many people are likely to experience home office in a negative context at present – for example, because they rarely meet family and friends or have to look after children while working at home. Many would probably also be happy if they could better separate work and leisure time from each other and go back to work. The trend towards further flexibilisation of work in services will almost certainly continue one way or another; technological and social developments are too strong. At the same time, however, the question arises as to whether activities that can be performed in the home office will be increasingly associated with a loss of pay compared with those activities where personal presence is compulsory.
The long-term impact of current developments against the background of the coronavirus outbreak remains speculative for the time being. Not everything will change. But I do believe that the pace of change will accelerate.