Unless you’ve been totally off the grid, you’ve probably noticed the world is consumed with the topic of coronavirus.

As of this writing, I am well thank [insert name of your personal deity here] and have felt no ill effects (thank you for asking) as I’ve traveled from Boston to Austin to Boston to London to Boston and back to the sanctuary of Cape Cod in the last few weeks.

As I’ve been moving about and watching those straddling the fine line between genius and lunacy, I’ve been musing on what COVID-19 may mean for the future of work.

The Meaning of it All

Here are a few of those (fever-free) thoughts.

  • Will COVID-19 add further impetus to anti-globalization, make the “Chinese century” less likely, increase momentum toward a material reassessment of social media (perhaps the most potent virus in this whole story), and inch us closer to “working at phone” (let alone “working at home”) becoming a norm, not an exception?
  • Working @ home still doesn’t work, apparently. On the other hand, I wrote about this very topic in a recent blog on the 20th anniversary of my moving to the U.S. When I left Tamesis (the name of the Gartner office in southwest London) in late 1999, 90% of analysts worked in the office 90% of the time. A few years later, when I spent an unanticipated summer back there (visa problems, don’t ask), 90% of analysts were working outside the office 90% of the time. The gestalt switch was very noticeable to me, because by that time, I’d been working from home quite routinely in the U.S., where it seemed quite normalized.

    Fast-forward to today, and most people I work with work (like me) at home all the time (when we’re not all traveling for meetings and conferences, etc.). And yet, folks like me/us still represent a very small proportion of the overall U.S. workforce.

    Years ago, I’d thought that certainly by now working from home would be completely common, and yet it isn’t. I’m not really sure why. I guess people like being stuck in traffic or on the subway, like having to hang with their colleagues, like having somewhere to go, other than their converted bedroom or family room. Coronavirus could be the catalyst to the change I thought we were going to see a long time ago.

  • The coronavirus illustrates the downsides of our “wired” world: When you combine numerous trends swirling around us today – a global 24X7 news industry that’s incentivized to make the death of a relatively small number of people on the other side of the world a huge issue, social media amplifying (through its own incentive mechanisms) the “macro” breaking news into “micro” freaking out, and the unholy alliance between mainstream media and social media (Zucker and Zuckerberg) – you get a vicious cycle at which Churchill would weep (nobody’s keeping calm, and nobody’s carrying on).

    Layer on top of this a global airline industry that can whisk anyone (and their bugs) from anywhere to anywhere else within 24 hours, and a global financial industry that is a) carrying unprecedented amounts of capital; b) astoundingly professional and/or cutthroat, depending on your POV; and c) so tightly wound in fiber optics and algorithms that the “ships of state” roll wildly around like supertankers without stabilizers in a typhoon (up 7% one day, down 8% the next etc.), and you have a late-stage capitalist world that is heading to the ER.

Time to Reassess

On top of all the other black swans of the last few years, coronavirus seems like a plot twist straight from a Hollywood writers’ room – just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water …

Another few months of breaking news and freaking out, and airlines will have folded, tier two and three universities will be in proverbial ICUs, the 2020 Olympic Games will be an asterisk, and Liverpool will have been denied its first Premier League title.

Maybe President Joe in Waiting will place a steadying hand on the tiller. Maybe four more Trumpian years will unleash animal spirits that see America revert to the mean.

I guess we’ll see. I’m sure there is a future of work. But it’ll probably be quite different from the present of work. (You didn’t know it was a present, did you? But we may come to regard it as such in the months ahead.)

Coronavirus is literally and metaphorically a bug in our system. In the coming days, let’s keep our fingers crossed that the world’s best scientists and medical professionals can find a way to isolate it and wipe it out. In the longer term though, I think we need to think more about the system, not just the bug; IMO, the current (and accelerating) transmission speed of people, viruses, news, opinion and capital is unsustainable. Brakes are needed before we crash and burn.

A version of this blog was first published by Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work. 

Visit our COVID-19 resources page for additional insights and updates.

Ben Pring

Ben Pring

Ben Pring leads Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work and is a coauthor of the books What To Do When Machines... Read more