COVID-19 has thrust the “future of work” to the forefront as the U.S. unemployment rate has soared from one of the lowest in history (3.8% quarterly average) to the highest with alarming speed. While the long-term implications of the pandemic on the future of work are still unknown, it is clear that the coronavirus will accelerate workforce transformation and increase the demand for digitally enabled jobs in the future.
However long the current lockdown lasts, it is clear that little will remain the same as it was before COVID-19. The question becomes, how many people will continue to work from home? How will technology be leveraged to assist (or replace) the existing workforce as the economy tries to recover? What role will organizations have to take on to retrain and reskill their employees for the digital needs of the future?
To get a better idea of the dynamics of the potential future of work outcomes, we interviewed Ben Pring, Co-Founder and Leader of Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work. Pring is co-author of the best-selling and award-winning books, What To Do When Machines Do Everything (2017) and Code Halos; How the Digital Lives of People, Things, and Organizations are Changing the Rules of Business (2014).
This exclusive interview by the Banking Transformed podcast discusses what work may look like in financial services, the impact of COVID-19 on the use of technology to augment human engagement, the potential for work and income inequality, and the importance of digital skills training in the future. Below is an abridged version of the interview.
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What is the most significant change in the future of work you have seen since the beginning of this crisis?
Pring: It’s going to take a long time for us to figure out all of the implications of this pandemic. I suppose my biggest takeaway so far is to remember that great quote, “Sometimes there are decades where nothing happens and sometimes there are weeks when decades happen.”
There’s an acceleration into many of the ideas that we’ve been talking about the future of work for many years. Businesses that had not wanted to take these things seriously or haven’t had the bandwidth, the energy or the budget, are going to have to take this seriously.
Questions being asked include, how do we manage workflows in a more seamless, virtualized way? What are the implications in terms of real estate? Are people going to go back to those offices? What does the physical design and layout of those offices look like in a world with social distancing and things like that.
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Understanding human adaptivity, what do you think will be long-term disruptions and which will be more short term in nature?
Pring: This is a moment of adaptation for us all individually and collectively. We’ve seen examples of that in the form of Zoom calls, virtual meetings, changing work flows and how we have socialized. What this means in terms of banking and whether the “elastic band” springs back into exactly how it was before, is hard to call at the moment.
Right now, there are two hypotheses. One is that a lot of people never go back to the office. The other hypothesis is that everyone’s going to be desperate to go back to the office because they’re sick of being cooped up at home.
If I was to net it all out, I think that the increase from today will be very significant, probably 15% more will be working at home permanently than pre-COVID-19. Dismantling that 15% physically and then enabling that 15% virtually will be a huge change. And this is happening in months.
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How are firms adjusting to needing to really become digital?
Pring: The companies that have continued to drag their feet, it’s going to be a very tough road for them ahead. Even though businesses can use data to do mass personalization and customization of solutions, they make you fill out forms sharing financial information which they already have.
Why couldn’t they just pre-populate whatever application form they need from all of the information that they have on you already and simply give you a consent button?
After this pandemic, are firms going to have to consider the replacement of workers with technology?
Pring: Some businesses are going to use this as a moment to replace people with machines. But, I think in the short term, there will be a lot of pressure to bring people back into the workforce and there will be market differentiation for organizations who do.
I also think progressive companies will use this moment of disruption to bring people back and invent the future – to completely re-engineer processes using people and technology.
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Will there be a new emphasis on career progression, career training and the idea of preparing people for a much more digital future?
Pring: We will be in a winner-take-all environment, with more and more of the rewards going to those leaders who have access to talent, rescaling, and creating the best people – either people you have internally or that you hire. It’s a talent war. It’s a digital talent war and the progressive companies are going to continue to invest aggressively in their best people, in upscaling the best people, hiring in next generation of digital talent. And that will be a key element of this virtuous circle of them continuing to do well.
The companies that struggle to get that talent, to keep that talent, to upskill that talent, will be on a path to being irrelevant. Unfortunately, as in all bad times, the training budget and the education budget are a big target on the wall. But, for those who pause or don’t get into the digital talent war, it’s just going to be another domino falling in a slow march to irrelevance.
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Is it also a time for people to accept personal responsibility for this development?
Pring: Ultimately, we’re all individuals and we have to look after ourselves, but there is also a corporate responsibility to assist in this development. That said, it’s not as hard nowadays to do individual upskilling as it was in the past. For instance, a person can go to YouTube, type in “machine learning 101,” and you see hundreds of courses from the best universities in the world and the best professors. You can do huge amounts of online education for free. Why wouldn’t you?
Online learning from organizations like Udacity and Coursera are incredibly popular and people are learning faster and better than at many prestigious universities. A person no longer needs to go to Stanford or MIT to get a great job at Microsoft or Bank of America or Goldman Sachs. Organizations are realizing that it’s not whether you’ve written a nice Elizabethan sonnet … it’s whether you can actually debug Python.
In the end, if your personal or corporate model is just “business as usual,” this is not a successful path forward.
Is there a silver lining to this pandemic?
Pring: The silver lining at the moment is that we are getting a window into how the world can heal itself — if we give it a chance. People have seen the pictures of New Delhi in India where the locals can see the Himalayas which they haven’t been able to see for 30 years. The same in L.A.with people being able to see the far mountaintops that they haven’t been able to see for years because of the smog.
Going forward, I think we will begin to orientate ourselves around building a more sustainable future. Sustainable in an environmental sense. Sustainable in a economic sense. Sustainable in a social sense.
Also, I think there is going to be a push to make our buildings greener, to make travel greener and to stop traveling so much. Being conspicuously clean is going to be chic in the future. There will be competitive advantage to be aligned with sustainability.
So what is possible environmentally might be one of the most important silver linings in this whole terrible period. Let’s hope we don’t let this terrible crisis go to waste.