Coronavirus Covid-19: The Transformational Upside?

March 16th, 2020

It is Louis Pasteur who is reported as saying that “Chance favours the prepared mind” and if today Covid-19 all looks like downside risk is that really the case? How might the pandemic be turned to advantage?

Government responses and the guidance given to citizens will be critical in the management, spread and amelioration of the Covid-19 pandemic. Unfortunately lives will be lost in consequence both directly (from the effects of the virus) and most likely indirectly (from the unintended effects of the measures taken to mitigate its spread). Economies will be hit; in the case of some businesses very hard. So much is understood, thought about and is now being factored into the decisions we each make.

If we think about the impact on our lives, there may be a transformational upside! Perhaps this pandemic can be a trigger point for sustainable change in the way we live and work and on a global scale. Already substantial work is going towards finding a cure or a vaccine, many good things will no doubt come from that alone.

Meanwhile, self-employed, I have worked from home for over 20 years as have many others but now, in the space of just a few days, millions of others never previously afforded that opportunity will have it. Contrary to cartoon opinion it is not (just!) a case of eating doughnuts in your pyjamas or attending video meetings wearing a smart shirt and tie while naked from the waist down, it does though offer some advantages!

Where it is practical, and I know it is not so for many people in many occupations, not commuting for an hour or more each way every day (and many commutes are 90 minutes or more AND cost the commuter thousands of pounds) is a massive saving of personal energy. It can mean getting up later, being less tired and stressed at the end of the day, probably being interrupted less during the day (if you manage your email wisely!). Less time will be lost in random work and non-work conversations, overall, many are likely to be more productive. There are many benefits from the change!

On the other hand working from home requires a different personal discipline, both of ‘going to’ and being ‘at’ work (and the space and peace that requires from others in the same household) but also the discipline of ‘going home’, the ability to stop work at the end of the day (something increasingly difficult with a smartphone and an internet connection). New home-workers will need to learn to manage that – and so will employers!

Those employers and clients will need to learn to manage what people do and achieve rather than, as is currently often the case, managing where they are. They will need to think about whether and how to compensate employees for the work use of their personal space. They will need to focus on outputs and outcomes not inputs and presenteeism. That means thinking differently about working relationships and performance expectations. Managers, bosses, will need to grant much greater autonomy to their staff and colleagues and will need to learn to trust them. Each of us will need to learn how to be responsible with that trust and autonomy, to work hard and follow the rules even when we know nobody is watching! Done well this has the potential to stick; more people working from home and exploiting the available technology will change lives and reduce costs for businesses. The alternative is perhaps key loggers to monitor work rate, screen image replicators and Big Brother webcams!

Critically, much work cannot be done from home (care work, food production and delivery, artistic endeavours) and is often poorly compensated. It may be that the benefit of home working is mainly delivered to those already privileged? It may not be practical for some people, especially those flat or house sharing in high cost locations, imparting tension to relationships while some would suggest a possible increase in both divorce proceedings and births arising from enforced time together. While some of us thrive on independence and enjoy the freedom and isolation of working at home, for others social contact through work may be an important part of their lives, its absence a significant loss. Employers will need to grasp the challenges, risks and opportunities this new way of working can offer, in particular the implications for working parents and child-care, and find ways of ensuring that the well-being of their staff continues to be a key element of their employment offer or they may find staff prefer to work for others!

With less people commuting by road, rail and air, transport emissions will decline, something evident from the maps of China during its lockdown period and already evident on UK roads with less traffic equalling less emissions. With reduced numbers of commuters, it may be possible to reduce the number of public transport services in some areas. There may be less road accidents, reduced road deaths and injuries, a lower number of cars on the roads. Can that be made sustainable?

There will be an offset of course, while less energy may be used commuting and in offices, more people will be using more energy in their home. There is a transfer of cost associated with this, from employer to individual but it may be compensated by cost saved on not commuting. Some offices may offer scope for different uses.

The change will also place new and different demands on internet connectivity. Those of us fortunate enough to have ‘fibre through the wall’ exist in a privileged place. If working from home is to be sustainable then we all need that or an equivalent via other means. We cannot afford for the productivity gained from not-commuting to be lost waiting for ‘the system’ to buffer!! An upside of the current situation then is that it enhances the business case for broadband infrastructure deployment!

We can interpret Covid-19 as simply a threat or we can choose to see the potential upside. While the personal tragedies and losses associated with the current pandemic must not be understated or under-estimated, it offers the potential for a transformational impact on the future economy not just nationally but globally. It provides a chance to rethink the way we work and exploit resources by taking advantage of digital technology. We can use this crisis, which is showing that governments can co-operate and coordinate at scale, to address the sources of emissions and take a significant step on the road to net-zero by 2050, potentially reducing the rate of global warming.