I am sure each one of us, who are working from home for the last 3-4 months across the globe, must be experiencing this unprecedented phenomenon with different emotions. This pandemic, COVID-19, has made us all scared and fearful. We were never so unsure about what will happen next in our lives. Each country is figuring out a way to balance its people’s safety against severe economic fallout. Undoubtedly, it’s a very different challenge and even more difficult to fathom.
Is it going to be the beginning of a new era? In some sense, YES. Let me take this opportunity to use my imagination to dive into a little far distant future…
Coronavirus has forced us to maintain social distancing that has diluted the concept of ‘workplace’. It has coerced us to stay at home within four walls and manage our work, somehow. All those people employed in the service sector are working remotely from their bedrooms, living rooms. As per the latest WHO report, COVID is here to stay hence we will have to continue to maintain a safe distance and be in solitude until we develop herd immunity.
So how does this WFH impact us in the long term?
First of all, Big corporates will be compelled to relook into their expenses on infrastructure costs. In times to come, many offices may not renew their lease with big workspace facilities. They may be tempted to use co-working space for 10-20% of existing capacity. That might impact the commercial space demand and in turn, impact urban residential house’s demand. No longer people will be forced to stay in urban areas, in proximity to their offices. They may choose to work from their hometowns and suburbs. This will certainly impact the real estate sector as a whole.
With the overnight shift to digital technologies (Microsoft teams, Google meet, GTM, Zoom, etc.) and abundantly available mobile data, most of the workforce will learn to live with digital interactions. This will drastically reduce the need for any travel (be it a local, domestic or international). This has already impacted the Uber and Ola’s of the world and aviation industry in a big way. Most of the airlines are busy in freight carrying business for their survival.
Many schools have gone online, especially for higher classes. Teachers have adapted themselves to virtual learning methodologies and showed their survival instinct. If schools, colleges, universities, and other academic institutions can adopt digital solutions to reach out to their students, they can have 5-10X student intake with the same infrastructure and offer much better pricing for their premium courses. In the future, teachers need not be part of institution payroll. They can freelance from home as long as they are good at disseminating the knowledge through videos and interactive digital media. This may change the traditional learning model and disrupt the entire education industry.
Financial services (banks and NBFCs) are also going through tough times. While they are ahead of the curve in terms of digital technologies adoption, they will further work on removing the fearful interaction (COVID friction) caused through their relationship managers. While saving a/c and FD opening have gone largely digital (on self-serve model), current accounts and lending are still under-digitized. Financial institutional will work very hard to automate the income assessment with sophisticated algorithms to disburse loans. Soon we will witness an era where branch banking will disappear, and bank operations will be digitized saving a lot of infrastructure costs for banks.
With the ‘workplace’ losing its importance, people will have the liberty of working from anywhere. This may reverse the urbanization trend. Youngsters who are forced to move to cities for want of more job opportunities can continue to work from their hometowns and support their family livelihoods. In fact, those who have an ancestral business, farming lands, etc. can choose to work as contractors or freelancers and support their parents in agriculture and MSME business while living in their hometowns. There are many stories coming out from rural India (Karnataka, Tamilnadu, Gujarat, etc.) where people are not only actively engaged in agriculture but also involving migrant workers to come up with small scale industries like handicraft, grain processing and manufacturing of solar fan-bulb kits, etc. This will help in reviving the rural economy and put our villages on the path of self-reliance.
With reverse urbanization, the government will be obligated to make more provision for rural healthcare infrastructure. The 2001 census showed there was not even a single medical college in rural areas, despite accommodating 72 percent of the country’s population. More opening of medical colleges and healthcare systems in the countryside will attract more medical students. In fact, MCI is busy framing a policy for compulsory 1-year service in rural areas for medical students trained in government institutions. The day is not far when we will witness a medical professional moving from paved city blocks to gravel roads and pastures. Digital technologies will also enable some part of health services like diagnosis and care through remote access. These trends will change the face of the healthcare industry.
People moving from cities to villages may change the demand and supply equations and may potentially unlock the value of true labor. If MNCs are willing to experiment WFH model in a true spirit, they can have a truly global workforce working remotely with relatively less disparity on their pay-cheques. Imagine an Indian, Brazilian, American, and Iranian fetching almost the same amount of money (with some calibration of local taxation policies) for developing a similar piece of software, because their location will be irrelevant. Will that change the way IT industry operates?
For the last 10000 years, homo-sapiens were driven by sheer greed. We domesticated plants and animals and transitioned from hunting and gathering society to agricultural colonies for our benefits. Further-on we invented machines and industrialized cities. While in the race of inventing more and more sophisticated technologies, we humans assumed us the ‘God’ and neglected our own mother earth. As a result, we don’t even have clean air to breathe, pure water to drink. We forgot the concept of co-existence with other living beings.
Is remote working going to redefine the way we interact and work? Will it force us to think twice about what we are doing to our environment? Is this going to give us another chance to reconcile with what we do right or wrong? Is the COVID-19 phenomenon going to remind us that we are lesser mortals? Is Mother Nature going to take over from us to write a new human history? Keeping my fingers crossed.
Co-imagined with my friend Vinay Kharbanda