The pandemic disrupted all facets of our lives, including our relationship with work. With global economies closing down over the past two years to contain the virus, consumer behavior has changed drastically, jeopardizing entire sectors, such as travel, the arts, and hospitality. Many have lost their jobs, with the more privileged having access to leave schemes, a government program used by much richer countries to subsidize salaries and temporarily keep people on the payroll.
Despite the fact that the world is still fighting through the pandemic, with the full extent of the economic damage yet to be realized, some workers find themselves with unprecedented bargaining power to influence their terms of employment. They are either in greater demand, with access to more jobs and higher pay, or are discovering new ways of working that better suit their lifestyle. Could it usher in the golden age of the worker?
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of critical jobs, which are often undervalued, such as nurses, warehouse workers, truck drivers and retail workers, roles that essentially make the rest of society function. These heroes had little choice but to continue to go in person to keep supply chains and essential services alive, even if it means increasing their risk of COVID-19 exposure.
Perhaps for some of these essential workers, it could eventually turn into better, if late, benefits. For example, there is a worldwide shortage of truck drivers. To prevent the empty shelf crisis in stores, employers have increased financial incentives, including 10 percent wage increases over the five-month period in July 2021, to lure managers, with some salaries and bonuses exceeding those for lawyers and architects. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in the US, hospitality salaries have also risen to their highest rate in 20 years as restaurants reopen, but staff seem less willing to rejoin the sector.
Fierce competition for talent
COVID-19 has also led to a deeper reflection of personal priorities for many workers. Insurance provider Prudential reported in 2021 that as many as one in four workers plan to look for a new job, driven by burnout, the search for work-life balance or to pursue passion projects.
Alain Dehaze, the CEO of staff giant The Adecco Group, recently said that the border closures have hampered talent mobility and with more workers retiring or leaving the workforce due to the direct health impact of COVID-19, there will definitely be fierce competition. for talent.
In the short term, employees in key sectors may well enjoy unprecedented bargaining power, but it may not last. In the longer term, the increased labor costs will accelerate the trend of automation, especially for routine tasks, which may increase productivity but lead to a decrease in jobs.
According to a 2021 survey among 800 senior executives by consulting firm McKinsey, two-thirds of companies worldwide are increasing investment in automation and artificial intelligence. As an example of the extent of change that awaits us, McKinsey expects the number of customer service and food service jobs in the US to fall by 4.3 million alone, which has a major impact on the 13.3 million currently in the hospitality industry is active and the 14.8 million in retail. industry. We can already see visible signs of this, with supermarkets’ increasing prevalence of “self-checkout” services.
White-collar workers who can do their jobs online have also seen a change, with teleworking ushering in a new era of work flexibility. Work from home was introduced as part of COVID-19 government restrictions, which forced companies to accept it and invest in remote technologies.
‘A great transition’
Many continue to mandate or recommend their staff to work from home due to an increase in cases of the new Omicron variant, thereby continuing to normalize the concept of teleworking. McKinsey calculates that this new labor force behavior could result in four to five times more people working from home than pre-pandemics. This will drastically change the geography of the work shuttle, and possibly favor suburbs, which offer more space and lower housing costs, over the larger urban centers.
Working from home has obvious benefits. If you do not have to do a long commute, staff can save time, money and carbon emissions. Being at home can also help with work-life balance, especially for working parents juggling tasks and children.
For introverts who fear social interactions in the office or do not like to be distracted, it probably feels like a blessing to be in the quiet safety of their own home. Remote work means that companies can now also hire staff from a greater geographical distance, which further increases the choice of employees and the lever for better benefits. Employers can also benefit financially, especially if they can cut expenses by reducing office space.
However, being away from the office also has its drawbacks. Business leaders can consider whether video calls can truly replace the natural relationship building and collaboration needed to build a positive work culture, especially for creative projects. Managers may also find it more difficult to monitor performance. And if there are biases related to performance associated with face time, regardless of output, it could lead to an unfair disadvantage for employees who work more from home than those who work from the office.
Working from home can also be a little less enjoyable if you are not fortunate enough to have a pleasant environment to live and work in. The reality is that not everyone has access to a lovely garden or internal office space with a good internet connection and enough silence and space to focus.
Working and sleeping in the same house all day, without the natural boundaries of when work begins and ends, can also ruin our mental health. The British Royal Society for Public Health reports that 56 per cent of people found it difficult to quit work.
As companies digitize, there may be a greater security risk, including from cyber attacks. Technology consulting firm Accenture reported a 125 percent increase in cyberattacks such as ransomware, credentials and digital extortion. Without significant understanding and investment in cyber defense, both staff and customers can become more vulnerable.
The workforce is currently going through a major transition. For some, restraint and leave were the catalysts to reflect and pursue new passions, and workers in some sectors can now work with more flexibility and higher pay. For others, there is great uncertainty, with McKinsey proposing that more than one in 16 people should find another profession by 2030.
We need to embrace new work patterns without leaving people behind, and that includes investing in retraining programs to ensure we all have an opportunity to participate in the new digital economy. If done right, we may be truly in the golden age of the workers.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial views.