COVID-19 will transform the workplace Gen Z is entering

As humanity comes to redefine its social structures in the wake of a global shakeup, the concept of a 9-5 adulthood might be blinking out of existence.

Throughout history there have been pockets of time where people have unwittingly become part of a social experiment. In ancient Sparta, society asked what would happen if every person was trained in the art of battle from birth. The Indus civilisation asked what would happen if there was no war. In the 20th century, we asked what would happen if the whole world was at war.

Now, in 2020, we’re seeing the first ever run through of a world in isolation. Covid-19 has asked us what would happen if we ran the entire world from our respective living rooms. Can we make relationships, culture, and the economy digital?

Covid-19 has necessitated us to carry out literally every aspect of our daily lives from home. In places like France, where lockdown regulations necessitate people venturing outside to have a permit, all shopping, social interaction, and all work must be done in our homes.

And, actually? It’s going pretty well. Remote working tools such as Slack, Zoom, and Trello, that erstwhile lay in wait for the inevitable evolution of digital work flexibility, have taken centre stage in the forced transition to remote structuring, and they’ve proven more than up to the task.

‘We are fully prepared for this situation,’ a spokesperson for Slack, which makes a chat software popular with businesses, told The Guardian. ‘For now, we are focused on helping people around the world adapt to remote work with free resources.’ Good as their word, Slack has been hosting free consultations for companies of any size adapting to remote work for the first time.

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Old-world companies that previously wouldn’t dream of forsaking the face-to-face aspect of their businesses have been dragged kicking and screaming into a 21st century workplace revolution and have found the transition surprisingly smooth – even ancient professions, like medicine and jurisprudence, are coping through online consultations. The most ancient profession (sex work) has lived primarily online for years now.

And remember, this is a mere two months after most of the world went into lockdown.

Of course, some sectors are struggling with the change more than others, with hospitality, live entertainment, and retail understandably the hardest hit. But even these industries are finding work arounds. Our beloved yet temporarily departed local watering holes are taking up the challenge of an online market with vigour. London-based brewers Fourpure and Brewdog have both launched their own ‘virtual’ online pub quizzes, whilst Camden Town Brewery and The Queen’s Head have been hosting full online bar experiences complete with drag shows.

Whilst these aren’t exactly profitable ventures, these companies are retaining brand recognition despite losing physical customers, and by publicly fundraising for virus relief funds through ‘virtual tip jars’ (schemes that could easily be flipped to turn profit post lockdown) they’re positively aligning their brand purpose during a time of heightened scrutiny.

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Meanwhile, retail giants like Amazon and Asos have already aggregated systems that connect local businesses and suppliers with their sizeable customer bases through their ‘marketplace’ features. Though Amazon’s ethical history makes this victory less punchy, the tech to modernise and connect small businesses is already there, with the COVID-19 crisis set to vastly increase interest in this field.

It seems that the results of our experiment are in: it’s very much possible for humanity to exist and society to function almost solely through technology.

Now, whilst certain aspects of isolation will undoubtedly spring back to normal after the lockdown lifts – socialising is possible online but still a pale imitation; we’re not the chair-bound humans of Wall-E yet – working from home has proved less compensatory than some would have expected, and others would have hoped. Some might even say it’s even panned out for the better.

Long commutes to large office buildings with often cramped and inhospitable working conditions – things that we’d been conditioned to see as a necessary to participating in the capitalist economy – have now evaporated at no real detriment to businesses. As Howard Barnes put it in this article for Work Design Magazine:

If your workplace is multiple floors of an office building in a city centre, with desks for 80 percent of the staff, how will I feel about my commute – squashed in with strangers on the public transport, then what about the surfaces I have to make contact with in stations, in public foyers, lifts, and shared bathrooms. Having arrived in the office, what is my view of the environment? Does it really deliver a higher level of productivity than the home-working routine?

Barnes rightly points out that the fear of crowded spaces and contaminated surfaces will likely be a lasting hangover from the pandemic, making many unwilling to use public transport. The alternative would be mass private commuting, creating congested cities and increasing air pollution. These issues melt away in a flexible working environment.

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Covid-19 doesn’t just have the worker bees scratching their heads. Many CEOs and business execs are likely appraising their hefty corporate real estate expenses with new scepticism. Why pay for expensive office space that, with a flexible working scheme, would be too big by half? Why not downsize for just essential personnel and fewer on-site workers?

I hear you: but what about structure? Going to work each morning gives us purpose: gets us out of bed and forces us to interact with people. Alas, I cry, that need not cease being the case. Not commuting to work each day doesn’t preclude offices from existing – in fact it’s essential for businesses to have a real, physical centre for a tangible work culture to grow. Covid-19 hasn’t shown us that we must work from home, but simply that we can.

People with large families or young kids, health issues, disabilities, or multiple jobs would greatly benefit from flexible employment schemes, where they determine their working hours and environment. They could choose to work at home, or in a local shared working hub, which could offer all the social benefits of an office environment whilst reducing commute times. The success of the digital workspace during isolation has proved that not being present in a building doesn’t mean you can’t be present in a company.

There could be other, unexpected benefits from a predominantly digital working environment, too. Offices could become more diverse, with post code no longer a deciding factor in your employment prospects. Moreover, with communication between colleagues moving online, introverted dispositions might feel freer to integrate themselves in company culture. Extrovert personalities strong at interpersonal and speaking skills, previously the starting quarterbacks of office communities, could be passed over in favour of introverts who can put their thinking and argument more succinctly in the written word.

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All of this would be a big, big change. People have defined themselves through the dictum of their careers since the modern age began. But global crises tend to be precipitates of massive change, fast-forwarding societal progression in ways that is rarely reversible. Decisions that during normal times could take decades of deliberation, like for example the digitisation of the work place, might occur in weeks.

The end of the regular 9-5 raises the most fundamental questions about what it means to be human. What purposes could we put ourselves to if our job didn’t dictate our time and consume most of our working hours and creative energies? How many more hobbies could we adopt, or leisure time could we give ourselves? What would it do to families, relationships, and quality of life?

In the midst of tragedy and great upheaval, we’ve been given an opportunity to fundamentally alter the landscape of adult life for the better. But we won’t have the answers to our questions about what working life could be until corporations acknowledge that permanent change is possible.

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