Over the past two months, things have changed, fast. Whether it has been queueing 2 metres apart outside supermarkets or having to work, exercise, homeschool, eat, sleep… all under one roof, the impact of the lockdown has been immediate and significant. Whilst many of these changes should be a temporary inconvenience, there are some suggestions that work-life as we knew it – from packed office spaces to frequent business travel – will never quite be the same.
So is the world of work experiencing an evolution or a revolution?
As one of the largest freelancing online marketplaces in the world, servicing global businesses in industries such as tech, e-commerce and advertising, we thought it would be interesting to explore patterns we have seen pre and during Corona, to help us identify what the pandemic is truly changing.
What has the past taught us?
Before we take a look at the present, we must look at the past. This is not the first global crisis, and it won’t be the last. Historically, crises have helped shape the world we live in today, but did real changes occur as a result of them?
Two of the largest crises to envelop the globe over the past 150 years are the two world wars. Before World War 1, Norway was the only country in the world with a universal healthcare system. Following the end of the first world war, the 1918 flu pandemic – also known as the Spanish flu outbreak – broke out infecting an estimated 500 million people and killing somewhere between 17 and 50 million of those, more than the total number of people killed during the war. These tragic circumstances led to evolution within the universal healthcare systems across the globe to stop someone’s chances of survival being based on their wealth. However, before WW2, only Norway, Japan and New Zealand had achieved universal healthcare.
Many believe it was WW2 that broke the camel’s back and ignited a revolution within the universal healthcare system after millions had lost their lives or put them on the line for their country. Once the war ended, Belgium and England immediately looked to set up universal healthcare. Whilst in America, Harry S. Truman proposed a national health insurance programme, although Congress would refuse to approve it.
If we look at a more recent crisis, the financial crash of 2008 had a profound effect on many factors outside of just banking. The tech industry for one, surged over the following decade. Whilst many other industries stagnated, the stock of companies like Apple, Amazon and Netflix went up by 900%, 2,000% and more than 5,000% respectively. Will the tech industry evolve in the same way in the aftermath of coronavirus remains to be seen.
The 2008 crisis also saw the emergence and growth of the freelancing industry, driven by the need for flexibility from both businesses and workers. As unemployment rose to 2.5m in the UK, more people turned to freelancing as a legitimate career. By 2011, the freelance workforce in the UK had risen by 12% overall, and by 25% among working mothers. In the US, the freelance workforce grew 3x as fast as the traditional workforce.
Remote working the new normal
Flexible and remote working has been around since the digital transformation of the workplace at the turn of the new millennium – 20 years ago now. Whilst many businesses and individuals took measures to prepare for the “future of work” and remote working, most businesses still required employees to follow the rigid Monday to Friday 9-5 structure.
However, one of the immediate changes that took place once lockdown measures were brought in, was the advent of increased remote working. As everyone was told to stay home, businesses were forced to try and enable remote working wherever possible. Many industries have now realised that they can be just as effective without a single employee ever entering the office. This has understandably raised the question, could this be the death of the office?
Rather than a revolution here, we expect an evolution where colleagues and team members will still require and want to see each other in person, interact to come up with ideas and innovative ways to solve business problems. The most likely route businesses will therefore take, is to reduce office size and offer employees the option to come into the office two or three times a week, working the rest of the week from home. Let’s not forget that a decrease in office size also leads to a decrease in a company’s expenses and an increase in profit margin. Twitter has already come out and said they will be offering their employees the chance to work from home permanently should they wish to.
As with the 2008 crisis, we are witnessing a huge increase in freelancers signing up and working online. Our marketplace data has already witnessed a 300% increase in freelancer applications versus the same time last year. This indicates that many more are embracing opportunities where they can earn a living from their dining room table.
Co-working spaces not working
Co-working spaces and “hot desking” in the last decade have reinvented the office space as we know it, with WeWork leading the charge in successfully combining work with lifestyle. But will over emphasised perks like “free cookies and beer” be enough to tempt workers to squeeze back into their tiny rented office spaces? It’s appeal already waning pre Corona, we can only estimate an increase in empty offices and bargains being found in what was sought-after business districts.
Wave goodbye to rush hour (as we knew it)
One of the big talking points of re-opening offices is how workers will get to the office, whilst maintaining social distancing rules. Governments are advising workplaces to stagger office start and finish times to lessen the burden, but the reality is that metros and buses will still be packed during rush hour. This is likely to lead to two things. Those who can continue to work from home will likely do so, and others will use alternative methods of travel.
A recent survey found that commuting via public transportation could fall by 20% in the UK’s cities. The public is no longer confident in travelling to work in tight contained spaces. This particular trend could have a negative impact on the environment as many may turn to driving to work rather than using public transport. However, it’s also likely to cause an increase in people walking, running or cycling to work which is both positive for the environment and would increase daily exercise for employees creating a healthier lifestyle.
Another lasting impact that could be positive for the environment is reduced work travel. During the 7 weeks of lockdown, we have already seen reduced pollution, re-emerging wildlife and plunging oil prices. Whilst the “death of the office” or at least reduced office would lead to less work travel, there is also the question around travelling for face to face meetings – whether that’s sales or just internal meetings. For many freelancers, this would not be a huge change as remote working in the freelance industry has been the norm for over 10 years. Whether it’s working with clients in countries around the world through PeoplePerHour, or with local businesses, freelancers are often already enabled for remote working. However, the biggest change for freelancers could be the attitude of their clients towards remote working. This sentiment was reflected in a recent response we received on Twitter from Phil Shaw:
“FINALLY businesses have accepted that me working from my home office doesn’t mean I’m unemployed. It’s a shame it took a pandemic to shift paradigms though!”
The evolution of freelancing in the future of work
We are already witnessing an increase in the usage of Freelancer services by global businesses due the flexibility and great value it provides. We recently surveyed our global buyer community of 1 million businesses, which revealed that 38% plan to increase their collaborations with freelancers over the coming months. Businesses are increasingly using online talent and remote teams to manage projects and resources in a flexible manner, allowing them to become more cost-efficient by matching their peaks in demand.
Whilst project-based employment can be difficult to initiate, in the long term it provides an alternative where workers achieve a greater work-life balance and businesses only pay for what they need, when they need it. This isn’t a new trend but the evolution of both a worker and business need. One that has been accelerated by the epidemic and it’s lockdown but we believe will continue to do so, at an impressive rate.
What does this mean for specific industries?
Could coronavirus be the death of the traditional agency model? Expensive offices and large overheads are an essential for many agencies, but this model was already beginning to look out of date. The move away from fancy offices and extravagant client entertainment had already started to happen with innovators like John Ashton setting up remote agencies that can flex up and down to meet client demands.
Now, with agencies having to change their way of working during lockdown, will these expenses still be warranted? The attitude to remote working and remote meetings has completely changed, clients no longer expect the same level of face-to-face interaction and they’re comfortable using video conferencing – something that may not have been the case before virtual happy hours. Clients also want a scalable and flexible solution that the old model doesn’t provide. Remote or partially remote agencies offer this flexibility and scalability.
One of the first industries to be affected by the pandemic was the retail industry as shops were forced to shut their doors to the public to help stop the spread. Once lockdown measures for the country had been brought in, and with no clear timeline for when shops would be able to re-open, the industry was forced to think of new avenues to bring in revenue. The obvious option for many of these shops was to move their business online.
Moving from a brick and mortar shop to the world of e-commerce is no easy feat though, and those who already had a strong online presence have been at an advantage. Larger retailers like Primark have gone from making £650m in a month to nothing as all of its stores have been closed and they have no online presence.
On the other hand, e-commerce giant Amazon has had to hire an extra 175,000 workers to help cope with the increase in demand since the outbreak. They are now expecting to see a hike of 28% in their revenue for this financial quarter. For many, this has highlighted the importance of retail stores also having an online presence. Whether it’s building your own Shopify website or using platforms with high traffic such as Amazon or Trouva, we expect to see a huge increase in retail organisations digitising their businesses as a response to Covid-19.