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Post 2020 – a game changer or back to the past?

For the last two decades there has been much navel gazing in regards to the future of work with whole conferences, publications, research projects and other forms of communication being dedicated to second-guessing what it might look like, how it might work, how it might feel and the challenges and benefits it might bring. I don’t recall anyone predicting a pandemic when these activities were undertaken, however as most of the emphasis was on preparing technology to be ready and cutting down on commuting time, these latter items have actually occurred, so in a physical sense we were probably ready, thanks to the work that had gone into the thinking over the preceding years.

Any projections or predictions were based on changes happening through choice, not through necessity or big brother intervention. The choice was usually the domain of the employer, sometimes driven by a tight employment market made up of people seeking more flexibility in their work/home lives, and to most of us it appeared to be a natural progression that would eventually become reasonably common place.

What we didn’t see coming when we looked at the future of work, was the effect that social isolation would play if we all ended up working from home in bubbles. Isolation has always been one of the down-sides of working from home but under normal circumstances employees could at least pop out for a coffee when the need arose and most would spend at least some time in the organisation’s office on a regular basis, touching base with their work mates and meeting with clients or other stakeholders.

Once the pandemic has ended many believe a new ‘normal’ will appear. Most of the world has had an unexpected opportunity to think and reflect on how we live our lives, both pre and post the pandemic. One thing that we’ve all had (unless you work in an essential service) is more time. The ‘busyness’ came to a grinding halt - most deadlines came to a standstill, there was no time spent on commuting for those working from home or not working at all, and in some cases less time was spent on things like personal grooming, shopping and socializing, though probably more time was spent on social media and watching news updates, at least in the beginning.

Those who were able to work from home during the pandemic might prefer to continue to work from home post-pandemic, for at least some of their working week. This could have far reaching outcomes with a lessening demand on things such as commercial premises (and office furniture and fitouts), parking, traffic congestion, fuel prices, car sales, car maintenance, etc. Whether it would result in on-going increased productivity remains to be seen, but it is likely to improve people’s work/life juggling once compulsory social isolation is no longer an issue.

Another factor that could go either way is people’s overall health. With less social interaction, commuting on public transport etc, common illnesses such as colds, flu and gastro infections might be spread less, though people’s immunity might also be decreased if they aren’t regularly exposed to the usual work-related germs. Once all the kids go back to school and daycare, the exposure level will increase for those people with children and anyone in their contact, but will hopefully spread less now that we all know how to wash our hands and sneeze properly. I’m not sure how the weekly hangovers will fare – it probably depends on when, or if, people go back to socializing at the levels that they did pre-pandemic. 

In some sectors, such as hospitality and tourism, which have been almost totally decimated, there will be an uprising for those who need to reinvent themselves. Most small businesses in New Zealand, and especially the innovative ones, were started up by people who had an entrepreneurial gene or two and they won’t stay down for long; it’s not in their nature to give up and if you keep watching you’ll see lots of new ideas pop up everywhere. 

A little-known fact is that during the great depression of the 1930s patents offices in the western world received record numbers of applications for new ideas to be patented. I learned of this on a visit to my local patent office with a group of budding small business owners in the early 1990s (when unemployment was at a staggering 11%). We were told that while there were many great ideas thought up during the Depression, when people either had time to deeply think or were desperate to find a ‘silver bullet’ for their financial problems, the majority of inventors (as they were called in those days) lacked any sort of financial backing to turn these good ideas into products and so they languished until the pending patent eventually lapsed. A few were picked up and commercialized.

While we’re on the subject of the 1930s Depression, another forgotten fact is that the movie industry really took off during these tough times. There’s a very simple reason for this – people wanted to escape their miserable lives and how better to do it than to sit in a darkened movie theatre watching something that either made you laugh or was even more awful than the life you were currently living. That’s assuming you could afford the cost of a ticket of course, but they were very cheap apparently, and certainly more affordable than the alternative of going to live shows. 

Board games were another form of cheap entertainment during the 1930s Depression with Monopoly coming into its own. Originally patented in 1904 by Elizabeth J Magie it was called the Landlord’s Game which was intended to be used to teach the world about the evils of capitalism. It spread through left-wing political circles for decades and was eventually taken up by the Quakers in Atlantic City in the early 1930s. The game was sold to Parker Brothers during the Depression and became a commercial success, saving the company from impending bankruptcy. The effect of Monopoly makes a fascinating read; if you’d like to know more about this and the invention of other board games check this out. Scrabble was also invented in the 1930s.

Board games in general took off during the Depression as they were an easy and cheap form of entertainment. It’s interesting to see that during Covid-19 we’ve seen a proliferation of free online quiz games appear everywhere, offered to keep boredom at bay and friends connected.

There were also other weird ways to make money during the Great Depression, such as dancing marathons - competitions that went on for weeks where the last couple standing won a large sum of money. [If you’d like to know more about this check out the book written in 1935 by Horace McCoy or the Sydney Pollack 1969 movie ‘They Shoot Horses Don’t They?’ but be warned it’s really dark and depressing though it gives an insight into how tough times were back then]

Short of being clairvoyant (and the jury is still out on how accurate that might be) we tend to rely on ‘expert’ opinions about what the future of work might look like, and I don’t mean the staff at Expert (haha) but rather the myriad of economists, journalists, politicians, opinion writers, keyboard warriors, global know-it-alls and general busy-bodies. It seems that everyone has an opinion these days, including me, but the reality is that we just have to wait and see. Sure, we can look at what happened in the past which might give us an insight into human behaviour, at best, or we can embrace the changes that have been forced upon us and make the most of what we now have.

The positives to come out of this all relate to the sustainability of planet Earth. Less pollution, less consumerism, more awareness of our surroundings, our values and our community. 

Despite all the doom and gloom and promises of a massive recession, if we survive this, and we will because we’re really just an intrusion of cockroaches in the greater scheme of things, we could all be a lot better off.

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