Coronavirus is a bad thing. But it is fuelling a massive experiment in flexible working.
Bad things beget good things.
It’s ever been thus. For example women would not have got the vote when they did were it not for the upheaval of the First World War. And the Second World War fuelled all sorts of technological leaps forward such as jet engines and atomic energy. (To be clear: power stations good-ish, bombs not good).
So it’s not entirely tasteless to look at the coronavirus outbreak and look for bright spots.
Now clearly the new coronavirus is a bad thing, particularly for those directly affected by it.
But, while not ignoring that side of the outbreak, there is another way of looking at it. It’s been described as the world’s biggest work-from-home experiment.
As cities are locked down work is not grinding to a halt. Folk are working from home. And in unlikely places. Cities like Singapore and Hong Kong, driven by high finance and the office culture that goes with it. Employees are discovering not just that they can work from home, but that it’s quite pleasant. And employers are finding that the work gets done even when there’s no-one in the office.
Even unlikely professions are having to innovate. Teachers and lecturers are doing digital classes.
Education has long been fingered as an area where flexibility is impossible. Teachers and pupils have to be in school 9am-3.30pm, right? The health emergency in China is necessitating new approaches. Video lessons and sharing documents via services like Google Docs are becoming the norm. Turns out almost anyone can work remotely if everyone puts their mind to it.
There is of course another novel factor in this particular outbreak. And that is technology.
When Sars spread in 2002 iPhones were still years from being invented. The internet was not widespread and those that did have it were on dial up.
That’s changed. With broadband and smart phones anyone can work anywhere. You don’t just have to work from home, you could be working from another country.
This doesn’t mean that after the new coronavirus has passed or been defeated that no-one will be going back to work.
But it has shown that you don’t have to be in the office all the time. That flexibility is possible. And crucially that both employees and employers can gain when working from home is the norm.
China’s economy is slowing down. Yet it’s widely claimed that flexible working boosts productivity. It’s a long shot. But perhaps the latter could avert the former. (Whether that’s to be welcomed by we in the West is another matter for another blog. Best head to some foreign policy think tank for that one.) But if it does then expect the rest of the world to quickly follow suit.
It’d be better if coronavirus didn’t happen. But it has. And it’s brought bad consequences. But it could yet prove an outbreak with welcome side effects.