Prepare for the unknown, not the known. How should we think about the Future of Work in the wake of Covid-19?

I have been pondering about the Future of Work ever since I stumbled across the topic of RPA some 8 years back. We were discussing the ability of software to complete menial and repetitive work, about service delivery being decoupled from labor arbitrage, about the hope for end-to-end process automation. Intriguingly both proponents and skeptics of such innovation were quoting from McKinsey’s seminal study on Disruptive Technologies. The former were pointing to a potential $5-7 trillion economic impact by 2025 of automation of knowledge work. The latter were concerned about potential negative impacts on job security. But how does one write about the topic sensibly and responsibly in the time of the worst pandemic for generations? For transparency, I will set out the conclusion up front: I do not have all the answers. I wish I could throw a “42” at you just like the supercomputer Deep Thought in Douglas Adam cult novel The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. It was the answer to “the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything“, calculated by an enormous supercomputer for 7.5 million years.

Adam’s comical genius aside, the key is not having the answer(s) but asking the critical questions. With that in mind, it is only mildly helpful to suggest that notebooks, VPNs, cloud and automation are the way forward for organizations to stay alive and relevant in times that have been described as the New (Ab-) Normal. Instead, the current deeply troubling times should be a time of reflection. We should be discussing the wisdom of planning future scenarios based on an expectation of continuity of the world we live in. In other words, should those scenarios now focus on necessary modifications of the current economic and governmental systems? Or do we have to think broader and try to imagine a paradigm shift in the very systems that we live in?

Economic and political systems are creaking at the seams

In my view, we must think beyond our own political and cultural situations if we want to progress the issues that I have called out. Back in 2005, Thomas Friedman wrote his seminal book The World is Flat, to describe the rise of offshoring. Fast forward to 2020, and societies and economies are globally interconnected, giving rise to the current tsunami of nationalism and protectionism. But the onslaught of the pandemic serves to remind us that such a global phenomenon can only be overcome with international collaboration. A virus will not stop at a national border. To advance my arguments, let me share some personal observations:

Copyright: Politico

Economic systems shirk responsibility: Be it the dramatic surge of unemployment in the US, the millions of Indian day laborers left to their own devices scrambling to get home during the lockdown, or the millionaire boss of a large British pub chain with a turnover of £1.8 billion firing its staff and suggesting that they apply to work for a big retailer that is allegedly hiring. We see companies and governments abdicate social responsibility for significant parts of society. Put another way, work means different things to different people.

Organizational models need rethinking: Scenes such as the British Prime Minister being taken into intensive care, members of his cabinet in quarantine, and more than 40 staff in the Afghan presidential palace having tested positive for Covid-19, the restrictions on free movement and shut down of production and economic activities means traditional management structures and chains of commands need re-evaluation and we may see more de-centralized organizational models start to emerge.

Global sourcing challenged: While many outsourcers have reacted admirably in supporting clients, Japan is calling for a decoupling of Japanese companies from China. If such populist overtones get louder, politically reactive regulation could disrupt global supply chains.

SMEs and the Gig Economy are left to their own devices: While we see frantic movements of aid packages and furlough schemes, many small businesses face bankruptcy without much of a buffer. The Gig Economy lives off a digital backbone, but the flexibility offered by it swings both ways: workers within it are often forced to work often without protection, because of a lack of safety net.

One way to read those observations is that the Future of Work depends on where you are in the food chain. Just a top-down view from governments and large corporations that we see all too often in the media right now is not enough to advance the discussions. What we see across the globe is that trust in institutions is severely tested and at times even broken.

The restart of the economy must go beyond a continuation of the status quo

On the news channels, we are starting to see people demonstrating for the reopening of the economy. However, consider a sobering data point from HFS: almost 39% of executives surveyed expect that the direct impact of Covid-19 will last more than 6 months, even though the official planning of their companies was for a decidedly shorter time. While we all yearn to go back to a normal life, is the continuation of the way we looked at all those issues before the outbreak of the pandemic the way to move forward?

To expect that someone will tell us how this pandemic (and in all likelihood more pandemics to come) will play out is futile. Rather we need to examine several different frameworks that anticipate the many different scenarios. Consequently, companies must adjust their organizational and operational strategies. Yet, for many organizations, these adjustments are difficult to achieve because operational processes have to be able to adapt to change. The reality is that many organizations push what can be best described as Digital Taylorism. This suggests that technologies like RPA, which are great for increasing productivity, run the risk of ringfencing (if not embalming) industrial processes, i.e. automating at the end of highly repetitive processes just like a physical robot would do in an assembly line. These technologies have not been designed to adapt to problems that have not ever been anticipated before.

This brings us to some of the core beliefs here at arago. Not that we anticipated such a pandemic, but issues that we have been working to solve for years are now taking on new relevance. These include:

Capture and reuse of employees’ knowledge: At the heart of arago’s approach is Knowledge Automation. It is a structured way for an organization to capture and codify the knowledge of its employees and then reuse that knowledge across different domains. As the constraints of the workforce in these pandemic times have demonstrated, organizations need a way to safeguard their basic operations against future disruptions. The reuse of their existing basic operational knowledge is such a safeguard.

Adaptability to changes in environments: If you follow the argument that I have laid out, we don’t know yet the scenarios we have to plan for. Our HIRO platform can adapt to changes in the environment thus mitigating the risks of having static processes where the scripts have to be maintained often manually at a high cost. This is crucial for new (post) pandemic playbooks as we cannot take for granted that the access to labor will always be guaranteed.

Digital Labor: Having a Digital Workforce with the ability to auto-remediate and even self-heal basic operational functions provide the flexibility to combat workforce constraints as well as manage a broad set of potential scenarios for the restart.

High Automation rates: HIRO’s high automation rate is a reference point for the effectiveness of our approach. With 90% automation rates we scale to three times that of mature organizations. As a result, organizations can ease pressure from the balance sheet workforce because higher levels of automation lead to direct cost savings. At the same time, they are getting an elastic workforce.

Having said all that, so how should we think about restarting the economy once nations have overcome the worst of the outbreak?

Trying to imagine the restart

Most organizations are applying some form of phase model to deal with the pandemic. Many of them are probably moving out of the crisis management phase, where they stared at the eye of the pandemic storm and are moving to a stabilization phase where they are developing strategies on how best to cope with the crisis. This will be followed by a restart phase where they will place their strategic bets. The big question is whether we will see new playbooks for the “new normal” emerging or whether business leaders will revert to their old ideas.

To be able to develop new playbooks, governments and businesses alike need new tools in order to devise appropriate responses to the issue of remobilization of the workforce. Testing and tracing apps will become crucial tools for managing the restart and the re-opening of economies. Most details of the new playbooks on the Future of Work will follow from there.

In this context, t is humbling to see that arago is a founding member for the PEPP-PT Covid-19 tracing initiative. Our HIRO platform is the key technology at the backend of the platform. The initiative is bringing together Europe’s brightest minds. Their shared goal is to enable apps that will help governments managing that restart and dealing with the “new normal”. Learning from the experience in Asia, the initiative is putting European values at the heart of the initiative. That is the protection of data of its citizens while enabling international interoperability. A critical fact is that this initiative is non-profit making and is not charging governments even at cost in order to guarantee it will remain free from government and commercial influence

The “new normal” is likely to revolve around three core activities that will be aided by those apps and subsequent activities: measuring, testing, and certifying. Digital temperature measuring such as what we have seen in Asia to determine whether an individual can enter shops and offices is likely to become a new reality in our everyday lives. But this is more of a tactical response. Strategically we need continuous large-scale testing to know the status quo of infections. This will be the basis for digital certificates identifying our health status, which will become aggregated to dashboards. All this information will be disseminated over a variety of channels, thus forming the backbone for government policies and healthcare activities. While these three activities are all natively digital, they must be incorporated into new operational playbooks that still contain plenty of analog workstreams.

Bottom line: Prepare your organization with operational flexibility, not platitudes

We just don’t know what the future holds. We don’t know when we might see a cure or vaccine for Covid-19. Equally, we can’t tell how governments and companies will react to further uncertainties. We might see a second wave of infections; we might see other pandemics. It is tempting to resort to hollow rhetoric and tweaking the existing playbooks. But what we can and should do is to enter a phase of reflection on how the Future of Work could look like. Crucially, this future playbook should focus on the unknown and not the known. A key element of it must be how we work together internationally, because pandemics do not stop at national borders. Hopefully, we will not need those apps forever. Relying on the old playbooks is a sign of failed leadership. Rather, the leaders of today must demonstrate empathy and authenticity while focusing on outcomes and not just rhetoric. This period of introspection should decide who you are and who you want to be.

Tom Reuner

Tom Reuner

Head of Strategy