After the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, it became 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. Measures to contain the pandemic have led to major changes in many areas of our daily lives. Work had to be done from home if possible (in many countries and firms, this is still the case).
However, many employees in the health care system, in the production and distribution of everyday goods, in public transport and many other areas still had (and 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 sectors. 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. 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 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. It is not only in an exceptional situation important that banks and insurance companies, educational institutions or the 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 now realize that this is at least partly superfluous. Of course, personal contact will remain important in the future, but a still frequently encountered culture, which links physical presence too strongly with performance, will decline.
The fast switch to work from home has gone remarkably well for many firms. More flexible work schedules and work from home options are important. I strongly believe that many of the current practices will persist even when after the COVID-19 pandemic. However, not everything is fine when people work from home. Personal meetings, chats over a coffee or a beer are important elements that contribute to building trust and enabling informal exchange of views. Many of these daily routines are gone at the moment for those people who work from home. Workers currently still use what one may also call organizational and social capital that was developed in the past. In a next phase of partial easings of lockdown measures, it is important to maintain these types of intangible capital that are important for organizations. Even when work from home persists, occasional meetings and encounters in the office space will continue to be important. One should also note that at least some people are likely to experience home office in a negative context at present. Some would probably be happy if they could better separate work and leisure and go back to the office. The future of work for office workers should combine a mix of flexible work schedules, work at home or in co-working spaces, and still regular meetings with colleagues at work. 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 towards more flexibility at work and work from home will accelerate.
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