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COVID-19, Intelligent Software, and The Future of Work (Part I)

/ Blog / COVID-19, Intelligent Software, and The Future of Work (Part I)
COVID-19, Intelligent Software, and The Future of Work (Part I)

The pandemic has served to catalyze and accelerate seminal changes.  In this three-part article series, we will highlight some of the important themes and concepts that we believe will shape, and are shaping, the Future of Work in the post-COVID workplace.

We’ve never seen anything like this COVID-19 pandemic in modern history, and we’re all living through a massive shock to our society. And while some may assume that when this virus is under control, everything will go back to the way it was before, consensus believes that the future of work will be altered forever. The question then is how we’re going to work differently, where we’re going to work, and what work itself will look like.

What we think is so interesting about the COVID pandemic, in spite of all the really terrible things about it, is that it has been a kind of accelerant to jump us, to catapult us, into this future that, in the normal course of cultural adoption, could well have taken a decade or more.

  • In Part I (below), we assess the pandemic’s influence in redefining where and how work gets done. And we discuss the implications across domains ranging from Real Estate and Commerce to Socializing and Education.
  • Part II will focus on how the nature of work itself is evolving in a world of remote collaboration, hyper-specialization, and human-computer symbiosis. A useful prism to evaluate Artificial Intelligence software applications likely to gain traction, we will illustrate examples from the Software Development industry, Molecular Biology, Healthcare, as well as Prediction Markets.
  • In Part III, we will introduce the Pandemic Response Co-Lab, an initiative we are working on with MIT to mobilize innovators, communities, businesses, and others to develop actionable AI-enabled solutions to real problems post-COVID. To that end, we will highlight a few introductory examples of products and services that stand to benefit the workplace and workforce of the future.

Part I:  Redefining Where and How Work Gets Done

The crisis has led to almost everyone working from home when they can. And many people are discovering that they really can do much of their job from a distance.  Of course, when lots of other things in society are disrupted too, like schools being closed, this doesn’t always work out perfectly. But for many people, it’s working better than they would have expected. And many people are asking themselves, ‘Why do we need to commute an hour a day to meet with people we can already see and talk to electronically?’

There will, of course, be times when face-to-face meetings are necessary. And when things go back to normal, we’ll go back to having these meetings. But many people will be surprised at how often—once we’re used to doing it—many jobs can be done from anywhere.

Some of the jobs that today we think of as requiring physical presence, like a doctor treating a patient, may in the future require a lot less physical presence than we usually assume.  An example of how COVID is accelerating trends:  in the last month and a half, vast numbers of doctors have started practicing telemedicine at a scale they would not have done in the ordinary course of business for years, and done so now legally across state lines further supporting the concept of best practices.

In the healthcare industry, in many cases having a human in the room is useful for the patient feeling comfortable and even for the patient healing because of the social interaction as well the interpersonal caring they get from the person in the room. But the person who’s good at being in the room—giving people a sense of being cared for well, someone taking an interest in them, and even the physical touch—the people who are good at that aren’t necessarily the ones who are the best at making medical diagnoses and medical prescriptions.

So, it may well be that in medicine and other fields, we will have one person in the room who’s skilled at the in-room interpersonal interaction. And other people in a vast network, all over the world potentially, who are skilled at the other kinds of cognitive tasks, data-based analysis, or whatever else decision- making is needed for a particular activity to be performed.

It’s also worth noting that all this extends well beyond just knowledge work. A lot of what can be done online is what you might call social work, interpersonal work, building relationships with other people, giving them a sense that you understand them, that you care about them, that their needs are being taken care of—the kind of work that a party planner or a cruise director or, for that matter, many good managers do. This type of work is not exactly knowledge work. But it certainly can in more and more cases be done online.

 

Real Estate

Now this clearly has implications for real estate and real estate prices. For instance, it’s likely that expensive urban office space will probably be less valuable in the future. But many people today undoubtedly still won’t want to work in their own homes all the time. So, among other things, we’re likely to see a new kind of office become much more common. Something akin to neighborhood office buildings.

For instance, think of suburbs, where every block or two, there will be a former house converted into office space.  A building, for instance, would be converted into workspaces for six or seven people who have different jobs, working for different companies, sharing a coffee machine, with a chance to socialize with each other, and a commute consisting of a short walk from their nearby houses.

It’s likely that traditional urban office space will become less valuable. Traditional office space will be repurposed into residences and perhaps even some other kinds of local businesses that people in the neighborhood will patronize.

All of this also means that more and more people will make decisions about where they live not based on where their job is, but on what they want to be close to outside of work, whether that’s beaches, or mountains, or the excitement of a city.

 

E-Commerce

It’s likely that the online shopping we’re all getting used to now won’t go back to the way it was before. If you’re just buying a commodity like a loaf of bread or a roll of paper towels, for instance, many people will continue to do what they’ve done during the pandemic, and that is, buy much more online than they used to.

So, this pandemic will greatly accelerate the shift away from brick-and-mortar retail stores to online commerce. But there will probably always be a place for high end or specialty stores that have some kind of appealing ambience or specialized expert sales staff.

Expect retailers to continue using virtual tools to engage customers online and expedite the online-to-offline O2O shopping trend. For example, retail salespeople are setting up virtual appointments with customers via Facetime, Hangouts, and Skype. These meetings are driving demand and resulting in online purchases that would have been made in person pre-COVID.

Similarly, expect the rise of on-demand services to continue driving economic growth post-COVID.  Surging usage of curbside pickup and meal delivery services are likely to result in on-demand and last-mile delivery services gaining permanent market share.

 

Digital Socializing

Another thing that will change is our social habits. Humans are not wired to be alone, but many of us are discovering that the digital world provides more opportunities for connection than many of us suspected.

For instance, over the past few weeks, many of us have discovered video dinner parties with our friends. We talk about politics, our kids, our latest Netflix obsessions. In other words, the same things we’d talk about if we were together in the same room. Zoom and Facetime and other systems aren’t perfect, but they offer an easy, satisfying substitute for in-person communication. And when the virus subsides, we think that lots of people will continue to socialize virtually more often than you might think.

Houseparty, the popular video chat application acquired by Fortnite maker Epic Games in 2019, has seen massive growth due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Houseparty recently reported seeing 50 million sign-ups in a month, which is 70 times higher than usual in many markets.

 

Online Education

Another thing that is likely to change is how students learn. The world has been ripe for online education for decades, and this forced global experiment with remote teaching may push it over the edge, particularly in higher education.

As COVID-19 has pushed classes online at colleges across the country, many students are finding that remote learning is often a pretty reasonable substitute for what usually takes place in the classroom. And sometimes, it’s even better.  There are some things you can do in a classroom that you can’t do online. That’s true. But there are also things you can do online that you can’t do nearly as easily in a classroom.

For example, classes at MIT Sloan are using shared Google docs to conduct group brainstorming, and students can instantly go into breakout groups to discuss team projects.  What we’re going to find is that online education is a good thing to do in many more situations than we used to think.

But that is not to say that residential education will go away completely either. For example, there are lots of things that happen for undergraduates when they live at a university—their first time away from home, a lot of interaction outside the classroom. Those things are important, and many people will still want those things.

So, we predict that we’re likely to see much more reliance on hybrid programs that combine on-campus and remote learning and new kinds of credentialing for online coursework.

 

Access to Connectivity

All these observations about using technology to work and interact remotely of course depend on having that technology in the first place.  If you’re in a country or part of an inner city or in some other situation where you don’t have access to the technology, then that really is a limitation.

To the degree we want to reduce the disadvantages that people in the developing world and in inner cities have, getting these populations connected to and familiar with using the enabling technologies can be an opportunity for them to leapfrog into participation in this global economy.  Somebody in a remote African village who has no connections to the rest of the world is limited by the opportunities in their village. But when that person is connected to the internet, they might be able to participate in online education and acquire all kinds of skills they wouldn’t otherwise have.

 

 

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Stay tuned for Part II and Part III of this series! 

 

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