15 June 2021
Econ 4.0: Are you back at work?
Here is a corporate limerick culled from the internet that will resonate if you are back at the office:
While you bask in your new office grace,
There are terms that you’ll want to embrace;
So as you appear, that you know why you’re here —
Such as Segway, synergy, metrics and touch-base.
While that limerick may make you smile, step back and ponder a while. The future of work is here and will have an impact on each of us, whether we are ready or not. That is the view from the World Economic Forum (WEF), which says the pandemic has caused the labour market to change faster than expected.
“Covid-19 has accelerated the arrival of the future of work,” says Saadia Zahidi, WEF managing director. “Accelerating automation and the fallout from the Covid-19 recession has deepened existing inequalities across labour markets and reversed gains in employment made since the financial crisis in 2007/08. It’s a double-disruption scenario that presents another hurdle for workers in this difficult time. The window of opportunity for proactive management of this change is closing fast. Businesses, governments and workers must plan to urgently work together to implement a new vision for the global workforce.”
The prognosis: By 2025, automation and a new division of labour between humans and machines will disrupt 85 million jobs globally in medium and large businesses across 15 industries and 26 economies. Roles such as data entry, accounting and administrative support are decreasing as automation increases.
Can employees and citizens reskill to remain gainfully employed in the new normal? “The pandemic has disproportionately impacted millions of low-skilled workers,” the WEF report quotes Jeff Maggioncalda, CEO of Coursera. “The recovery must include a coordinated reskilling effort by institutions to provide accessible and job-relevant learning that individuals can take from anywhere to return to the workforce.”
WEF notes that currently, only 21% of businesses worldwide are allowed to use public funds for reskilling and upskilling programmes. The public sector will need a three-tiered approach to aid workers — provide more robust safety nets for displaced workers, improve education and training systems, and create incentives for investments in new markets and new jobs.
The composition of the workforce has also changed dramatically. Companies today consider employees and allied workers who create value for the enterprise — such as contractors, service providers, gig workers, app developers, and software bots — as part of their workforce. A study by the MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte states that 87% of companies include external workers as part of their workforce composition.
The crux? Most workforce-related practices, systems and processes focus on employees, not external contributors. Thus, workforce planning, talent acquisition, performance management, and compensation policies all focus on full-time (and sometimes part-time) employees. Consequently, organisations often lack an integrated approach to managing a workforce in which external workers play a significant role.
The search for an integrated approach to strategically managing a diverse group of internal and external contributors has led some forward-thinking executives to the idea of a “workforce ecosystem” — one focused on value creation for an organisation consisting of complementarities and interdependencies.
“This structure encompasses actors from within the organisation and beyond who work to pursue both individual and collective goals,” the MIT-Deloitte study notes. “This promising idea offers potential benefits that could help managers think through strategic, organisational, regulatory, and practical implications of a workforce comprising employees, external workers, and others.”
The future of remote work has been in the making for a decade, powered by cheap mobile devices and high bandwidth. As more workloads become digitised and shift to the cloud, companies have an even greater incentive to rethink their physical footprint.
McKinsey says businesses have coped relatively well during the extended remote working routine. However, WiFi and the current crop of devices are not enough for much of the workforce. Remote employees need better options than juggling cellular and WiFi dongles and passwords to access secure, reliable and adequate WiFi.
“These concurrent trends make an existing solution — cellular-enabled mobile computing devices — an attractive candidate to complement WiFi,” McKinsey reports. “At the same time, 5G is on the cusp of at-scale rollout, which promises increased signal reliability and enables pricing innovations in cellular connectivity. This could benefit both sides: offering employers paths to more effective talent management because of workers experiencing more agency and less friction in doing their jobs; and giving employees access to a wider pool of potential employers and positions from which to choose.”
In late February, Malaysia announced it would invest RM15 billion over a decade to deploy 5G technology. The investment is among four important digital infrastructure initiatives under the Malaysia Digital Economic Blueprint (MyDigital) plan to accelerate innovation and create a digital ecosystem. Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin said a special-purpose vehicle would be set up to boost 5G-powered innovation — resulting in an additional 105,000 jobs being created. It has since set up Digital Nasional Bhd for that purpose.
Covid-19 has accelerated the 5G rollout. Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) chairman Fadhlullah Suhaimi Abdul Malek was quoted in the media as saying that internet traffic in Malaysia had risen 70%. Bandwidth has fallen 40%, however, and complaints on inadequate indoor coverage have increased by up to 70%. “Covid-19 has been a stress test for Malaysia’s digital infrastructure,” he said. “A new approach is now needed to address the demand for a better digital economy, and a new national approach to managing Malaysia’s 5G rollout.”
Currently, only a handful of 5G cellular-enabled laptops, notebooks and tablets are on the market. The leading manufacturers are developing a more comprehensive array of mobile computing devices in anticipation of increased user demand and willingness to pay for mobile connections. McKinsey notes that 5G infrastructure deployment at scale is already underway, and spectrum allocations have started, though both may have been slowed by Covid-19 safety restrictions.
“At the same time, virtual SIM card capabilities (e-SIM) are being launched to allow flexible network provisioning for enterprise users,” McKinsey says. “Some semiconductor players have already launched mobile computing chipsets with e-SIM capabilities.”
New technologies — such as 5G, AI, big data and content creation — will help create 97 million new roles worldwide, predicts WEF. Human tasks to retain their comparative advantage include managing, advising, decision-making, reasoning, communicating and interacting. There will also be a surge in demand for workers who can fill green economy jobs, roles at the forefront of the data and artificial intelligence economy, and new roles in engineering, cloud computing and product development.
“Despite the economic downturn, most employers recognise the value of reskilling their workforce — nearly 50% of workers will need reskilling for their core skills,” WEF notes. “An average of 66% of employers expect to see a return on investment in upskilling and reskilling of current employees within a year. They also expect to redeploy 46% of workers within their own companies. In the future, the most competitive businesses are the ones that will invest heavily in their human capital.”
The pandemic has also pushed employees out of their comfort zones, with more eagerness to learn new ways of working, interacting and collaborating. According to a recent Gartner survey, nearly 20% of workers consider themselves digital tech experts since Covid-19, while over 50% consider themselves proficient. Increased reliance on digital collaboration tools and lack of in-person IT support — while working remotely — has altered many workers’ relationships with technology.
The survey found that digital workers increased their reliance on portable devices during the pandemic. Workers reported an 11% increase in the proportion of their work time spent on laptops, smartphones or tablets. The ratio of their time spent on desktops declined 8%.
“When organisations were forced to go remote in early 2020, workers relied on their own devices or programs they discovered to make up for their employers’ technology shortcomings,” says Whit Andrews, distinguished research vice-president at Gartner. “This year, organisations can embrace this trend by expanding the choice of devices and software programs that workers can use with little or no friction.”
The bottom line: Are you back at work? Yes, even if you are working from home. Since January 2020, 36% of employees working from home reported increased productivity whereas 35% reported no change. Gartner says flexibility in working hours was the prime reason (43% said so) for higher productivity.
Since we started this column with a limerick from the internet, let us also end with one:
Now, when you’re summoned out of the blue,
To sit in your boss’ office and explain what you do,
There’s no need to bargain,
Throw out the fuzzy jargon,
And smile as you ace your review.