Jobs, the lifeblood of economies, have been utterly reshaped by the pandemic. Paused sectors have begun planning and hiring for an economy on the rise; some job sectors might quickly return to health, yet there will be damaged sectors. Consequently, the job economy will not snap back with the elasticity that had marked previous downturns.
The job market is not going to be a buyer’s market. More unemployed people per job opening present less pressure on employers to invest in training or hire from more diverse backgrounds. This is very much par for the course: high unemployment periods usually worsen the gaps between the haves and the have-nots.
What will happen to our jobs?
However, what stands out is the very future of jobs. 2021 demands that a more existential question be asked – and not just by those laid off in the last year but by all: “What will happen to my job?” It is safe to say that sectors that relied on personal contact – the worst-hit – can come back with a sufficient number of vaccinations. Many navigated through the pandemic by leveraging newly acquired or transferrable skills – this is one trend that I foresee continuing.
In 2017, a FICCI-Nasscom report had predicted that megatrends such as globalization, demographics, Industry 4.0, and exponential technologies would create new jobs. Much before the pandemic, this report, as well as scores of others, had underscored the need for a continuous learning culture and had correctly foreseen that non-tech firms would increase IT roles. Another mantra, “every company is a technology company” was reiterated forcefully by leading pundits much before the pandemic. Covid simply accelerated the timeline.
We all have witnessed the heightened role that digitization came to play amidst the pandemic. The pandemic forced us to work in new ways that were once considered too idealistic: work-from-home, real-time collaboration, remote everything. Companies that survived the pandemic were those nimble enough to deploy computing power in innovative ways. Consequently, even as the remainder struggle to find their way, 2021 will be shaped by a fast-emerging ecosystem of post-pandemic companies.
Consequently, workers will have to adapt to working in ways once considered radical and unconventional; more significantly, they will have to find new relevance in companies that have migrated operations, revenue lines and even products to a more digital state of play.
Another important aspect: what changes of the pandemic will remain?
The lockdown months saw consumers shift spending from services to goods, pantry ingredients instead of restaurant visits, exercise equipment instead of gym memberships and so on. Forced to view products and services through a new lens, it is eminently possible that the habits that served consumers well in the world’s biggest crisis become deeply ingrained. According to Accenture’s ‘How COVID-19 will permanently change consumer behavior’ report, the rise in conscious consumption and personal preferences in recent months will endure.
Of course, the contrary is also likely: according to leading epidemiologist Dr Nicholas Christakis, humanity is more, not less, likely to indulge social interactions and pleasurable experiences, much like our predecessors who had survived the 1918 pandemic. We may be even more emboldened than them, because eventually we will all be vaccinated. The nostalgia for the pre-pandemic world of events, parties, conferences, and services deferred but not forgotten might act as an equally compelling trigger for a more vibrant experience economy.
Will remote work be sustainable and long term?
In either scenario, the trend towards remote work is likely to continue. Searches for ‘remote work’ on Indeed India skyrocketed, growing by over 530% between February and July 2020. Flexibility has always been a vital aspect of job opportunities to job seekers, especially millennials, who today make up over half of India’s working population.
Both companies and employees have tasted the benefits that come from a decentralised workplace. There is no reason why the processes that ‘went remote’ with minimal or zero glitches must be reverted to a physical workplace. Today, we have pandemic-proven home-offices and remote-friendly processes that can drive this change.
Yet, it must be noted that remote work erases the face-to-face socialisation element upon which workplace culture is founded. For many, workplace relationships in an era of remote everything have meant keeping in touch with old friends and colleagues, not building new relationships. It can be especially difficult for younger workers, who lack professional networks or experience, or for new employees, who have never met their co-workers. The real question then is: will we continue remote work after large-scale vaccination?
The implications of remote work are more transformative. We can foresee a new national or global labour market. It can mean a larger pool of choice for both job seekers and employers. A ripple effect can be foreseen on demand for housing near industrial or commercial areas. Salaries that were once adjusted for living costs in a particular geography might become uniform, thereby transforming buying power.
On the whole, while 2021 may present a labour market recovery and the sectors that did well in the pandemic might lose ground, it is critical that rebounding sectors should revive, and the paused sector resume operations. This should present a strong foundation to rebuild upon. It might not be spring after an endless winter, but it will certainly be much-needed relief.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.