After a year of disruption, changes to the world of work will continue

Rapid digitalisation combined with the economic impacts of the pandemic generate increased levels of automation anxiety, Oxford economist Carl Benedikt Frey finds. [Shutterstock | puhhha]

2020 saw the swift transformation of work as an unprecedented amount of people worked from home, while others had to completely change their systems to adapt to the health crisis. Though the end of the pandemic is in sight, certain changes will remain and even accelerate in 2021. 

The coronavirus has brought drastic changes in the everyday work from Zoom meetings from the kitchen table to wearing masks and fewer colleagues in offices to ensure safety. 

However, the pandemic has not just temporarily impacted the day-to-day for employees, but also  accelerated the broader transformations that were already underway. 

“At the end of the day probably, COVID will have not changed anything [with the digital and green transitions], but it will have accelerated everything,” Isabelle Barthès, deputy general secretary of IndustriAll Europe, told EURACTIV.  

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Changing work environment

Before the pandemic, only 5% of European worked at home full-time. Early estimates now put that number at 40% as a result of the pandemic, according to a report from EUROFOUND. 

“It’s a very, very dramatic shift,” said Oxford University economist Carl Benedikt Frey. However, these high levels of teleworking won’t remain. “After the pandemic, remote work will decline again…The question is to what level,” he explained.

In particular, people will miss the interactions with colleagues that help to drive more innovative thinking, Frey argues, adding “It’s important to remember that even though a job can be done remotely doesn’t mean it should.” In all likelihood, this will mean more flexibility between working in the office and from home. 

Workers who did not have the option of working from home have also experienced drastic changes from revised schedules to ensure proper social distancing and enhanced hygiene and safety measures.

For many European companies, the crafting and implementation of these changes grew out of dialogue between worker representatives and management, Barthès highlights. “The social partners have been extremely active in getting involved to negotiate agreements to make sure that workers would be safe and that business could continue,” she explained. 

Frey believes that day-to-day work for those in these jobs will largely look the same after the pandemic, but Barthès is concerned about the future of social dialogue within companies. Due to the emergency measures that allow firms to make decisions more quickly during the pandemic, “the big fear is that [company level social dialogue] will not go back to where it was.”

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COVID-19 as a digital ‘tipping point’

The crisis also pushed companies to speed up their digital strategies to cope with a growing amount of work and consumption taking place online. An October survey conducted by McKinsey & Company declared that “the COVID-19 crisis is a tipping point of historic proportions [for technology adoption].” 

Respondents to their survey stated “funding for digital initiatives has increased more than anything else—more than increases in costs, the number of people in technology roles, and the number of customers.”

The digital transformation also includes the use of artificial intelligence (AI) tools for a wide variety of tasks from improving experiences on platforms like Zoom or automating more repetitive work. Employers are deploying AI tools for more complex issues like monitoring workers’ wellbeing as well.   

These changes have sparked concerns around data privacy. “You will have surveillance before 2020 and after 2020,” Barthès stated, “the initial idea is to say ‘this is about production improvement,’ but then step by step, this moves to surveillance of people…measures that become extremely intrusive and are a direct attack on people’s privacy.”

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Tackling displacement

Frey emphasises that these accelerated transitions combined with the crisis have left many people anxious about automation and its impacts on the labour market. 

“After the Great Recession, we had a lot of concerns about autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence taking our jobs, and I think that is only going to be exacerbated by the pandemic,” he said, adding that its extent will be determined by the speed of the economic recovery. 

One solution to combatting worker displacement in the future is the creation of a basic income, Frey says. Different from the universal basic income (UBI), which is paid to everyone regardless of their earnings, a basic income sets a floor for wages. Anyone making below this target would have their pay supplemented by the government. 

Given the uncertainty around how jobs will look in the future and the subsequent difficulties for retraining, “I think a basic income is a good idea…to smooth the downturn,” Frey argued. 

In the coming months, the EU is also looking to take on displacement from the green and digital transitions “to ensure equal opportunities for all and that no one is left behind” with the Porto Summit in May under the leadership of the Portuguese Presidency. 

The summit will be guided by the soon-to-be-released Action Plan to implement the European Pillar of Social Rights. Issues such as promoting reskilling and ensuring fair working conditions are key in this pillar. 

Barthès believes that the goals of the summit are “helpful,” but “it is not the only solution to the just transition.” Additionally, she argues that the Commission should focus on “reindustrialisation of regions…going there and looking at what are the assets, projects, local initiatives that can be developed and grow.”

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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